Scotland’s new makar Kathleen Jamie: ‘Poetry is at the heart of our culture’

Kathleen Jamie’s tenure as makar – Scotland’s national poet – is already a work in progress.

When the 59-year-old was formally welcomed to the role last Wednesday by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, she told reporters that the post “confirms a weel-kent truth: that poetry abides at the heart of Scottish culture, in all our languages, old and new”.

Speaking from her home in Fife two days later, she is already excavating that thought: “The warmth of reception I received has been wonderful. I’m wondering if people who are not terribly interested in poetry recognise that here is something of integrity, somewhere where they’re probably not going to be lied to or bullshitted, where language is taken seriously.”

As those virtues become less common in public life, people might still recognise them in poetry, Jamie suggests. “There’s such a depth of a thirst for that, especially after the pandemic.” It puts a responsibility on poets, she adds briskly, which is absolutely fine.

Jamie appears to think as she writes, like an archeologist, meticulously peeling back layers of national history, personal memory and natural phenomena. Inderdaad, her most recent collection of essays includes visits to two excavations in Alaska and Orkney.

Though she published her first pamphlet of poems while an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, many readers will have discovered Jamie through these widely praised essays, published across three volumes – since 2005. These award-winning works of nature writing have extended and enhanced a genre that Jamie herself has criticised, describing it as “colonised by middle-class white men”.

Like much of the Scottish landscape she writes about, it seems wise to tread with care and consideration around this poet. Jamie’s capacity to bristle is sometimes remarked upon, but this could easily enough be the consequence of a particularly bone-dry wit. She accepts that she is “not naturally a public eye person”. But sitting in her light-filled study on this sunny August morning, she is relaxed and impish.

“I don’t know if there are many poets who do their best work to commission,” she admits, when asked how she anticipates writing for calendar events. “But God only knows what events are going to unfold around us over the next several years …” – she clutches her cheeks in her palms – “I shudder to think!”

Vir nou, there is the opening of the Holyrood parliament in October, and then the crucial Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow this November: “We can’t – we can’t! – have that massive event around nature and environment without a poetry presence there.”

In the poem Here lies our land, commissioned for the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, Jamie writes of “Small folk playing our part”. Given the accelerating crisis, those same small folk can feel overwhelmed and powerless as individuals. Still one of the strongest messages from Jamie’s essays is that there is power simply in paying attention.

“May I say that I also feel completely helpless, utterly overwhelmed. But I did begin to wonder if paying attention could be deemed a political act, or a radical act. We’re equipped with these senses that have come with us through millions of years of evolution, and to stop for a moment and use them to notice a blade of grass or a cobweb in the window, means we’re saying ‘Stop. Everybody shut up for a minute, including myself, stop telling me what to think, what to believe in.’

“Maybe a radical noticing could be part of our solution. If you’re stopping to notice, you’re not actually trashing [the planet].”

There is every likelihood that within her three-year term the newly announced SNP-Green government will bring their promised second referendum. Her support for independence is well known, and her politics are pleated through her work in a fashion that is neither obtrusive nor apologetic.

“What sort of stance I’d take to overtly political things, I’ve yet to decide," sy sê, insisting that she is capable of distinguishing between herself as a poet and as a citizen. She emphasises that the position is not itself a political appointment.

Could the role of makar, which at the least involves a creative interrogation of national identity, be filled by a poet who wasn’t a supporter of independence? “If you could find one,” she fires back.

Jamie gives the energetic impression of a woman definitively in her prime: “I remember turning 50 and thinking, ‘well this is going to be a boring decade’.” She bursts out laughing.

“Oh my goodness. But it’s certainly that time: the children are grown and gone, both my parents have now died. You think ‘What was that? I may have 20, possibly 30, years ahead. Right, now what?’

“It’s really interesting,” she concludes, her tone vibrating with enthusiasm. “And then I have to say that the people I know who are getting active and concerned are women of a certain age, getting their sleeves rolled.”

She grins. “The wise woman is a thing.”

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