Obituary: Tom Scott

Tom Scott was a man of passionate spirit and goodness, qualities that made him the most considerable poet writing in the Scots language since the death of Hugh MacDiarmid in 1978.

Tom Scott's earliest poems were in English and he returned to that language in some of his later work - he wrote memorably in both forms of language. He had begun as a singer. He had a beautiful tenor voice and it is the music of his poetry that will make it endure. As he often said, "Poetry is verse that sings with its own unique music." This quality was present in one of his earliest poems, "Sea Dirge: A Mither's Keenin" (published by Tambimutto, in Poetry London, in the early 1940s):

I found him dround on the rock that nicht

and the wind high. Munelicht it wes,

and the hungry suckin of the sea at

ma feet

streikin awa in front o me.

The first version of that poem was in English, but Scott later realised that the rhythm of it was that of Scots and he altered the spelling accordingly.

Scott found his voice in Scots by visiting Europe, in particular Sicily. He then realised that he belonged to the great tradition of Scottish poets (Dunbar, Henryson, Gavin Douglas) which was more European and less insular than much of English poetry. This led him to produce his great translations of the 15th-century French poet Villon:

Tell me whaur, in whit countrie

Bides Flora nou, yon Roman belle?

Whaur Thais, Alcibiades be,

Thon sibbit cousins. Can ye tell

Whaur cleteran echo draws pell-mell

Abuin some burn owrehung wi bine

Her beautie's mair nor human spell -

Ay, whaur's the snaws o langsyne?

Many have attempted to translate that great ballade, but no one has captured the music of the original so memorably. The wonderful qualities of these versions were recognised by both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

As well as recreating great European poems in Scots (his versions of Dante, Anglo- Saxon and St John of the Cross come to mind), Scott wrote some of the most moving and tender lyrics of any era. "The Annunciation" is short enough to quote entire:

You'll lig your waddin-nicht yourlane

Your legs aspar ti nocht but air,

And it will get in ye a son

Yet never pairt your maiden hair.

Ye'll hain yersel baith nicht and morne

And letna your guidman steir ye, will ye,

Afore the ferlie bairn is born

And broached your virgin nipples til ye.

Tak tent nou, I maun gang my road:

Ilka word I've said is true.

And aa I've ever envied God

Is the bairnin o a lass like you.

But Tom Scott's work did not stay still. He was not, like so many talented poets, content to go on writing the same poem in a variety of forms throughout his life. He turned to making ambitious longer poems. The finest of these is The Ship - a passionate denunciation of the flaw which is at the core of Western civilisation. Published in 1963, this poem has not dated - it is even more living now than at the time it was written. As he said of it himself "The Ship was criticising our whole world which is dedicated to the profit motive. The creation of wealth not for need, but for its own sake, and for profit, and profit must go on making more and more profit. This is one of the key things in The Ship . . . The spoilation of the earth, of the sea, the constant pollution that's going on, the constant attack on the animals . . . These didn't exist, in the way that they have come to exist, when I wrote The Ship."

Yeats wrote, "Poetry is truth seen with passion." Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tom Scott had the courage to tackle big subjects. He was a lifelong socialist (his father was a shipyard boilermaker on Clydeside) and a Scottish patriot, but he was too great a writer to be labelled as belonging to any political party. He was a life- giving poet whose work stemmed from awe at the beauty and mystery of the universe.

He was also a prose writer. His important study of Dunbar appeared in 1966 and he completed a history of Scottish literature which never found a publisher. He edited The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (1970) and wrote children's books with his wife, Heather.

Like Basil Bunting, his reputation as a poet came late. As Harold Pinter said, on the publication of his Collected Shorter Poems (1993), "It's astonish- ing that such a powerful and original poetic voice should have been so neglected. Tom Scott is a poet of the highest order."

I believe his work will endure as long as there are lovers of poetry and there are few poets of any era about whom this can be said.

William Cookson

Tom Scott, poet: born Glasgow 6 June 1918; married 1963 Heather Fretwell (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 7 August 1995.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Consultant – Building Management

up to £45,000 + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Green ...

Senior Industrial Energy Consultant

Up to £45,000 + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Green ...

Mechanical Building Services Energy Engineer

up to £45K basic + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Gr...

Building Services Energy Engineer

up to £45K basic + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Gr...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal