By Leaves We Live

This house, this poem . . . this fresh hypothesis

These words by lain Crichton Smith are etched into a glass balustrade slung across the mezzanine floor of the new Scottish Poetry Library building in Edinburgh. Architect Malcolm Fraser’s vision of this building-as-poem has informed much of its design: for example, the natural land and seascape, a traditional poetic theme, is incorporated into the fabric – in the roof sloping upwards to catch the sun, allowing glimpses towards Salisbury Crags, and in circular rooflights set in a ceiling the colour of new leaves which send shafts of light onto natural oak floors and shelving, resembling a woodland glade; from a dusky browsing area one moves actually and metaphorically into the light to read. A blue-green tapestry by Ian Hamilton Finlay with the names of boats bobbing on it is a reminder of the sea not far away. The metaphor is clearly echoed in a motto from Patrick Geddes, ‘By leaves we live’, carved into a pavement of oak leaves at the entrance, where on more etched glass by Liz Niven, the words of a seventeenth-century Gaelic poet affirm the library’s raison d’etre:

‘It is not gold nor other treasure that you shall have from me in special,

It is not tribute nor gift of cattle, but the choicest of our hard-wrought poems.

The SPL recently celebrated its first year in this new, Lottery-funded building, but it was originally established in 1984, in historic but rather cramped premises off the High Street, through the initiative of its founder-director, Tessa Ransford. Its aim was, and still is, to promote the poetry of Scotland, (mainly of the twentieth century), in English, Scots and Gaelic, along with a selection of older Scottish, English, and international verse, and to make it freely available to all. The library has independent charitable status, deriving most of its revenue from the Scottish Arts Council: the public can borrow, or consult the reference collection, free of charge, though we do have a paid membership scheme which helps support us. We also act as a source of information on poetry events and activities – the new building is increasingly in demand as a venue for these – via our Notice Bard (!). We operate a travelling van which takes poetry out to schools and writers’ groups; a postal lending service; and several small branches throughout Scotland, making us a truly national collection. Through email and our website, complete with poetic embellishments, we are linked to the wider world.

From its small beginnings the library has developed into a cultural resource of major importance, with a stock totalling over 20,000 items, including primary texts; bibliographies and literary criticism; audio and video recordings; CD-ROMS; posters, photographs and news cuttings; children’s verse (we have a bright new Junior Library); periodicals; an expanding braille poetry collection; music, especially settings of contemporary poets; and some manuscripts. Because the collection is intended to have general appeal and to reflect the relevance of poetry to all our lives, rather than being esoteric or purely historical, rare editions or antiquarian items have never been a priority. Nevertheless, some unusual items have come our way, often through the generosity of donors. We have signed first editions of Hugh MacDiarmid and William Soutar, for example, and scarce copies of early work by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Norman MacCaig, (the ‘Apocalyptic’ titles he later repudiated); also a much-annotated director’s prompt copy from the first production of Douglas Young’s The Puddocks at St.Andrews in 1957. Many of our slim volumes were published in small privately printed editions, quickly out of print and not always to be found in the major copyright libraries. This is especially true of much foreign language material: our European collection has over forty languages represented, including translations from Scottish poets, (Bums in Bernese Swiss, Christopher Whyte in Serbo-Croat, Douglas Dunn in Hungarian); the ‘Celtic fringe’ countries like Galicia, Brittany and Ireland feature strongly alongside poetry of linguistic minorities from Faenza or Catalonia. Our audio collection includes unique recordings of Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, and W. S. Graham reading live, and early vinyl recordings of poets such as MacDiarmid and George Mackay Brown; and the periodical collection includes similar rarities, for example Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse, and the Voice of Scotland, MacDiarmid’s mouthpiece for the Scottish Renaissance in the 1940s and 1950s.

In one of these Voice of Scotland issues we discovered a significant addition in MacDiarmid’s own hand to a poem which had never been published in its correct form elsewhere, (see Scottish Literary Journal, v.22, no.1, May 1995). Other manuscripts of interest include unpublished poems by Alasdair MacLean, and the recently donated archive of a writers’ group in which Liz Lochhead made her debut. My own favourite is a notebook of poems by Frances Lady Douglas, née Scott, (1750-1817), a daughter of the Earl of Dalkeith and sister of Henry, the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. Written before her marriage, her verse is lively and humorous; though not great poetry, it reveals much of the writer’s social milieu, whether asking a friend to assist her in making tassels for her bed-hanging, or sending a poem to accompany a gift:

To Lady E. Home with a cushion of false hair (1777)

Fond Youths in days of yore ’tis said

To deck their favorite fair one’s head,

The sweetest, freshest flowers chose,

The Violet, Pinks, and Blushing Rose.

How times are changed – a lover now

T’adorn a beauteous damsel’s brow,

Scorns such mean arts, and sends his Fair

A Wig, that’s made of dead men’s hair!

There are epitaphs for deceased pets, including a favourite monkey and caged bird, and poems on the diversions enjoyed by the family at Dalkeith – a musical evening hearing Mrs Sheridan sing, charades, needlework, drawing, games of whist; and visits to friends:

At Wilton, Dec. 1780

Thursday Farewell! Ah when again shall we

A day so glorious, so eventful see?

At morn, what visits made! what walks were taken,

At dinner, oh what Bouilli and what Bacon!

When ev’ning came, we charm’d the fleeting hours

With sports and games, (th’Olympicks fools to ours);

To crown the night with Joys sublime as these,

Record it Fame! we ate some toasted cheese! …

The SPL’s greatest bibliographical tool for mining these riches is its automated catalogue program INSPIRE, which enables us to perform in-depth critical research or to retrieve a half-forgotten poem from someone’s schooldays, (almost) at the touch of a button. The program’s thematic search facility is particularly helpful for teachers, anthologists, or anyone needing illustrative poetic material – it helped us locate poems for artwork in the new Scottish Parliament building, for example. The database is invaluable for solving the increasing number of tricky inquiries we receive, many via email; recently we traced a nineteenth-century Gaelic poem from South Uist mentioning a rare poultry disease previously thought nonexistent before the 1920s! Another indispensable aid is our own Scottish poetry index, an index to selected Scottish Poetry periodicals from 1953-, which we are publishing in a projected twelve-volume series, allowing access to the wealth of material hidden in these little magazines, including the first appearance of many later celebrated authors. In the near future we hope to launch the Library’s complete catalogue on the internet, enabling our resources to be freely accessible everywhere.

‘This fresh hypothesis…’ the SPL continues to grow and to innovate. Early this year we welcomed a new director, Dr Robyn Marsack, who is planning increased services for members. Other current projects include an expanded programme of activities for children – we have just published our Jewel Box CD featuring almost forty contemporary Scottish poets, which is being distributed free to schools throughout the country. We are further developing our Holyrood Link scheme, encouraging MSP’s to commission original poems from poets in their constituencies. And we plan to launch a varied and lively programme of events during this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, including the informal and free open-air readings which have been so popular in the past. See you there!

The Scottish Poetry Library is at 5 Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland EH8 8DT. Opening hours are 12-6 weekdays, 12-4 on Saturdays. For further information telephone: 0131 557 2876 or visit:

Copyright Penny Duce 2005.


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