Scotland, with its mountains and hills, its banks and braes, has inspired poets – whether Scottish or otherwise – over the centuries. Here are ten of the very greatest poems about the country of Scotland. Of course, ten poems can never hope to tell the whole story, so let us know in the comments which poem or poems you consider to be the greatest about Scotland.
1. William Fowler, ‘Sonet. In Orknay’.
Upon the utmost corners of the warld,
and on the borders of this massive round …
Fowler (c. 1560–1612) was a Scottish poet or makar (royal bard), who penned this early sonnet in the Scots dialect about the Orkney islands: ‘I cal to mynde the storms my thoughts abyds …’ Of course, Scottish poetry goes back even earlier than Fowler, to the Scottish Chaucerians like Robert Henryson, but this is one of the first great poems about the country of Scotland.
2. Robert Burns, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’.
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go …
No pick of the best poems about Scotland would be complete without a poem from Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96). As with many Burns poems, this one is technically a song, designed to be sung to accompanying music, to an old Gaelic tune, ‘Failte na Miosg’.
3. John Keats, ‘To Ailsa Rock’.
Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice – the sea-fowl’s screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
Keats (1795-1821) wrote many sonnets, and ‘To Ailsa Rock’ is not one of his most famous. However, it’s a cracking poem about Ailsa Craig, an island in the outer Firth of Clyde, which Keats saw first-hand during his long walking tour from Scotland, which he undertook in summer 1818.
4. Alexander Smith, ‘Glasgow’.
Sing, Poet, ’tis a merry world;
That cottage smoke is rolled and curled
In sport, that every moss
Is happy, every inch of soil;—
Before me runs a road of toil
With my grave cut across.
Sing, trailing showers and breezy downs —
I know the tragic hearts of towns …
Smith (1829-67), a member of the ‘Spasmodic School’ of poetry, spent his life in the city of Glasgow – a fact he mentions in this poem. The poets have sung of cottages and the countryside, Smith tells us, but he wants to sing of something different: ‘I know the tragic hearts of towns.’ Smith doesn’t shy away from the ‘gloom’ and ‘dread’ of the Scottish city, but nevertheless recognises the reality of the modern city as a fit subject for poetry during the mid-nineteenth century, a period of mass industrialisation.
5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet …
Hopkins (1844-89), the most ‘modern’ of all Victorian poets (much of his poetry was not published until 1918), immortalises the small village of Inversnaid, on the shores of Loch Lomond, in this poem celebrating the ‘weeds and the wilderness’. As well as being a fine paean to the Scottish landscape, the poem is also an early example of what we’d now call conservationism.
6. Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Scotland’.
Perhaps the most famous and critically acclaimed Scottish poet of the twentieth century, MacDiarmid – born Christopher Murray Grieve and a self-described ‘Anglophobe’ – often wrote about his native country. In ‘Scotland’, he tells us that it requires great love of a land to be able to read its ‘configuration’ …
7. W. S. Graham, The Nightfishing.
Graham (1918-86) has never had the recognition or readership he deserves, despite vehement championing from people like Harold Pinter. His work is linguistically inventive and, in poems such as the long 1955 poem Nightfishing, evokes Scottish coastal life vividly and memorably. Sadly, this poem – one of the finest long poems of the twentieth century – is not available online, but we can heartily recommend New Collected Poems: W.S. Graham as a book to get lost in on a rainy afternoon.
8. Liz Lochhead, ‘View of Scotland/Love Poem’.
Between 2011 and 2016, Lochhead (b. 1947) was the ‘Makar’ – the official poet of Scotland (a sort of Scottish equivalent to the Poet Laureate role). As the poem’s two-part title makes clear, this is a love letter to Scotland which sees the poet reflecting on her various memories of the country. Her memories, as she acknowledges, are ‘too ordinary’ to be nostalgic, but the poem brilliantly captures the Scottish character, and the poet’s own childhood memories.
9. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Scottish Prince’.
The former UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955, and in this poem, as her note to the poem makes clear, she writes about ‘my 9-year old daughter Ella, a couple of years ago, on our annual holiday at Crieff Hydro Hotel; where she nightly dances the Gay Gordon, and many a reel, not only with her dad (who, although English, we allow to wear the Wallace tartan – Ella’s paternal great-grandmother was a Wallace) but also with the hotel’s handsome kilted host, whom Ella thinks is a Scottish Prince.’
10. Don Paterson, ‘Luing’.
Paterson (b. 1963) is one of the most popular and technically accomplished Scottish poets writing today. ‘Luing’ is a poem about solitude and isolation: as Paterson’s note (in the attached link) makes clear, ‘If you’re looking for asylum in the Hebrides you should go to the innermost of the inner Hebrides because no one else bothers. And this was a poem written for a friend who said she would never fall in love again and this island struck me as a good place to go if you were ever looking to revivify that susceptibility.’
If you are after a good collection of Scottish poetry, we recommend 100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud (100 Favourite).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
Delighted to see W.S. Graham get a mention. You often seem to include one or another of my favourites!
And poor George Mackay Brown? All his beautiful poems about orkney and the peole up there, now and a long time ago…