Week 516: The Makar, by William Soutar

From about the 1920s on, Scottish writers began to engage with questions of politics and national identity, as part of what is called the Scottish Renaissance, and one aspect of this was the forging of a new language for poetry which respected the rich heritage of the past, drawing on both the archaic and the vernacular, the vernacular in question being the lowland dialects of southern and central Scotland rather than those of the Highlands. (The very different Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language, had by that time already long been in retreat and its native speakers were to be found, as today, mainly but not exclusively in the Western Isles).

The effort was not without its detractors, who saw the result as artificial, a ‘plastic Scots’ whose grammatical structures owed too much to standard English, but this poem by William Soutar (1898-1943; see also weeks 61 and 109) does seem to me to express very eloquently what moved himself and others to attempt this forging: the sense of a genuine tradition deep buried but still full of a potential vitality, heard like a music in the blood, compelling one to a particular course of self-expression whatever doubts others, the ‘fremmit men’ estranged from this tradition, might voice.

makar: maker, poet (the fifteenth/sixteenth century Scots poet William Dunbar wrote a famous poem ‘Lament for the Makaris’)
wha: who
lawland: lowland
warsles: wrestles
thocht: thought
mair: more
sang: song
nor a’: than all
wrocht: wrought
ablow: below
wastrey: waste
thorter: frustration, thwarting
leal: loyal, but here more like ‘genuine, true to itself
ain: own: gangs his ain: goes his own i.e. his own desires are in accord with this leal music
gait: way
a’: all
fere: companion
fremmit: estranged
owre: over, too

The Makar

Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue
But warsles wi’ the thocht—
There are mair sangs that bide unsung
Nor a’ that hae been wrocht.

Ablow the wastrey o’ the years,
The thorter o’ himsel’,
Deep buried in his bluid he hears
A music that is leal.

And wi’ this lealness gangs his ain;
And there’s nae ither gait
Though a’ his feres were fremmit men
Wha cry: Owre late, owre late.

William Soutar


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