We recently confirmed Scotland’s keen interest in poetry in a poll on social media. It came as something of a surprise that 19th century Skye poet Màiri Mhòr nan Oran – Mary MacPherson – topped a Twitter poll of Outstanding Women of Scotland through the ages. The Saltire Society has been celebrating women from throughout Scottish history via a series of daily tweets and fellow users had been asked to vote for their favourites from a list of more than 80 outstanding women from Scottish history.
It was surprising that MacPherson should emerge as the winner of a social media poll given that many of the women celebrated could be seen as more prominent, including a campaigner for women’s rights and birth control, musicians, an astronomer, a theatre director, writers, a weather presenter and many others. But it is a great tribute to her legacy as someone who led a far from normal life and was a trailblazer.
Born on the Isle of Skye in 1821, MacPherson was briefly arrested and imprisoned for theft in 1872. It was after this that she turned to poetry to protest her innocence and express her anger through Gaelic verse. Following her release from prison, she lived in Glasgow where she worked as a nurse and became well known for her poetry and songs. She was an active supporter of land reform and, among other things, used her verse to urge Skye crofters to resist their landlords, including through perhaps her best known poem “Incitement of the Gaels”. MacPherson died following a short illness in 1898. A plaque to her memory was unveiled in 1966 at Skeabost in Skye and there is a more recent plaque outside her last home in Portree, erected by the Portree Local History Society.
It is particularly fitting that we should celebrate the life of a poet born on Skye given that our new national Makar has announced that the very first thing she wants to write about in her new role is the islands of Scotland. Jackie Kay has said: “Often big cities get the attention, but I would like to address the people of the islands and the peninsula.”
Poetry evokes emotion and memories and both Kay and MacPherson have called on real-life experiences for inspiration. Poetry has a unique power; it can make a difference in the world, inspire change and foster emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries, build relationships and bring alive past memories. Poetry has rhythm and music, defies rules and bridges cultures.
This importance of poetry will be reflected in our 80th anniversary celebrations. We have some exciting events to celebrate Scottish poetry and remarkable Scottish women. In June we are hosting Scotland’s very first online literary festival, #ScotLitFest, and in November we will again celebrate excellence in Scottish writing through the annual Saltire Literary Awards, with poetry playing a central role.
In July we are delighted to be continuing our partnership with the Glasgow Women’s Library in celebrating outstanding women of Scotland who contribute so much, but have not always gained the recognition they deserve. Last year, ten outstanding women were inducted onto our inaugural “Outstanding Women of Scotland” list and nominations for this year’s inductees have just closed, with an astonishing response from the public. Previous Makar Liz Lochhead was inducted last year alongside First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and we look forward to welcoming this year’s new inductees in July.
Promoting poetry and literature is central to what the Saltire Society stands for. During our 80th year we will continue to celebrate the Scottish imagination and the remarkable people who have contributed to it over the years.
Scotland has a long and rich history of excellence in song writing and poetry. We therefore look forward to continuing to celebrate the remarkable characters who have inspired so many with their verse.
l Sarah Mason is programme manager at the Saltire Society