‘Bumpity doun in the corrie gaed whuddran the pitiless whun stane,
Sisyphus dodderan eftir it, shair of his cheque at the month’s end.’
Robert Garioch Sutherland was born in Edinburgh on 9 May 1909. His father was a painter and semi-professional fiddler and his mother a music teacher. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh, graduating MA (with honours) in English Language and Literature in 1931. He won the Sloan Prize for verse in Scots in 1930.
During the Second World War Garioch served in the Royal Signals, but was a prisoner of war between 1942 and 1945, held in camps in Italy and Germany – an experience he described in his moving memoir, Two Men and a Blanket. He married in 1941 and he and his wife Margaret had two children. Both before and after the war he worked as a school master in the London area, and continued teaching following his return to Edinburgh in the late 1950s, until he left the profession in the mid-1960s.
He long suffered the age-old dichotomy of trying to write while earning a living: ‘Sutherland by day and Garioch by night’ as he put it in a letter to J. K. Annand (quoted in the Collected Poems). Retiring from teaching in 1964, the next year he began work as a lexicographer on the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and as a Transcriber at the School of Scottish Studies. He was Writing Fellow at the University of Edinburgh from 1971 to 1973.
When he began to give more readings, Garioch became a kenspeckle and popular figure on the poetry reading circuit, adopting the persona of a jolly chap in a fisherman’s jersey who wasn’t really that serious. But serious he was, about poetry, about Scots, about society. As Roderick Watson has commented in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007), Garioch was ‘quietly but profoundly subversive.’ And Christopher Whyte noted in Modern Scottish Poetry (2004) that he always had ‘a sense of the covert, a fondness for alibis’.
Garioch had met Sorley MacLean at Edinburgh University, and poems by both appear in 17 Poems for 6d, published by Garioch (as the Chalmers Press) in early 1940. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Selected Poems appeared, followed by the Collected Poems in 1977, (both published by Macdonald). Robin Fulton updated and revised the latter as Complete Poetical Works in 1983, and also edited a new Collected Poems in 2004.
Scots was spoken in the family home and Garioch wrote mostly in Scots all his writing life, but as somewhat of an outsider to the Scottish Renaissance – he was never part of MacDiarmid’s crowd. His Scots was not dictionary-bound in the way MacDiarmid’s was but while he based it on his spoken Edinburgh Scots, Garioch was happy to borrow whatever he thought appropriate – his was, in J. Derrick McClure’s words, ‘a multi-faceted medium’. He himself called it ‘artisan Scots’. He cared deeply about the craft of writing and was adept at many different verse forms, especially the sonnet, which he used ‘with unsonnet-like tonalities’ (Robert Crawford, Scotland’s Books, 2007).
He felt himself linked to Scottish poets of the past, like Dunbar and Henryson, their humanism – and saw himself as a successor to that quintessential Edinburgh poet, Robert Fergusson (‘faur apairt/in time, but fell alike in hert’). But Garioch was no parochialist, as at the very least his devotion to the Italian poet Guiseppe Belli (1791-1863) attests. He spent much of his time and energy translating over a hundred of Belli’s satirical sonnets, written originally in the Roman dialect – almost the perfect vehicle for Garioch to poke fun at establishment excesses. These translations the critic and translator Christopher Whyte has called ‘a stunning performance’.
Garioch did not only write about Edinburgh, he also tackled larger themes. ‘The Wire’, for instance, is a long allegorical poem on death and imprisonment, based on his time as a prisoner of war; ‘The Muir’ explores science and religion (in a manner reminiscent of MacDiarmid) from Dante to Hiroshima, ending on a humanist note: ‘Jehovah by the hairt maun aye be sought.’ (And see also, ‘Oxygen Speaks’.)
It is for his shorter poems, however, that Garioch will be remembered: the wonderfully crafted, sharply observant, humanely humorous commentaries on Scottish, especially Edinburgh, life. In the 1930s he wrote an anonymous column in the Scots Observer, casting a beady, sceptical eye from the sidelines over Scottish life, and he just continued the habit in verse for the rest of his life. In Scottish Literature (2002), Roderick Watson calls these poems ‘the brilliant fusions of Humanist and modern observer which have established his reputation as one of the greatest of modern Scottish poets.’