Best Scottish Poems 2016

Detail of 'Natural Wear And Tear' by Ross MacGregor


This is the thirteenth issue of Best Scottish Poems, an online selection of twenty of the best poems by Scottish authors to appear in books, pamphlets and literary magazines during 2016.

We began by publishing this annual selection on St Andrew's Day, to wave a poetry flag for Scotland, but moved publication to spring to allow editors to consider a whole calendar year. Bookshops and libraries – with honourable exceptions – often provide a very narrow range of poetry, and Scottish poetry in particular. Best Scottish Poems offers readers in Scotland and abroad a way of sampling the range and achievement of our poets, their languages, forms and concerns.

It is in no sense a competition but a personal choice. The preceding years’ selections are still available on this site. We’re honoured this year to welcome as editor Catherine Lockerbie. As a student, she was friends with poets such as Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean. Throughout her working life, as a journalist, festival director, and advocate for the pleasures of reading, Catherine has continually sought to bring to a wider attention good poetry from Scotland and around the world. Who better to ask, then, to sift a year’s worth of collections and journals, in pursuit of great Scottish poems?

We hope that you enjoy this varied selection, along with the poets' own comments and the editor’s, and that it will encourage you to browse further on the Scottish Poetry Library website, as well as borrow and buy from the Library.

Asif Khan

Editor's Introduction

What a glorious, multifarious, impossible task: read all the new Scottish poems published within one calendar year.  To the uninitiated this may seem a lovely little pastime – something to while away the occasional winter evening in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa.  Those a little more clued up will smile knowingly and even allow themselves a small cackle at such naïve innocence.  For such is the mighty and vigorous health of the contemporary Scottish poetry scene, that we are talking about  the careful reading of many hundreds of poems, of every conceivable genre in every conceivable type of printed publication – established publishers, periodicals, independent pamphlets – these being an increasingly vigorous, beautifully-designed and highly professional sector of publishing, bringing more poetry to more people than ever.  The task became an obsessive, ever-growing and endlessly captivating mission.

And then to be required to choose the twenty “best”! How to choose when even the long-list I drew up ran to around a hundred poems? As all previous editors of this online anthology have done, I can only say that the list I have chosen is personal and extremely hard-fought and won. I had no jury, no fellow judges with whom to argue loudly, other than myself – much to the consternation of the cat, the neighbours, fellow passengers on the bus and more.  My eventually chosen twenty  poems, from established and emerging  poets, do what all excellent poetry should do:  speak strongly to the heart, whisper softly to the soul, engage the mind, startle and seduce, stir deep emotion, set the world in a new light. They may be profound; they may be full of rage and grief; they may be light and witty; they may be formally complex or of alluring simplicity.  This list I consider to be of outstanding merit – but alternative lists of equal merit would have been possible, given the riches of the Scottish poetic output. There are certain collections I especially regret not having represented here – Ian Stephen’s superb collected works, Maritime, reeking headily  of sea salt, tides and boats, Angus  Martin’s equally sea-infused A Night of Islands, Stewart Conn’s delicate, luminous Against The Light, Hamish Whyte’s wry, limpid and lovely Things We Never Knew, James McGonigal’s complex and fascinating The Camphill Wren among them. They will be on other lists and win other awards. That is truly heartening evidence of the growing cultural energy of this nation and its long poetic traditions, being constantly writ anew. 

2016 was in truth a strange year to be reading through a twelvemonth of poetry. It was, as has been copiously commented on, a year of seismic political shift, much of it unthinkable even a short time earlier.  Even our everyday lexicon changed – 'Brexit' became a normalised neologism and 'President Trump' suddenly gave us two words in highly unexpected close proximity.  There was an ominous rise in the populist right across continents, a turn in the tide of human affairs and received norms. Little of this was reflected in the poetry I was reading and that is for straightforward chronological reasons – most had been written long before these unforeseen and unsettling surges.  W. B. Yeats’s 'The Second Coming', suddenly seeming the most relevant and contemporary poem for our own time, had little equivalent in what was being published in Scotland in 2016.   Scottish poets will no doubt find their own ways to reflect on these changes, in ways they see fit – or choose to muse on other matters entirely – in  the months and years to come.

It is not of course the role or duty of poetry to comment on politics – though a reaction to perceived inhumanity or injustice is at the heart of some of the greatest poetry. Some of the poems in this list are indeed political in the broadest sense, but others are profoundly personal or acutely observing shining, overlooked shards of our intricate world.  Some craftily, brilliantly raise a much-needed smile – selected not as escapism, but as a human and humane antidote to a bewildering year. Poetry as solace is a long and noble tradition, not to be lightly dismissed.

So I commend these poems to you and urge you to seek out the work of any poets who particularly speak to you. The Scottish Poetry Library not only commissions and publishes but supports, enables and extends this online anthology.  My task may have been vast but the staff tirelessly pursue permissions, podcasts and more to enrich your reading.  My great gratitude goes to all of them, notably former Director Robyn Marsack who offered me this most complex and delightful of gifts just before she  departed for new adventures.  Special thanks to the superb Librarian, Julie Johnstone,  who is now pursuing her own creative path, to Lizzie MacGregor and also to Lilias Fraser for their encyclopaedic knowledge, total dedication and quiet, always warm welcome into their beautiful space as I read, and read, and read.  If you can physically visit the Scottish Poetry Library, please do so. If not, may these poems welcome you in just as warmly and may you find your own echo or enticing new discovery in their entrancing words.

Catherine Lockerbie

Catherine Lockerbie is one of the country’s leading advocates for the pleasures of reading. Between 1990 and 2000, she worked at The Scotsman, holding a number of senior posts, including Literary Editor, Arts Editor and Chief Leader Writer. In 2000, she was appointed the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and over the nine years she was in charge, she transformed the EIBF into the world’s biggest book festival. She has chaired award committees and has judged many of Scotland and the UK’s leading literary prizes, and she is a founder of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature.

Cover Artist

Ross MacGregor, Natural Wear And Tear

Ross MacGregor, 'Natural Wear And Tear'

Title: Natural Wear And Tear
Date 2014/17
Image Size 30 x 30 cm
Medium: Watercolour, Acrylic and Pantone Ink, Collage, Newspaper, Pulp, Wallpaper, Gauze, Household Varnish, Oil on recycled MDF.
Available as a hand-cut Giclee print from the series Arrangements. Edition of 500.

Natural Wear And Tear is a collage painting selected from ‘Arrangements’, a body of work in part inspired by the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, or ‘beauty in imperfection’, and by the idea that everything has its own energy. 

The artist has attempted to step back and allow any gestures on his part to be governed by an intuitive reaction to the content.

Objects have been selected, seemingly at random, from a collection of images and found objects, primarily from the artist’s archive of personal photographs. Selections from these photographs come often from the periphery of an image, outwith any usual focal point. Each of these hundreds of elements has been whittled down to a point of near-obscurity through layers of process, while still just retaining a trace of the original. Each element then goes through an additional stage of treatment as a personal reaction to its look, feel or energy, before being placed on the canvas. The pieces are then choreographed into meticulous arrangements, each in the process of evolution.

Some elements are varnished and preserved, given focus and import – others have been eroded and destroyed by household bleach until they barely resemble the source material, and indeed return to a state of pulp close to that of their origin, or mesh forward into a fresh lick of paint. With this organic process in a constant state of motion, it is impossible to say exactly when an arrangement has reached a point of resolution or completion.

It is an intended paradox that the pinnacle of an arrangement’s existence co-exists with its demise, with an equilibrium sustained between emergent images and those receding. This is also the reason why circular canvases have been chosen and pristine frames are obliterated. As the sculptural paintings progress they are exhibited, although the process of their evolution is still ongoing, much like moss covering a tree.

These works explore both the syntax of the juxtaposed materials and the notion of the viewer’s authorship. As such, there is a deliberate ambiguity left in these densely crafted abscapes. They sit on the cusp of the incidental and the crafted, waiting to be activated by the viewer’s eye.

Ross MacGregor

Born in Edinburgh, Ross took his first degree in Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art, and a postgraduate in Art Direction at Falmouth College of Arts. 

Ross has held a studio at WASPS for over 10 years. He has work included in public and private collections, exhibited and conducted workshops, both within the UK and overseas. The past couple of years have seen Ross continue to develop the Assemblage / Disassemblage body of work, exhibit as part of the Leith Late festival programme, and hold a joint painting exhibition.

To see more of Ross’s work, or contact him direct, visit: