Alastair Webster Mackie was born on 10th August 1925 at 42 Baker Street, one of the granite tenements, now demolished, which housed the Aberdeen working class, and which had come out of the quarry where his father, Frank Mackie, worked all his life. His paternal grandfather and uncle were also quarrymen, and his maternal grandmother and aunt lived upstairs. His mother worked in the comb works. He was the only boy, the eldest of four, with three sisters. It was a noisy, crowded, Scots-speaking household, and though war and work, education and writing were to pluck him out of that environment, he never forgot it, and it is to the pre-war world of Aberdeen and its tenements that he returns again and again in his writing in his attempts to explore his roots, including, most importantly, his linguistic roots.
At Skene Square Primary School however, 1930-1937, the spinster teachers who called him thrawn and dour, and whom he both salutes and satirises in verse and prose, set about beating the Scots tongue out of their charges, often literally. ‘The words’, he says in Horizons, ‘survived like Jews the genteel pogroms of the schoolteachers.’ It is an image he will return to in the Lallans poems.
The ‘thrawn and dour’ schoolboy reached the age of 12 and gained a Foundation Scholarship to Robert Gordon’s College, where he spent the next six years. On leaving school in 1943 he found himself suddenly in the R.A.F. The following year he was transferred to the Royal Navy where he served as a telegraphist on HMS Fly, the leading minesweeper of a fleet of 12, sweeping the coasts off Naples, Genoa and Malta. He also served in Lebanon.
In 1946 he entered Aberdeen University and graduated in 1950 with First Class Honours in English Language and Literature. During his college years, a frequent haunt was the Reference Room at the Public Library in Rosemount. There in 1948 he saw a dark woman. She was one of the assistants, Elizabeth (Bet) Law, “a gypsy-lookin quine fae Abyne”, and after completing his year at Aberdeen’s teacher training college, he married Bet in 1951 and moved to Orkney, where he took up a post as English master at Stromness Academy, becoming Principal Teacher of English in 1957.
In Stromness he struck up important friendships with colleagues and with George Mackay Brown. Judging from his poems and journals, the Stromness years were happy ones. Here his first daughter, Frances, was born in 1954, here he drank homebrew at firesides and feverishly discussed poets and poetry long into the nights. The moment of truth arrived in Orkney in 1954 when George Mackay Brown lent him a copy of MacDiarmid’s Sangschaw. For the next eight years he wrote almost exclusively in Scots.
The Orkney idyll ended in 1959 when the trio moved to Anstruther, where Alastair demoted himself by accepting the post of Senior Assistant to Alastair Leslie in the English Department at Waid Academy. Katy was born in 1960 and both girls attended Waid, where he stayed till the end of his increasingly unhappy schoolmastering career. Writing to a Croatian fan in 1977, he says that he has been off school for seven weeks due to psychological illness, and refers to his first major attack of depression. It occurred, he writes, in 1959, on leaving Orkney, and lasted for two years, though at that time he continued to teach. After years of depression, visits to clinics, psychiatric care and medication, and mounting medical problems, he was granted early retirement in 1983, recording in his diary that on Friday 1st July that year, at one o’ clock precisely, he was ‘released from the treadmill’. In a poem penned on his retirement, ‘Out Early’, he pictures his employers, the jailers, signing him out: ‘His suffering is over: let him go.’ Sadly the suffering was far from over.
Like many schoolteachers of that era who had been drilled by the spinsters – (no nonsense and no time-wasting) – and who had followed rigorous university courses designed to equip them to pass on the rules of language and the profundities of literature in a manner no less rigorous, Mackie was eventually driven demented, literally so, by the bureaucratisation of education and the corruption of schools by the new management class.
He expressed his anger and his revulsion in his retirement speech, in which he made it clear that he was not so much retiring as “quitting my job”, effectively resigning. Uncompromisingly invoking Occam’s Razor, Entia non sunt multiplicanda – ‘cut out the bloody bullshit’ – he gave as his reason the excrement he had been forced to swallow and to regurgitate. His notes for that speech do not contain the examples he cited, but all teachers will know what he meant, and no teachers of a certain age will be short of sympathy. This ‘horseshit’ as he called it, ‘horseshit of the first order, absolute horseshit’, much in need of Occam’s Razor, was the awful embodiment of what he called the Bilko-Kafka world of education in all its unspeakable mélange of absurdity and horror, the world he had been forced to inhabit and to uphold. And hailing his new freedom he declared that his right hand was now set for the dish-cloth, the dish-towel, the hoover, the spade – and finally the biro. A freedom and a future dedicated to poetry.
Retirement, which had freed him from the treadmill, paradoxically did not lead to the increased productivity he had expected, but rather the reverse. He may have worked best under the pressure of the work he found so irksome, and indeed it may have been his creative life-blood. Freed from that pressure, his creativity dwindled and the well ran close to dry. It may be that he had little left to give. It must also be remembered that in his final years he was seriously ill with a heart condition.
His three main collections had already appeared: Soundings (1966); Clytach (1972) and Back-Green Odyssey and Other Poems (1980), and all that was to follow was mainly a selection from previous work: Ingaitherings (1987).
Reputation and Achievement
Alastair Mackie, a most modest man, maintained that he felt he had never achieved the recognition he deserved, in spite of having fulfilled his potential. To an extent this may have been because he was also a private man and had not pushed himself in public during the decade previous to the publication of his first collection, Soundings (1966), when he had made all too fleeting appearances in the old Saltire and in Lines Review. Even the first collection was in fact no more than a pamphlet of 24 pages, consisting of 16 poems, two of them in Scots.
The first review, in Akros, was, unsurprisingly, favourable, though the reviewer, J.K. Annand, naturally yearned for more Scots poems. But he welcomed Soundings as ‘an exciting and challenging piece of work’ and Mackie as ‘a writer who must be taken seriously’, and who will be ‘a force to be reckoned with’ among writers working in the medium of English verse.
Six years later Mackie granted Mr Annand’s wish with Clytach (1972), an all-Scots collection. The force to be reckoned with was now much stronger, it appeared, for no longer writing in English. This pleased Robert Garioch in Lines Review. He praised Mackie’s development of Scots and the startling power of the poems, every one of which was a gem of its kind. This time there were 28 poems in the 40-page collection, which was available in hardback as well as paperback. Things were looking up.
Alexander Scott in the Glasgow Herald was even more encouraging, declaring that Mackie had produced ‘the best all-Scots volume since Sydney Goodsir Smith’s So Late into the Night, the best Scots collection, in other words, for 20 years. Scott praised Mackie’s consummate artistry and the idiomatic mastery of his medium, which allowed him the range of an admirable range of themes. This volume established him firmly among the finest of living Scots poets.
Duncan Glen then published At the Heich Kirk-Yaird as another pamphlet in 1974 and it was respectfully received, although it had already appeared as a sequence in Akros magazine in April of that year, and after Clytach it would be another eight years before Mackie brought out another book: Back-Green Odyssey and Other Poems (1980) which could stand as a collection.
In various educational columns reviewers praised its economic elegance, the linguistic scholarship, the naturalness and unpretentious passion, the freedom from easy nostalgia, the warmth and humanity and vibrancy of the work. John Robertson in Teaching English declared: ‘The seemingly boundless scope of his imagination, his ability to telescope the dimensions of time and space, his wide-ranging scholarliness, and above all his command of his mother-tongue – all of these combine to give Alastair Mackie’s poetry a breadth of vision and a universality that must be unique in contemporary Scots verse.’
In spite of a couple of carping voices the combined applause appeared to be ushering the poet into an even wider arena, and towards an eventual and natural expectation of a Collected Poems. What followed seven years later was another missed opportunity for Mackie. The problem with Ingaitherins (1987) was that Aberdeen University Press had brought little if anything at all to bear on the book in the way of editorial direction, as Alexander Scott indicated in his review in Lines.
In a fine paper, ‘Unique Gestures: the Scots Poetry of Alastair Mackie’ written for the Aberdeen University Review (No.189, Spring 1993) Donald Campbell was the first to venture forcibly the view that in spite of Mackie’s constant confessions of indebtedness to MacDiarmid, these were not only needless but untrue. Certainly there was an historical debt, but after the early use of the cosmic eye that characterised some of Mackie’s juvenilia and informed the consciousness of the space sequence, ‘there is little of MacDiarmid to be found in Mackie’. Nor was there even a trace of the kind of influence that could be seen in MacDiarmid. The influences on Mackie were classical and European rather than Scottish. And his debt, if you like, was to the Muse, not to MacDiarmid. In this respect, the classical respect, Mackie reminded Campbell of the Makars more than any other contemporary Scottish poet, especially Henryson.
But his voice remained modern, ‘one clear sign of this being the neutrality of his poetic voice’. Campbell pointed out how the Scots language survived outside poetry only in specific contexts such as football and pub, and how Scots poets were invariably encouraged to adopt a persona. In a poem such as ‘Mongol Quine’ however, the voice of the poem is the voice of the poet himself’. It is this detachment and neutrality that set Mackie apart from all other contemporary Scots poets.
A second area in which Mackie stood apart for Campbell lay in his exploitation of the image, as opposed to a general and natural reliance among his contemporaries on the Scots language’s onomatopoeic appeal to the ear. This imagistic quality is what makes a poem like ‘New Moon’ so startling, while a third respect in which he differs from his fellow poets, says Campbell, is to be found in the cosmic expansiveness of his longer poems, which never fail to tie down the cosmos to individual human experience and connect present and eternal, the specific place and the universal reverberation.
Mr Campbell had begun his paper by making the point that unlike the writer in other genres, the poet’s primary concern is with language. The words come first. This is the key to understanding Mackie’s poetry. Far from setting out from a concept and then finding the words to embody it, the poet uses his art to arrive at one. Poetry, in other words, is a method of working out what one wishes to say.
He ends his essay by hailing Alastair Mackie to be ‘the most accomplished practitioner in the Scots language today. His work has not only yielded a rich harvest of poems but has expanded the scope of the Lowland Scots Tradition to a greater extent than any makar since MacDiarmid’. In his hands the Scots language had made its own distinctive contribution to modern European poetry.
When Mackie died the tributes flowed in. Christopher Rush wrote The Scotsman obituary. Dr Ian Olson wrote in his obituary for The Guardian about a private, introverted man who was not of the literary circuit (or circus) and was thus perhaps more appreciated by his fellow-poets and his readers than by editors or critics. His poetry was driven by compassion and humanity, tempered by Aberdonian irony, intelligent wit and immaculate craftsmanship. He made every word count. For him poetry was a life-long voyage and he won home bearing many riches.
Duncan Glen in The Independent echoed Dr Olson’s description of him as a literary archaeologist, and spoke of the moving melancholy of his outstanding translations, especially from Leopardi, which had won him great critical acclaim. He paid tribute to his inspired work as a schoolmaster, which had wrought its magic on the journalists John Lloyd, on embryonic writers such as Andrew Greig and myself, and on all his pupils, whether academically able or with other talents.
Professor Peter France lamented not just a major makar but a notable translator of Russian and Italian poetry: ‘He enlarges the scope of Scots poetry by making it the medium for Akhmatova’s laconic elegance, Leopardi’s nervous tension, or Mandelstam’s rich grandeur.’
There were many others. Sheena Blackhall bade farewell to him in verse, both Scots and English, appropriately, calling him ‘the goad that beat the Doric kye/Into a fertile zone’, and regretting that nobody could fill the space he had left.