For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004
Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out! We have a building which is more than a building. There is a commerce between inner and outer, between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world. Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues outward to feel and taste the teeming earth. Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box? Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to the cemetery. But bring together slate and stainless steel, black granite and grey granite, seasoned oak and sycamore, concrete blond and smooth as silk – the mix is almost alive – it breathes and beckons – imperial marble it is not! Come down the Mile, into the heart of the city, past the kirk of St Giles and the closes and wynds of the noted ghosts of history who drank their claret and fell down the steep tenements stairs into the arms of link-boys but who wrote and talked the starry Enlightenment of their days – And before them the auld makars who tickled a Scottish king's ear with melody and ribaldry and frank advice – And when you are there, down there, in the midst of things, not set upon an hill with your nose in the air, This is where you know your parliament should be And this is where it is, just here. What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture. A nest of fearties is what they do not want. A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want. A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want. And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of 'it wizny me' is what they do not want. Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or forgotten. When you convene you will be reconvening, with a sense of not wholly the power, not yet wholly the power, but a good sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp. All right. Forget, or don't forget, the past. Trumpets and robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will need something more. What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you. We give you our consent to govern, don't pocket it and ride away. We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don't say we have no mandate to be so bold. We give you this great building, don't let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin. So now begin. Open the doors and begin.
Born Glasgow, Edwin Morgan lived there all his life, except for service with the RAMC, and his poetry is grounded in the city. Yet the title of his 1973 collection, From Glasgow to Saturn, suggests the enormous range of Morgan's subject matter. He was Glasgow's first Poet Laureate 1999-2002, and the first to hold the post of 'Scots Makar', created by the Scottish Executive in 2004 to recognise the achievement of Scottish poets throughout the centuries.Read more about this poet
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
Edwin Morgan rises to the occasion with a reminder to the MSPs that they have to be courageous and not over-cautious with the trust they have been given.
My poem 'For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004' was commissioned by the Parliament, with the hope that I would be able to write something that would meet the importance of the occasion, but giving me a free hand regarding the form of the work, except that it would last about four minutes and be suitable for reading aloud to a large audience. In that sense it would be a 'public' poem, one which would speak directly to the audience, but not (I hoped) at the expense of interest and subtlety when put into print.
I was sent a batch of excellent colour prints of the new building and its surroundings, and had a good think about the commission before I set pen to paper. I knew that the Catalan architect, Miralles, was a brilliant, original, not uncontroversial figure, and I decided that the poem must be a tribute to him in the first instance. I myself enjoy risk-taking in the arts, and I felt a kinship with Miralles which helped me to see his building sympathetically and write about it in a free and unstilted fashion. To do this, I developed a style not unlike the free verse of Walt Whitman, which lent itself admirably to the speaking voice and allowed for an expansiveness suited to the large subject – a moment in a nation's history where change was being marked in an inescapable way. I liked the fact that the sense of a big occasion avoided the cliché of some neoclassical structure set on a hill, but produced a modern building fixed surprisingly into the heart of old Edinburgh, into which it sent its tentacles and petals and from which it drew the sustenance of many centuries of history.
So I started off by describing the building itself and placing it within the large-scale historical context, trying at the same time to avoid technicalities and make sure that the public would not feel itself excluded. Once or twice I felt impelled to use a historical term, hoping that the context would make it clear, which perhaps it didn't: in the 18th century, men who had imbibed too well would fall down the steep tenement stairs and be helped into carriages by Link-boys, youths with torches. The word is unfamiliar now, but I took the risk of letting the historical atmosphere stand.
But a building is only a building. What about the people who were going to work there? I made sure that the poem addressed the politicians very directly, challenging them to rise to the occasion of a fine new parliament building and to take up with vigour and determiniation the threads that had almost been snapped when the old parliament of Scotland's lost independence was disolved. 'Almost' is the key word. The continuity of the country's ideas and ideals was never quite lost, though stretched and damaged. The poem asks our parliamentarians to live up to those ideas and ideals and push these forward into a thoroughly modern and developing state.
Since I was appointed National Poet for Scotland in 2004, it seemed to me that I would not have a more obvious job to do, and I relished the work.