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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy