Centenary Lecture Series: ‘Glasgow Poets and Modern Scotland’

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On 28 March 2013, the Centre, as part of the on-going series of lectures celebrating the Centenary of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow, welcomed Professor Alan Riach who discussed, ‘Glasgow Poets and Modern Scotland’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Chair of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow was created thanks to endowments from Glasgow’s populace in 1913. Currently, two esteemed academics serve in tandem in this role: Professor Dauvit Broun represents Scottish History while Professor Riach represents the Scottish Literature.

Professor Riach’s lecture was focused squarely at Glasgow and the kaleidoscope of experiences and perspectives that the city holds. The medium of poetry was the lens through which these experiences were viewed.

The sometimes unsteady balancing act between literalism and metaphor is a trait often found in poetry about Glasgow. Many poets reference the magical or mythical, while others emphasise the minutiae of daily life. Some poets could effortlessly alternate between both within the same work.

The multiplicity of experiences is key to understanding the heart of Glasgow life. In the 18th and 19th centuries, poets would observe the growing industrialisation of Glasgow with very different outlooks. For example, John Mayne, writing in 1783 presents a homely, even fun, interpretation of the human exploitation of the tobacco trade:

‘Look through the toon! The hooses here

Like noble palaces appear;

Aw things the face o gladness weer-

The market’s thrang,

Business is brisk, & aw’s asteer

The streets alang…

Hence Commerce spreeds her sails to aw

The Indies & Americaw:

Whatever maks ae penny twa,

By wind or tide

Is wafter to the Broomielaw

On bonnie Clyde…’

Likewise, John Wilson, writing in 1764, extols the virtue of the expanding British Empire:

‘LET GLASGOW FLOURISH! still in grandeur rise,

Still rear her stately fabrics to the skies;

In trade & riches rise, by swift degrees,

To rival London, empress of the seas…’

Yet other poets, such as Thomas Campbell writing in 1826, viewed the growth of industry and empire with great cynicism:

‘And call they this improvement? – to have changed,

My native Clyde, thy once romantic shore,

Where Nature’s face is banished & estranged,

And heaven reflected in thy wave no more;

Whose banks, that sweetened May-day’s breath before,

Lie sere & leafless now in summer’s beam,

With sooty exhalations covered o’er,

And for the daisied greensward, down thy stream

Unsightly brick-lanes smoke & clanking engines gleam’.

Alexander Rodger, writing in 1818, venomously attacked the concentrated wealth of the few with a recognisably modern approach:

‘What right hae ye to wear braw claes,

And strut aboot on holidays

Alang Clyde side, up Cathkin braes,

Or through the Green,

As thochtless as the brutes that graze

Before your een?…’

Moving on from industrialisation and economics, Marion Bernstein writing in the 1870s presents a less-than content image of domestic life:

‘Oh! I have sighed to read

The trials of this season;

Wife-murder seems, indeed,

An everyday transgression.


Too oft the marriage bond

Is one of fear & pain;

Affection true & fond

Should link that sacred chain’

Professor Riach argued that Bernstein was a proto-feminist, a point most clearly evidenced in her poem, ‘A Rule to Work Both Ways’. (Incidentally, a new edition of her poetry is forthcoming).

Some years later, Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1935 work, ‘In the Slums of Glasgow’ marriages the exterior industrial world to an intimate domestic environment:

‘Now the babel of Glasgow dies away in our ears,

The great heart of Glasgow is sinking to rest,

Na nonanunno nunnono nana nananana nanu

Nunno nunnonanunneno nanena nunnanunnanut

We lie cheek to cheek in quiet trance, the moon itself no more still.

There is no movement but your eyelashes fluttering against me,

And the fading sound of the work-a-day world,

Dadadoduddadaddadi dadadodudadidadoh

Duddadam dadade dudde dadadadadadodadah.’

Later in the century, Tom Leonard’s, ‘The Good Thief’ cut to the heart of sectarianism in sport in Radical Renfrew from 1990:

‘heh jimmy

yawright ih

stull wayiz urryi


heh jimmy

ma right insane yirra pape

ma right insane yirwanny uz jimmy

see it nyir eyes

wanny uz


heh jimmy

lookslik wirgonny miss thi gemm

gonny miss thi GEMM jimmy

nearly three a cloke thinoo

dork init

good jobe they’ve gote thi lights’

For a reading of this poem by the author, follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-qpWM__4WA

Clearly Leonard’s poem is entirely relevant more than twenty years on and arguably, all of these poems have reverberated down the ages, arriving with issues still tackled today.

Accepting only one single perspective, one single poem, does not fully embody the Glasgow experience. But by acknowledging the corpus of Glasgow poetry as a whole, the fullness, diversity and division of the city may be revealed. Professor Riach argued the attraction of Glasgow may be ambiguous, yet the city had, and still has, intrinsic value as a ‘place of consequence’.

Edwin Morgan may have summed this up with:

‘Glasgow is the best of plays: you can act in it and watch it at the same time’.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

The Centre’s Centenary lecture series continues on 25 April with Professor Douglas Gifford, ‘John Buchan and Glasgow’. This will again be held in the Jeffrey Room of the Mitchell Library at 6pm.

For a full programme, follow this linkhttp://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_246995_en.pdf

And to find out more about the Chair of Scottish History and Literaturewww.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professor_of_Scottish_History_and_Literature

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