The position of Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – was created in February 2004 by the Scottish Government and supported by Creative Scotland. ‘Makar’ is the Scots word for the author of a literary work, and particularly for a poet or bard. Announcing the creation of the post and the first holder, the First Minister Jack McConnell said:
It is vitally important that we recognise the significant contribution of poetry to the culture of Scotland. This position will symbolise the success and of Scottish poets in the past and the potential of Scottish poetry in the future. I hope that the Scots Makar will inspire young Scots to enjoy, and indeed to write, poetry. Professor Morgan’s work has done just that. Generations of Scots have had their lives enriched through his poetry, his vivid imagination and incredible use of language have sparked many an image into life. Edwin Morgan is an exceptional human being whose talent has touched the lives of thousands of people around the world. He is not just a poet for Scotland – he is a poet for our times.
Edwin Morgan was to hold the post for three years, but this was later extended as a lifetime appointment. The Scots Makar was asked ‘to represent Scottish poetry in the public consciousness, to promote poetic creativity in Scotland, and to be an ambassador for Scottish poetry.’ Morgan was commissioned to write a poem for the opening of Scotland’s new parliament building in October 2004. He rose to the challenge with For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004, a poem that brilliantly encapsulates both the historical context of this fresh start and the hopes of the Scottish people invested in their representatives.
After Edwin Morgan’s death in August 2010, it was decided by the Scottish Government that the post should be continued, and in January 2011 the First Minister, Alex Salmond, together with former first ministers Lord McConnell and Henry McLeish, met to decide on the next Makar from a shortlist complied by representatives of Scottish literary organisations. The appointment of Liz Lochhead was announced by Alex Salmond on 19 January:
In creating the post of national poet, the communities of Scotland demonstrated the importance it places on the many aspects of culture which lie at the heart of our identity. As an author, translator, playwright, stage performer, broadcaster and grande dame of Scottish theatre, Ms Lochhead embodies everything a nation would want from its national poet.
With a natural ability to reach all ages and touch both sexes through her writing, Ms Lochhead has also been immensely successful at championing the Scots language. She continues to reach out to school pupils through her work which is widely read in Scotland’s schools and she is also a much valued role model, advocate and inspiration for women who are given a strong voice in her writing.
The tenure of the post was specified as five years and the role was to advance the use of poetry in the lives of the people of Scotland, from all ages and walks of life. Liz Lochhead held the post from 2011 to February 2016.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced Jackie Kay’s appointment as the new Makar – National Poet for Scotland – on 15 March 2016, at the Scottish Poetry Library.
She was selected from a strong shortlist prepared by a panel of literary experts, convened by Dr Robyn Marsack, the Director of the SPL. The final selection was made by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former first ministers Alex Salmond, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Henry McLeish. Ms Sturgeon said:
Poetry is part of Scotland’s culture and history, it celebrates our language and can evoke strong emotions and memories in all of us. The role of the Makar is to celebrate our poetic past, promote the poetry of today and produce new pieces of work that relate to significant events in our nation.
Jackie Kay’s poems sometimes deal with challenging subjects, taken from her own life experiences, and she has a particular Scottish brand of gallus humour. She is hugely respected, is known for her poignant and honest words, and is a role model for many, and I am delighted to name her as the new National Poet for Scotland.
Ms Kay, an award-winning author and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said:
It’s a tremendous honour to be chosen as Scotland’s new Makar, following in the footsteps of such wonderful poets as Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead.
As Robert Burns demonstrated, poetry holds up a unique mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul. It is the pure language that tells us who we are. I hope to open up the conversations, the blethers, the arguments and celebrations that Scotland has with itself and with the rest of the world, using the voice of Poetry in its fine Scottish delivery.
Jackie Kay was born and brought up in Scotland and was made MBE for services to literature in 2006. Her poetry collections include Darling: New and Selected Poems (2007), and Fiere (2011), which reflects on her Nigerian and Scottish heritage. Her memoir Red Dust Road (2010), which she has called a ‘love letter’ to her white adoptive parents, won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book of the Year Award in 2011. Her collection, The Empathetic Store (Mariscat, 2015), features poems from her residency at the Ardtornish Estate.