OBITUARY: Alastair Mackie

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The Independent Online
Alastair Mackie was a Scots makar; a skilled wordsmith and an incorrigibly restless and cross-grained literary archaeologist. Add to this an imagination that often saw the world as dark and foreboding, and we can glimpse something of what made Mackie an important Scots poet.

Mackie's early "fieldwork" took him into the Scots dictionary, but soon he quarried in French, Italian, German and Russian poetry as a translator, extending the range of his own Scots poetry. His pessimism and his "poignant melancholy", as one critic called it, make his versions of Leopardi outstanding. That said, the pessimistic, introverted, and essentially private man could also be a lively performer who could make language dance to the tune of a joyfully dry sense of humour.

Mackie's research was not that of the intellectual, but during his later years of stress- related illnesses and an ischaemic heart condition a mystified GP asked him if he could not accept that he knew more than enough for any one lifetime. But Mackie remained a poet because he could not ever be content with such an attitude; could not be "at his ease", intellectually or as a maker of poems. This could make life difficult for him, and his wife and daughters - and for his friends.

In a moving funeral tribute, Alastair Leslie spoke of his pleasure in Mackie's stimulating company and his admiration for the humanity of his poems. Leslie also reminded us that Mackie could be a "difficult man" but, with a smile, related how a "banishment" from his home was brief - thanks to the oil poured on the waters by Bet Mackie. I published Mackie's first three books and was a weekly correspondent of some 10 years. He often regarded me as wrang-heidit, as I did him, but I cannot recall our exchanging one word of personal rancour. Our comments on other writers could be less polite.

Born in Aberdeen in 1925, Alastair Mackie went to school there at Skene Square Primary and Robert Gordon's College. After war service in the Navy, he graduated in English honours at Aberdeen University. In 1951 he went as English teacher to Stromness Academy, Orkney, and married Bet Law. Already Mackie was suffering the pains and illnesses related to depression and anxiety which, supported by his wife, he bravely and privately fought through their 43 years of married life. In 1959 he was appointed to teach in the fishing town of Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife and there he lived till his death.

If the poet often revealed a melancholy and tragic world, the English teacher in Waid Academy was no pessimist. Alastair Mackie was an inspiration to not only academic high-flyers with literary ambitions, but also those with other talents. His less academic pupils wrote short plays in Scots and achieved local fame as actors in their own works, or those written for them by Mr Mackie. The wider world knows of John Lloyd, one-time editor of the New Statesman, Christopher Rush, storyteller of the film Venus Peter, and Andrew Grieg, poet and novelist; all taught by Mackie at Waid Academy.

Alastair Mackie has acknowledged that when, in 1954, he first read the cluster of Scots lyrics in Hugh MacDiarmid's Sangschaw (1925) it was "like absorbing a mind-bending chemical". MacDiarmid's example enabled Mackie to tap into a rich seam of language that was rooted in the everyday spoken Scots of his parents' home and the streets of Aberdeen where he played as a boy in the 1930s.

Mackie's first collection of poems is Soundings, which I published in 1966. Disappointed by so few of his poems in Scots being accepted by editors, Mackie was writing in English, but before Soundings appeared he had returned to Scots and had entered his most creative years. Clytach (1972), short poems in Scots, is a major collection of poetry. Here is the tragic despair of "Mongol Quine" and the magnificent "Pieta", in which a woman is traumatised with sorrow as she holds her child killed by bombers. In contrast there is the witty and satirical "Scots Pegasus" in which Mackie uses a richly descriptive Scots to describe this "timmer naig / wi a humphy back and cockle een".

There followed At the Heich Kirk-Yaird: a hielant sequence (1974), and Back-Green Odyssey, collected in Back-Green Odyssey and other poems (1980). Mackie's Ingaitherins: selected poems was published in 1987, with drawings by his daughter Frances, but we await a fuller collection to see adequately his richly varied achievement.

Duncan Glen

Alastair Webster Mackie, poet and teacher: born Aberdeen 10 August 1925; married 1951 Elizabeth Law (two daughters); died Kirkcaldy, Fife 3 June 1995.