Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

A plaque for Tessa

On Tuesday, 29 August, 4pm, the Scottish Poetry Library will honour its founder, Tessa Ransford, with the unveiling of a special plaque, made by Beltane Studios in Peebles. Ransford’s family will be in attendance. The broader poetry community is welcome to attend.

After the unveiling, we will have a reception in the library with readings by Chrys Salt, Christine De Luca, Aonghas Macneacail, Joy Hendry, Peter France, Hugh McMillan and Stuart A. Paterson. The programme will be compered by Colin Will.

‘No one has done more for the cause of poetry in Scotland than Tessa Ransford,’ wrote Dorothy McMillan, with good reason. In addition to the SPL, Ransford also set up the School of Poets and the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award.

Tessa Ransford was born in Mumbai on 8 July 1938. Her father was Master of the Mint in Mumbai for 16 years. The family moved back to Britain in 1944.

In 1981, a casual conversation in the Assembly Rooms began a process that three years later led to the foundation of the Scottish Poetry Library. She recalled:

During the Edinburgh Festival of 1981, the Poetry Society from London set up shop in the Assembly Rooms. I went along to see some of the magazines and publications I had heard about but not been able to access. While I was browsing, an American voice (belonging, I soon learned, to the poet Larry Butler) asked, ‘Where’s the poetry library in Edinburgh?’ The representative from the Poetry Society didn’t know and asked me if I knew. ‘Poetry Library?’ I asked, ‘Is there such a thing?’ I was then told about the one in London, founded in 1958 with the support of T.S. Eliot.

A poet herself, Ransford set up a steering group whose members would include at various points the cream of contemporary Scottish poetry: Edwin Morgan, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hamish Henderson and Ian Hamilton Finlay. In March 1984, the SPL was set up in Tweeddale Court in Edinburgh with a stock of 300 books donated by supporters. In 1999, the SPL migrated from rooms in Tweeddale Court to its own building in Crichton’s Close. The building was Ransford’s brainchild, and without her drive, it may never have been built. It remains the only poetry library in Europe that is housed in its own specially-commissioned building. She stepped down as Director in 2000.

After she died in 2015, the then-National Poet for Scotland Liz Lochhead paid tribute to Ransford: ‘Tessa was a fine poet of great sensitivity herself and the prime mover behind the establishing of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. Its dedicated library supports all kinds of poetry, serving poets, spoken-word artists, scholars of poetry, students, readers, and enthusiasts all over the world.’

The last word should go to Ransford herself:

The SPL means more to me than could possibly be expressed because I dedicated my life to the founding and running of it for 18 years. It is above all a library, and should concentrate on being a superb library, impartially caring for and knowing about Scottish poetry in all its variety and locality, in relation to the poetry of the rest of the world, and in interaction with the other arts and the life of the people.

The SPL will close to the public from 3.30pm on Tuesday, 29 August, re-opening at 4pm for the unveiling of the plaque.

Category: poets, Scottish Poetry Library