Educated at Hillhead High School, Glasgow, then later at Hilton School and Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, Ian Olson is a long-retired doctor, trained at Aberdeen University’s medical school, whose career largely in medical sciences and education, and handicap in Scottish children, took him to England and to the Middle East.
He has also had a parallel career in Scottish traditional culture, especially its history and balladry, writing in both popular and academic journals, presenting to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and singing before the Edinburgh International Festival. Editor of the general postgraduate Aberdeen University Review between 1986 and 2000, he persuaded Aberdeen University to create a Chair of Scottish Ethnology [traditional culture]. He is currently Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate for his careers in medicine and ethnology in 2006.
Olson’s poetic imagination is fueled by the dramatic landscapes, the ancient myths and the long histories of Greece and Scotland. The heroes of the Persian Invasions, the Great War, and other conflicts in the long intervals between those two, receive moving poetic tributes. The resonance and mystery of Gaelic place-names add to the emotional force of a melancholy poem of loneliness in winter (‘Strathconon’); the timeless tragedies of Greek legend haunt the landscape in ‘Greek Tragedy’. The natural world and the precariousness of existence for its human and animal inhabitants are evoked, with subtly conveyed menace, in such poems as the suggestively-entitled ‘Encroachment’ and ‘When Grey Shapes Slip the Shadows’. If haunting reflections on love, loss and the transience of things show one aspect of Olson’s poetic persona, a contrasting one is his gift for humour and satire: ‘Auld Scotia’s Hymn’ is in a familiar vein, but ‘Yellow Peril’ brings his characteristic gift for well-turned verse to an entertainingly original topic. A final section in his book Facing the Persians which is collectively headed “TO, OF and FOR the Children” evokes the imaginative world of childhood with insight as well as charm, and in some verses with a Carrollian linguistic inventiveness. His poems range in format from rhymed and metrical verse to free verse, and words are chosen with unerring skill and delicacy. They add a new and fascinating strand to his impressive body of work as a scholar and cultural historian.