‘No one has done more for the cause of poetry in Scotland than Tessa Ransford’ asserted Dorothy McMillan in the Scottish Review of Books in 2008, and indeed it is hard to imagine what contemporary poetry in Scotland would be like without the Scottish Poetry Library, the School of Poets, the Callum Macdonald Poetry Pamphlet Memorial Award and a host of other projects, all initiated and nurtured by Ransford.
Tessa Ransford was born in Mumbai on 8 July 1938, the daughter of Alister and Torfrida Ransford. Her father was Master of the Mint in Mumbai for sixteen years. The family moved back to Britain in 1944, and to Scotland in 1948 when Sir Alister became Bursar of Loretto School in Musselburgh. Tessa was sent to board at St Leonard’s School in St Andrews, where she spent unhappy years, finding the physical and emotional environments there harsh. Reading was a consolation; in the library she discovered the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, which she felt put her in touch with her suppressed ‘Indian self’, and gave her a hint of what her own way forward could be – she was writing poetry constantly.
Ransford attended the University of Edinburgh, where the German poetry she studied was influential, as was her Professor of German, who was the first person to encourage her in her own writing. She had one poem published in The Student in her final year. She was also greatly influenced by the moral philosophy classes of Professor John MacMurray; seeking something to believe in, she was attracted by the pacifism and social and political engagement of the Quakers, and joined the Society of Friends.
By 1960 Ransford was married to Kay Stiven, a Church of Scotland minister, and the pair undertook service as missionaries in Pakistan, where she did welfare work among the women and children, while having three children of her own. Upon return to Edinburgh in the late 1960s, at home with the fourth baby, she started going to evening classes in Scottish literature, where the tutor, Bob Tait, introduced her to Norman MacCaig and Robert Garioch. Tait published two of her poems in Scottish International in 1973. Alexander Scott awarded her first prize in the jubilee competition of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse in 1974, and two small books were published in the mid-1970s under her married name.
By the early 1980s Ransford’s marriage was breaking down and she was struggling to establish her own identity as a poet, but out of this difficult time came two of her best achievements: the School of Poets and the Scottish Poetry Library. After the publication of her third book, Ransford very much felt the need for a forum where those who had already begun to find their poetic voice could meet for mutual criticism and exchange of ideas. At a rented cottage in Dunsyre, over a weekend in February 1981, she held the first ‘School of Poets’.
A stay in Massachusetts in 1981 showed Ransford a stimulating, liberating environment for writers, women in particular, that seemed lacking in Scotland. The desire to establish such an environment was the driving force behind her determination to set up a centre for poetry in Scotland, her intention being to establish a library which could be both a resource of written works and a hub for reading and writing poetry.
The Scottish Poetry Library Association was set up in November 1982, and with the endorsement of many members of the literary world and tireless work by Ransford, including repeated applications to the Scottish Arts Council, in January 1984 the little Library opened in the former packing-room of publishers Oliver & Boyd in Edinburgh’s historic Tweeddale Court. Ransford steered the Library through its first fifteen years, overseeing its removal to purpose-built premises in the Canongate before her retirement in 1999. The Scottish Poetry Library has become the centre for poetry Ransford wished for, and is a respected institution and influential player in contemporary Scottish cultural life. The School of Poets still meets there.
Ransford also edited Lines Review for a decade from 1988 to 1998. Post-retirement, she turned her attention to encouraging the publishing of poetry in pamphlet form, setting up the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, hosted by the National Library of Scotland, in memory of her second husband, a printer and influential publisher. She initiated Scottish Pamphlet Poetry, which runs a website promoting the work of Scottish poets and small publishers and the sale of their work.
Ransford was a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working between 2001 and 2008 at the Centre for Human Ecology and at Queen Margaret University. She was President of the Scottish Centre of International PEN from 2003 to the end of 2006. She continues to be active in promoting poetry reading as well as writing.
‘India and Scotland are entwined like a Kashmir shawl round my life.’ Ransford has said that she feels Scottish; she has made her home in Scotland for many years and she has Scottish forebears. Notwithstanding, she relates very much to the greater spontaneity of the life and people of India and Pakistan, where she spent fourteen years. Her poem ‘The Dhobi’s Dog’ sets out her sense of belonging nowhere in particular, but any statelessness may be compensated by the richness of culture that has remained with her, as in ‘My Indian Self’:
Let me be
that goes to extremes
from garland to ashes
Himalaya to desert
mango to maize
Let me wear the silks,
the sandals and the gold …
Dorothy McMillan in the Scottish Review of Books again: ‘She is able to be simultaneously modern and traditional and to embrace the creeds and values of both east and west that best fit her passionate belief in freedom of thought and openness to all that is best in past and present.’
India also gave Ransford her concern with the underprivileged, as Roderick Watson perceives in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century: ‘Her poetry is consistently and consciously spiritual, ecological and ecumenical in its outlook with a strong sense of care for the dispossessed or the underprivileged.’
She has also written about two very different sides to her own character (‘Two halves’):
My face is a-symmetric
the right side full and smiling
the other fierce, determined
One side warns that working too hard for her cause will cost her those she loves, to which the other side replies:
and what am I to them
if I have no dedication?
It is a dedication from which Scotland surely benefited.
Ransford was awarded the OBE for services to the Scottish Poetry Library in 2000, and an honorary Doctorate by the University of Paisley in July 2003, both due recognition for a lifetime’s devotion to the art of poetry.