Scottish Love Poems

McCulloch, Horatio; ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’; Glasgow Museums;

Wheesht, wheesht, my foolish hert,
For weel ye ken
I widna ha’e ye stert
Auld ploys again.

It’s guid to see her lie
Sae snod an’ cool,
A’lust o’ lovin’ by –
Wheesht, wheesht, ye fule!

– Hugh MacDiarmid

Valentine’s Day has a bad rap. Too often, it’s an excuse to engage in cynical commercialism – and even if not, the celebration of love is too often the genteel, shallow, milequetoast sentiment that’s barely worth the tree that died to make ten thousand greeting cards. The original story of St. Valentine was full of defiant relationships, clandestine passions, and daring commitments, with the bittersweet tragedy and triumph of any Shakespeare romance. Love can so strongly be associated with other strong emotions – fear, anger, hate, sorrow, joy – that you wonder how it became so diluted and saccharine in the public consciousness.

A bit like Scotland, really.

For too much of our history, Scotland’s story has been tamed, contained, neutralised. This is the origin of “shortbread tin” Scotland. It is not the presence of Scottish cultural fixtures that is the problem, it is the carefully-managed, cultivated, manipulated presentation of those things which is the problem. Brigadoon’s problem wasn’t the appearance of tartan, sword-dancing, Scots language, and the Highlands in and of themselves, but the simplistic & unthinking implementation of them (even compared to the original Broadway play, which was widely acclaimed on its debut in 1947). Given the complete rubbish that’s been exalted as Scottish literature, cinema, art, and culture over the years, can you blame people for cringing sometimes?

Yet Scotland’s soul is strong, and the worthwhile stuff shines past the Scaw-Dish veneer. The fact that Burns, Scott, MacDonald, MacPherson, Shepherd, Cockburn, and many more persisted while so many other aspects of Scottish life were subsumed into a “British” (which usually, predictably, meant English) standard. Not only did some of Scotland’s greatest sons & daughters recognise this, but many English did, too.

Antonia Fraser, born in London to English nobility and previously married to a descendent of Scottish aristocracy, is one of them. While most famous for her 1969 biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, Mrs Fraser was deeply interested in Scotland. Besides a follow-up biography on Mary’s son in 1974, I came across a delightful little anthology published a year later: Scottish Love Poems. While the selection of poems from across Scottish space and time is superlative, Mrs Fraser’s introduction is worth the price alone, as her enthusiasm and love for Scotland and her people spills from the pages:

It is true that having read so much Scottish poetry in this good cause, I have come to the conclusion that the strongest passion of all in the Scottish breast is for Scotland itself. Deliberately, believing that would be an anthology on its own, I have ignored that kind of love, the patriotic love of country, in favour of love between human beings. I have therefore restrained myself from quoting such favourite lines as those of Douglas Young on the old Highlands –

“That old lonely lovely way of living
In Highland places – twenty years a-growing,
Twenty years flowering, twenty years declining…”

Such a poem, it seems to me, together with very many poems about the Scottish heart, be it in the Highlands or the Lowlands, belong properly to another selection.

To some, it may seem strange that some of Scotland’s most enthusiastic admirers and advocates can be found among “the Auld Enemy.” But this is such a myopic viewpoint, and it certainly isn’t strengthened or weakened by one’s stance on the constitution. Many an English person sang Scotland’s praises, from the quintessentially British Winston Churchill (yes, really) to SNP founding father Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham, which is no small reason why a great many folk in England would be genuinely saddened to see the Union dissolved. While we independence supporters are all too aware of the stereotypes and cruel misrepresentations by the least of the English (the scum that rises to the top), the best of the English – many of whom blessed our fine nation by making their homes here – will not suddenly disappear upon independence.

I certainly cannot comment on Mrs Fraser’s views on Scottish Independence, and I most assuredly wouldn’t want to co-opt her as a nationalist. But I can say that some of her sentiments resonate sonorously with the chimes of brotherhood in my own heart, especially in the final paragraphs:

One question will inevitably be raised in the reader’s mind at the end of all this, as indeed it was raised in my mind at the very beginning: what is a Scot? There is no easy answer to this question, as to many of the most intriguing questions concerning our British society. Indeed, when considering it, I am sometimes reminded of the words of Gertrude Stein, who on her deathbed enqured: ‘What is the answer?’ and when there was no reply, came back with ‘What is the question, then?’ It all depends on what you mean by a Scot. I am inclined to the view, if it be not too Stein-like, that a Scot, like life, is what you make it, and certainly in the case of individuals, each one must be the judge of their own cause. To feel Scottish, as far as I am concerned, is to be Scottish.

For this reason, I have been guided by such yardsticks as the Oxford Book of Scottish Verse in the case of the dead. May their shades not haunt me, if I have unwittingly offended and been too ruthless in my captures. But with the living I have deliberately chosen Scots not only by birth but by adoption. Indeed, I have been prejudiced in favour of residence and inclination as well as strict blood, since it seems to me that in contrast to their well-known reputation for expatriatism, the Scots have also been invogorated by those who have joined their ranks. It would probably have been impossible to confine this anthology to those of Scottish racial purity with any degree of certainty: but in any case racial purity is not a concept of which I approve as a foundation for patriotism, believing passionatly in hybridisation as a source of national strength.

May Scotland regain, in the shape of voluntary Scots, all the richness she has so long dissipated abroad to the benefit of other countries all over the world. So much of the strength of Scotland is always vaunted to be in her exiles, that I hope it will not seem a presumptuous undertaking, but rather a modest portent, that this book was edited by one who reversed the process and joined Scotland from the south, by choice.

Antonia Fraser

Eilean Aigas, Inverness-shire

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