Brownsbank Cottage: Poetry Readings

Brownsbank Cottage Trust held a fundraiser at the Corn Exchange in Biggar last night. Robert was going – he’s sympathetic to the Trust’s aims and in any case, two pupils from the school were singing – so I tagged along, intrigued enough by the poetic line-up to overcome usual reservations about being ‘the Heidie’s wife’.

Brownsbank is special. Well, to Scots who enjoy poetry, it’s special. Though maybe, nationally, it is almost on a par with Burns’ Cottage in Alloway.

Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve) lived at Brownbank with his wife Valda from 1952 until his death in 1978. Valda died in 1989. The Biggar Museum Trust restored the Cottage and the Cottage has sheltered and supported several significant Scottish writers in residence since (Brownsbank Fellows).

MacDiarmid’s poetry can be found with a simple name google so I’ll not post links. Last night James Robertson (deservedly big ‘giant’ of the Scottish literary scene and former Brownsbank writer-in-residence who credits his time there as life-transforming); Aonghas MacNeacail (ditto Brownsbank – but also one of the most significant Scottish poets writing in Gaelic in Scotland today – his name translates to Angus MacNicol or Nicolson and his nickname’s Aonghas Dubh or Black Angus) and Alan Riach (poet and Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University), read from their own work. They read against a backdrop of paintings by Sheila Mullen all of which had been inspired by individual poems by the three writers (

Aonghas was breath-taking. Life-affirming. He read this poem from his 2007 collection Laoidh an Daonais Òg / Hymn to a Young Demon:  ‘A’ Dèanamh Ìme’ (‘Making Butter’) :

chan eil a shamhla ann –
tionndadh ’s a’ tionndadh a’ ghileid òraich
am broinn dòrcha na h-eanchainn
ag èisteachd ri suirghe is
dealachadh is pòsadh
nan lid luasganach leaghtach
ag èisteachd airson nam boinne
blàthaich a’ sileadh air falbh o
ghramalas òrbhuidhe dàin
(‘there’s nothing like it – / turning and turning the golden whiteness / inside the darkness of the brain / listening to the wooings and / partings and weddings / of soluble tossed-about syllables / listening for the drops / of buttermilk trickling away from / the golden yellow firmness of a poem’, trans. Aonghas MacNeacail)

The Gaelic first. Soft on his tongue. Reminding me of Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) whom I have always loved. Then the English version and comprehension. What a beautiful metaphor for creation. For the makar.

James and Alan are very excellent writers. I prefer James’ novels to his poetry. His poetry is finely crafted but his novels are big, human, insightful and beautifully constructed. Alan? – he is a very English Scottish writer. I’ve always found his poems lacking in heart. They taste manufactured. Perhaps I just need to try harder with him as he appeared a very sound and humble man.

It’s a shaming admission – but I’ve not gone to many any poetry readings before.

Destructive preconceptions I suppose. Some of which were confirmed. But most of which were blown away  – making me angry with my own shallow responses and unreflecting prejudice.

I think it’s been a class thing – in the sense that working class Scots don’t go to poetry readings. Poetry readings are pretentious. The folk who go to things like that are the luvvies who like their pain and their poverty to be virtual and written.

More significantly it’s also an innate Scottish Presbyterian thing: Poetry? Of what use is that? Does it butter parsnips? Is it of practical assistance or purpose? Can you earn a worthy living at it?

I’ve touched on all that before I think: here

But I think, too, that poetry has always been such a private experience for me. I have written since I was able to hold a pencil. And though I’ve occasionally wondered what other people would make of my poetry I’ve had little desire (beyond family) to find out.

But now that I’m aware of at least some of the ‘reasons’ I will seek readings out again.

I am also wondering about my own work. Is there anything poetic about what I write that could be read with pleasure by others? And for my poems (here and here for instance) – their multitudes call to me from desk drawers and notebooks and pen drives – can they be found a published home?

6 thoughts on “Brownsbank Cottage: Poetry Readings

  1. It's interesting that you had many of the same preconceptions as myself about poetry readings and I'm glad your experience has exploded many of them. I will admit to being more of a prose than a poetry person and much prefer to read rather than listen to poetry, but I did once go to a poetry reading and enjoy it. 🙂

  2. I think I prefer to digest poetry quietly…I went to a couple when in the U.K., but while I enjoyed one the other put me off going to more – not so much the poest but the competing admirers.

  3. I much prefer listening to poetry rather than reading it, especially if the poet is good at reading like Seamus Heaney or Paul Durcan and can bring their poems to life, injecting it with emotion.
    Again I am struck by how similar Scots Gaelic is to our Irish – although my Irish is quite rusty now I could pick out a few works.
    Poetry is so much part of the Irish culture, and was once a subversive part of it with poems having hidden meanings which the English oppressor wouldn't understand, that readings may attract a wider audience here. That said, it's quite some time since I've been to a poetry reading.

  4. Aonghas had such a skill Mairead that you'd want to listen. His poetry sounded better in his mouth – in that soft subtle Island brogue.
    I know what you mean about Heaney. He has always been my favourite poet. And I've listened entranced by him any time he's been on the radio.
    Aonghas did discuss the oral Gaelic tradition last night. You are right – poetry, like any story, or song is meant to be read aloud – and it has a proud tradition of hidden meaning and subversion.
    I have very little Gaelic – I always intended learning and am certain I will. But yes – our countries are so close. We were surely the same people. Makes me even more frustrated with the divisions we inherit through our geography and the history of power.

  5. It's the oddest thing Perpetua – but I've always preferred poetry. Consumed by me as if it were my guiltiest pleasure!
    I'll be glad to go hear another poet reading though – so it was a good thing I went.

  6. Haha. That was it exactly! 'The competing admirers'. I have always cringed near folk like that. And I was sure last night would be full of them. But it wasn't. Phew.

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