T. S. Law was a prolific poet who wrote mainly in Scots and produced work in a great variety of form and length, his subjects being working-class culture and community, the political condition of Scotland and the world-wide imperative of freedom.
Thomas Sturdy Law was born in Newarthill, Lanarkshire, on the 31st of October 1916, the fifth of seven children born to Thomas Law and Elizabeth Law, née Fisher. The elder Thomas was a miner and a trade unionist, who was blacklisted after the General Strike of 1926, and who later became a Labour councillor. T. S. Law’s poetry collections, Away, Yeegie Landscapes and An In-Memoriam give us an insight into his early life within this working class Protestant community. However, little is known of the period of Law’s adolescence and early adulthood, beyond that he was fourteen when he left Dalziel Academy in Motherwell, apprenticed as an engineering fitter, had a short-lived and unhappy marriage and joined the RAF as an airframe fitter in 1936. Law himself described these years as ‘inconsequential’ in a written summary of life events. It is from the period of World War II and beyond that we are afforded a clearer picture of his adult life through his extant body of work. Some of the earliest surviving poems relate to his experiences while posted in various locations, including South Africa and Berlin. His wartime experiences are also recounted in the prose work Refuel and Rearm Unit. During his time in the RAF he rose to the rank of Sergeant, but he turned down officer training. Law described these years as ‘the most important in respect of my younger self-education and experience’ (T. S. Law, ‘A Summary of Events in Life’, n.d.).
It was in South Africa in 1942 that he met and fell in love with Margaret (Peggy) MacPhail, who joined him in Scotland after the war. They were married in Airdrie and honeymooned in St. Fillans during the severe winter of 1948, living in the family home in Newarthill for a time before settling in Dunfermline, where Law had secured work as a miner in the Fife coalfields. It was also in 1948 that Law’s first collection of poetry, Whit Tyme in the Day, was published, with a foreword written by Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom Law had, by this time, developed a friendship and correspondence. Law published sporadically in literary magazines throughout the 1950s, and he and Peggy had two sons, John (1951), and Andrew (1955). In 1952, Law suffered an accident in the pit, during which he was pinned against a post by a runaway coal-cutting machine, an incident later recounted in a prose work The Squeeze. After his recovery he obtained work as a technical writer with the help of his great friend Cornelius Murphy from his RAF days. After short spells working in Edinburgh and London, he moved to Rolls Royce in East Kilbride, where he stayed until the end of his career. The family lived in East Kilbride until 1963, before moving to the more rural setting of The Marlage, near Larkhall. A daily commute involving three buses gave him plenty of time to continue his reading and writing.
It was during the 1960s that Law, a lifelong Scottish nationalist and republican, became more involved in political activism. With other members of the Scottish literary scene of the day, he campaigned against the Polaris nuclear submarines at the Holy Loch US naval base. With his friend and comrade Morris Blythman (‘Thurso Berwick’) and other members of the Glasgow Song Guild, he contributed to the Rebels’ Ceilidh Songbook (1951). He also co-edited Homage to John MacLean (1973) and The Socialist Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (1978) with Blythman, and self-published a series of pamphlets of his own poems, often in the form of sonnets. He also now published more regularly in literary magazines – around 100 throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, and throughout his life, he kept up correspondence with friends among Scottish literary figures such as Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hamish Henderson, Duncan Glen and Norman MacCaig, to name only a few.
His son John Law, in the leaflet to accompany the Scotsoun Makars Series CD of his father’s poetry, summarised the essence of the work thus:
His great subjects are the political condition of Scotland; the imperative of freedom; his love for his wife Peggy; the place of family and folk in the sweep of history; his recording of working-class culture and community; personal experience of coal mining; the ways of men at war; his own absorption of cultural influence in self-education; the moral imperative of trying to live a good and an effectual life; execration of human evil.
In 1984, Law, now retired, moved with Peggy to the town of Auchterarder, into a smaller and more manageable house and garden near to their son John and his family. The move was in part precipitated by a break-in which had occurred at their cottage at The Marlage, during which Law fought the intruders and was badly injured, and all the family jewellery was stolen. However, life in Auchterarder was orderly and quiet, and Law was able to devote himself almost full-time to poetry. In these years Law completed longer works and collections, for example Freedom at Large (concerning truth and freedom in art and politics), Light and Shade like Sound and Silence (dealing with his relationship with Peggy), and a complete translation of the Icelandic Laxdale Saga into Scots verse. Generally, he avoided becoming too involved with organisations (or with socialising) preferring instead to devote his time to his work. However, he did join the Scottish National Party for the first time, due to his approval of the local candidate Roseanna Cunningham (an avowed Republican). He continued to publish regularly in literary magazines, and exhibited his work at the Scottish Poetry Library. A further three collections were also published during these years.
Despite painful arthritis, and the onset of type 2 diabetes, he remained in reasonable health and sharp of mind until suffering a sudden stroke at the age of 80. He died on the 12th of May 1997 (by co-incidence the same day and month that his father had died in 1951) surrounded by family and leaving a considerable legacy of both published and unpublished work. He would have loved to have lived long enough to see the double Yes Yes vote in the September 1997 Referendum which set up the Scottish Parliament. After his death, his sons published a Scotsoun CD of readings of his poetry and a book of selected poems (At the Pynt o the Pick and Other Poems), and further work through a dedicated website. The full collection of his manuscripts is held at the National Library of Scotland.
What kind of man was he? He wanted the Scots to realise themselves as a free nation again: that was his heart’s desire. In the triumph of capitalism, he confronted a world he saw as a chaos favouring only the rich. He was endowed with good health most of his life, and had a commanding presence, and excellent memory, especially for poetry. He was thrawn, certainly, fulfilling his early character and pseudonym. He was abstemious and self-disciplined to achieve his poetic work, despite some self-reproach for procrastination. Knowing himself in self-deprecation the possessor of strong opinions, down to such foibles as a dislike of garlic, he would defend them with humour, and tell you as philosopher that ‘some prejudices are correct beliefs’. He was loving and passionate, as a husband and father. He had a great enjoyment of life and lear, and a sense of the revolutionary potential in poetry to whatever extent it can reach the mind of man.