Scots 'warrior poet' Len Pennie opens up on her battles with anxiety, depression and misogyny

She is the award-winning “warrior poet” and Scots language campaigner who has won hundreds of thousands of followers thanks to the daily online videos she films from her home.

Now Len Pennie has opened up on her battles with anxiety, depression, misogyny and internet trolls.

The St Andrews University student is one of the country’s rising poetry stars thanks to her “Scots word of the day” posts and passionate recitals of her work.

The 22-year-old was honoured at last year’s Scots Language Awards for her efforts to promote and raise awareness of the indigenous language.

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    She has been championed by the likes of comic janey Godley, author Neil Gaiman, actor Michael Sheen and food writer and broadcaster Nigella Lawson.

    But now she has spoken at length about her fears and anxieties about performing in public, her long-time struggles with mental health, including chronic depression, and the regular abuse she has encountered as her profile has risen.

    In an interview for The Cultural Coven podcast, hosted by actress Nicola Roy, Pennie has also spoken of her concerns that she would find the role of Scots Makar too “constraining,” the need for Scotland to have more female poets as role models and her involvement with efforts to raise awareness of the climate crisis.

    Originally from Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, Pennie developed an interest in poetry when she was at school and performed the work of Robert Burns in competitions.

    She said: “I have really, really bad social anxiety. I’ve always felt that throughout my life, since I was a child.

    “When I performed at Burns competitions, the judges would remark on my style because i would walk around the stage. Everybody else would stand still on their mark.

    “I was doing that because my knees were shaking. If I stood still there would be a visible representation of my anxiety. I would walk to engage my body physically so I wouldn’t shake as much.”

    Pennie, who has amassed more than 400,000 followers on Twitter and TikTok, has performed for a National Trust for Scotland event, has written for a campaign to secure a pardon for Scots persecuted for witchcraft and is the current poet laureate of the St Andrews Society of Los Angeles.

    Poet and Scots language campaigner Len Pennie has built up a 410,000-strong social media following.

    However she told Roy: “When I do most of my poetry, it’s in my bedroom, it’s on my own and it’s generally straight after I’ve written the poem, because if I look at the stuff I’ve written in any real detail, if I rehearse in any real capacity, I’ll talk myself out of it or delete the whole poem.

    “So I write the poem, I sit down and I read it. I don’t look at the upload until the next day, as there are always things that I could have done better.

    “I’m not a natural performer. I’m not a natural writer either, I cannae spell. I suppose some people are just naturally gifted, but I’m certainly not one of them.”

    Asked by Roy how long she had struggled with her mental health, Pennie said: “Since I was a young teenager, definitely. It’s been very difficult, but at the same time I genuinely see it as a good thing. That’s not just through years and years of therapy.

    Poet and Scots language campaigner Len Pennie posts a 'Scots word of the day' on social media.

    “It gives you a degree of empathy. I’m very lucky to have gone through that because now when my friends are going through similar things I am not insensitive to their struggle. I can empathise with it.”

    Pennie, who first started posting videos online after being put on furlough from a restaurant job, has won plaudits for her poems tackling mental health issues.

    She said: "Sometimes your life will be going great. You will be amazingly happy. But you’re not happy because you’re depressed.

    "There is a misconception - people conflate situational depression with chronic depression.

    "I struggle with chronic depression. Sometimes you’re flying high academically, financially, personally, socially and romantically, and yet you just sit there and think: ‘God, I should really get round to killing myself.’

    "You just think to yourself: ‘I must have done something to deserve this.’ But you haven't. The minute that you stop blaming yourself for how you feel is quite a freeing time. Then you realise that you might just have a chemical imbalance or you might just have a brain that messes things up for you sometimes.

    Poet Len Pennie was named performer of the year at the Scots Language Awards in 2021.

    "It’s not your fault. I’ve tried to explain through the platforms that I have that it’s okay to feel sh*t. You will come out the other end, but making sure you come out the other end is the most important thing. It’s not about letting people down, or performing academically or professionally. The important thing is getting through the sh*t time and getting back up.

    "There is still a stigma (around depression), especially when it comes to men, in terms of talking and being open about their feelings, but also in terms of women. We’re supposed to be the mothers, we’re supposed to be the daughters that excel, we’re supposed to be the sisters that are the confidantes. We’re not supposed to be the mess that depression can make you.”

    As her popularity has grown, Pennie has increasingly called out the misogyny of some of those posting comments about her videos.

    She said: “It’s disgusting, I hate it. It’s interesting to see the way that men will view me based on what I wear, how I present myself, or their stage in life, because nine times out of 10 men my age will respect me and my boundaries.

    “There have been reactions which have either sexualised me or infantilised me based on what the guy wants.

    "I feel like I have to be upfront and honest. People say I go on too much about the misogyny, but I want the young women who follow me to be very aware of what they're going to come up against. If I can do anything to counteract that I will.”

    Scots poet Len Pennie.
    Nicola Roy hosts The Cultural Coven podcast.
    Scots language poet Len Pennie, aka Miss Punny Pennie, was commissioned by supermarket chain Lidl to create a new piece for the festive season.
    Poet Len Pennie presented the 2021 Scots Language Awards in Dundee. Picture: Alan Richardson
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