Ian Robert Hamilton Abbot was born in Perth in 1947, although he often gave 1944 or 1945 as his date of birth in order to sound more senior in his funding applications and writing submissions. He was the son of a house-painter and grew up in a ‘bleak tenement’ on Ruthven Avenue in the city and attended the Northern District School. His family then moved to Rannoch Road and Abbot attended Goodlyburn Primary School and Perth Academy. He left the academy at the age of fifteen to work in the Tay Salmon Fisheries where he became increasingly active in left-wing politics. Of his youthful political engagement, Abbot writes in unpublished notes gathered by Colin Nicholson (available for consultation in Abbot’s archive in the National Library of Scotland):
I think you owe it to yourself to undermine as far as possible the things that people are trying to make you think, trying to make you feel; things you’re expected to think and feel simply because you’re in a certain level of society or belong to a particular stratum.
In the 1960s, Abbot went to Dundee Commercial College to obtain the Highers he missed at school. Here he met the poet William Montgomerie, whose classes Abbot attended. These classes and Montgomerie’s support ignited Abbot’s interest in poetry. After college, Abbot found work as a psychiatric nurse at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital where he also worked in a geriatric ward. From there he entered the University of Edinburgh’s Medical Faculty and later transferred to the University of Stirling for a psychology degree which he never completed, having lost his interest in academia.
In the early 1970s Abbot entered into business as a silver-smith and moved to his final home in Whitebridge, which he would often facetiously refer to as being ‘on the wrong side of Loch Ness’. Abbot went even further to describe Whitebridge as ‘a loose collection of houses in the hills above Loch Ness…about one third the size of what would generally be referred to as a hamlet’. Due to the smallness and remoteness of this near ‘hamlet’ Abbot’s silversmith business dried up. From this point on Abbot worked a succession of precarious and casual farm jobs such as ‘sheep-clipping, fence erection, tractor driving, pony work’ and his biographical statement in Avoiding the Gods claims he also worked as an auditor, a lorry and bus driver, an interior designer, a woodcutter, a barman, a civil servant, a builder’s labourer. In his application for a Scottish Arts Council bursary, he claimed that he often worked these jobs to ‘finance travels through Europe and Africa’ but that his ultimate aim was to become a ‘full-time and self-supporting writer’ and in letters to William Montgomerie, Abbot confessed that there were also delaying tactics to his various jobs, to put off the scary thought of risking everything with writing. His chequered employment experience was not without note, as Alexander Hutchison reminds us in one anecdote:
…driving down from Inverness with two hefty companions to pick up sheep at the Perth sales. When the sheep were stowed, and the pubs were dry, they set off North, with the sober Abbot driving. The two side-kicks fell asleep, and soon were jolting heavily together in the narrow cab as the lorry took the twisty road home. After a while Ian got fed up of being banged around by these two big snoring lummoxes, and stopped to sort it out. In a trice, the comatose compadres were roped together and lashed up snug to the off-side door. Sanguine, satisfied, free of encumbrances, Ian climbed back in behind the wheel.
A few miles later, who should it be but the boys in blue come flashing up to pull the lorry over. They were looking for sheep-rustlers, or so they said, and they quizzed Ian close, checked over the papers from the sale, and made a quick tally of the woolly cargo bleating in the back. Before they left, one of the bobbies shone his torch around the cab, revealing for the first time Pinky and Perky, still trussed up and still oblivious. “I’m not even going to comment about this,” says the disconcerted cop, just shaking his head and waving Ian on.
Throughout this time, Abbot was working on his poetry and writing and poems began to appear in print from 1980 onwards, in Lines Review, Cencrastus and Chapman. Abbot won two prizes for his poetry, 1st prize of £50 for ‘Ariel’ in the 1982 Royal Lyceum Theatre Club Poetry Competition and 2nd prize of £35 for ‘Scott’s first voyage’ in the 1985 Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse Diamond Jubilee Poetry Competition. He toured with the Scottish Poetry Library around Scotland in the mid-1980s, giving readings and workshops, and in 1987 won a much needed and deserved Scottish Arts Council Bursary which enabled him to focus on bringing the manuscript of Avoiding the Gods together, which was then published by Chapman Publishing in 1988.
There were to be no subsequent collections published during Abbot’s lifetime because in 1989 he was killed in a car crash near his ‘Old Schoolhouse’ home in Whitebridge when his Ford Fiesta careered off the road at around 7pm in the evening. Joy Hendry, editor of Chapman and Abbot’s publisher claimed in an obituary that he was ‘killed in a car crash on his way home from being a pall-bearer at the funeral of a young local boy who had also been killed in a crash on that same road, the B852’. In his obituary for Abbot, Colin Nicholson wrote that ‘it is hard to think that Ian has gone, and in a sense he hasn’t’. Nicholson attributed his ongoing presence to ‘his own commitment to the worth…of a poetry as a liberation from life’s leading devotions and directions’. In 2015, Kennedy & Boyd published Finishing the Picture: The Collected Poems of Ian Abbot. This book not only reprints Abbot’s Avoiding the Gods but also collects together many unpublished or uncollected poems from his archive.
Despite only publishing one collection in his short lifetime, there is a marked range to Abbot’s poetry, from landscapes and bleak elemental subjects to much more tender and playful love poetry. His poems take into account ancient history, exploration, legend, post-religious imagery, hunting and the Holocaust. At the core of much of Abbot’s work is the dramatized struggle to find inspiration and write against the odds – the hostility of the landscape, financial pressures and the never-ending hunt for the next poem. In ‘Ferns like poems’ Abbot compares his poetry to ferns and he warns us:
to approach them with respect.
Carelessly fingered, every cowering stem
will strip you to the bone;
lay your soft hands open.
And innocently celebrate the spilling of your blood.
Abbot is not a poet to give his reader solace easily or glibly. The poems, when they work and move the reader, feel deeply earned and earned at great expense. They come from a place without the comforts or spiritual sustenance of religion. Abbot urges his readers to:
Let us abandon them
to moulder on their crosses,
beat their iron wings; to redeploy their armies and invent
new forms of sinning and guilt.
And let us look for our salvation
in the language we have come to teach ourselves.
In Abbot’s world, the core value and solution lies in poetry. This does not mean his poetry is always so chilly and forbidding. In ‘Last dip of the year’ Abbot celebrates life and innocence, in the form of a young woman swimming in a river. The poem is both refreshing and invigorating and is a good example of how tender Abbot’s poetry could be:
Her tiny, berry-crimson breasts flared out
like signals from the cool depths, warning
of another season’s turning and the spates to come.
Abbot was never to write in ‘spates’ but this makes his surviving, remaining poetry all the more precious and gives us a sense of how much of a craftsman he was as a poet. His archive shows that most of his poems went through many (sometimes ten) versions or revisions. As an introduction to Abbot’s spare, but visionary poetry, it is a good start to read his most anthologised poem, the coldly mesmeric ‘The mechanisms of the gin’ – a poem in which Abbot tries to get to the essence of what an animal trap lying primed in the woods is all about. In doing so, he comes to terms very strongly with his own mortality.
Article written by Richie McCaffery, 2016