Jackie Kay stepped down as the Scots Makar, or the National Poet of Scotland, on 14th March, ending a fruitful and inspiring five-year tenure. She succeeded Liz Lochhead in 2016, while her own successor will be announced in the coming months. As Makar, she combined her literary prowess with a vision of accessibility and inclusivity to become a true poet of the people.
Before her appointment, there was debate about changing the title of Makar to simply ‘National Poet of Scotland’ for fear of not being understood outside the country. But Kay states that she argued in favour of keeping the title. This idea of returning to roots, of reclaiming what is Scottish and penning it in compelling verse, is perhaps a defining feature of Kay’s tenure, enriched by her own multiplicity of perspectives. At her appointment, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon remarked, “Poetry is part of Scotland’s culture and history, it celebrates our language and can evoke strong emotions and memories in all of us.” This is what the role entailed, and exactly what Kay achieved.
Kay was born to a Scottish woman and a Nigerian father, and later adopted by a white Scottish couple as a baby. She has spoken openly about facing bullying and discrimination growing up in 1970s Glasgow, and about the racism endemic in society, waiting to be addressed. She is a queer writer of colour, and one of her greatest talents is pushing the boundaries of “traditional” Scottishness. Her brand of poetry has found that snug middle ground that allows her to dig deep for a trustworthy vision of Scotland without compromising on her own individuality. She has remained as much authentically ‘Jackie Kay’ as she has become the nation’s ‘Scots Makar’.
Kay found many an occasion to display her incredible and powerful writing, which has accomplished the difficult, age-old task of bringing people together. In 2019, she delivered her poem ‘The Long View’ as part of the Scottish Parliament’s twentieth anniversary celebration, which was written partly in Gaelic and partly in British Sign Language. She also read her poem ‘Threshold’ at the opening of Scottish Parliament in 2016. But her career was illustrious even before she took on the role of Makar. She was appointed MBE in 2006 and CBE in 2020, both for her services to literature.
One would struggle to find any few who do not respect Kay, both as a poet and an individual. She has certainly raised the status of Scottish literature, with the help of poignant, fiery words and a sense of humour to temper them. But apart from that, she has drawn from her own incredibly rich experiences to give inspiration to generations both in Scotland and around the world. As she herself wrote in her autobiography Red Dust Road, she is “part fable, part porridge.”
Illustration: Eve Miller for The Student