Coming Home to Scotland and Scottish Poetry

Until 2001, my mom thought our genealogy traced to England and Germany, but that year she and her brother discovered to their surprise that the ancestors they presumed were English actually came from Scotland. After tracing our family name to Kirkcudbright, where Robert Burns visited the Selkirk Inn and offered the famous “Selkirk Grace” (offered at the beginning of Burns Suppers), Mom began to refer to him as “Bobbie” Burns. Aye, once we knew we were Scottish, we felt a level of familiarity with Scotland’s national poet.

That year, Mom and her brother flew to Scotland and traipsed the countryside visiting cemeteries, museums, castles and libraries in search of more clues. Before long, they met distant relatives who called them “cousins” and welcomed them into their homes, shared stories, invited them to dinner and served them cookies.

While sitting behind a small church by the Kirkcudbright harbor, surrounded by “a host of golden daffodils,” Mom wrote in her journal, “Are we drawn to this place because our roots are here? Or because it is so charming?” And my uncle felt such a draw to Scotland after that first trip, he returned many times over the years, staying for weeks at a time. He became such a regular, the locals greeted him by name when he stepped into the pub for a drink.

I’ve never been there myself, so I’ve had to find and form my connection to Scotland in other ways. The photos and stories my mom and uncle share provide a starting point, of course, but I’ve seen again and again how poetry crosses time and space to link heart and mind and place to person, so I recently perused the Scottish Poetry Library’s list of poets, in search of some links. The collection reminded me how many classic poets come from Scotland, such as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Scotland came to me on Poetry at Work Day, via Twitter, when the Scottish Parliament shared a poem by Edwin Morgan, written for opening of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004. And the Young Reporters for the Environment introduced me to several more contemporary Scottish poets, such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, and Iain Crichton Smith.

One of those mentioned, Norman MacCaig, offers a poetic glimpse of Scotland in his poem, “Assynt and Edinburgh”:

Assynt and Edinburgh

From the corner of Scotland I know so well
I see Edinburgh sprawling like seven cats
on its seven hills beside the Firth of Forth.

And when I’m in Edinburgh I walk
amongst the mountains and lochs of that corner
that looks across the Minch to the Hebrides.

Two places I belong to as though I was born
in both of them.

They make every day a birthday,
giving me gifts wrapped in the ribbons of memory.
I store them away, greedy as a miser.

blue hills of scotland scottish poetry scottish poems


Robert Louis Stevenson penned this poem far from his homeland, remembering the land of his birth.

 To S. R. Crockett (On receiving a Dedication)

           Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,

           Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,

           Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,

           My heart remembers how!

           Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,

           Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,

           Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,

           And winds, austere and pure:

           Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,

           Hills of home! and to hear again the call;

           Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,

           And hear no more at all.

But “Bobbie” Burns is the one I feel I must attend to, and I’m sorry I missed the Burns Supper hosted by our local Scottish Society here in the States to commemorate Burns Night, January 25. I’m reminded Burns penned the poem we sing on New Year’s Eve, Auld Lang Syne and the classic poem “A Red, Red Rose”:

A Red, Red Rose

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair are thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!

Lingering on the lochs and moors of Scotland, if only through verse, I sense the love of the land and language, the pride in the people and poets. Then I stumble on this brief poem from George MacDonald, and I hear the words all the way from Scotland, across time and space, linking poet and place to person.

The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs


Scotland Castle Scottish poems Scottish poetry

Photos by Moyan_Brenn, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Ann Kroeker.


  1. says

    Lovely post, Ann. Scotland truly is a gorgeous place. I’d like to go back. I visited on my first trip to the UK and while I’ve been to England a number of times since, I haven’t gotten back to the lochs and moors.

  2. says

    We toured the island – England/Scotland/Wales – by car for our 25th wedding anniversary. One of my favorite trips ever. Didn’t go as far north as we would have liked, however. It’s a gorgeous, haunting place – and the further in you go, the harder it is to understand what people are saying! This is lovely, Ann. And I think you might very much enjoy reading about this (very, VERY expensive) book:

    • says

      I didn’t say this in the piece, my uncle says that he’d step into the pubs, return the greeting, and then he couldn’t understand anything else they said after that. :)

      I’ll poke around and see if any libraries might carry the expensive book you recommend–thank you, Diana, for taking time to read and comment.

  3. says

    this piece makes me long for something i don’t know
    roots, ancestors, beginnings
    (other than THE garden, of course).
    father’s side – i never knew a single one
    and he died when i was a babe,
    far too young to wonder
    roots, ancestors, beginnings.
    mother’s side – all of the old-timers, gone
    as of last autumn. and my momma
    never took the time to consider or think
    roots, ancestors, beginnings
    because she was working too hard to feed us
    and pay rent in the home where we
    lived. in the place
    that we knew something

    • says

      Darlene, thank you for sharing this very personal perspective. As you’ve mentioned here, it sounds like you know your truest genealogy and need not fret about following your earthly roots.

      • says

        Hmmm. I think it is actually really important to reach into one’s past, one’s roots, to know what formed us and our sensibilities.

        Especially if a longing was stirred. (And, Darlene, wow, I sense a really deep something having been stirred.) Your poem is achy in all the best ways.

          • says

            I’m thinking that one’s past needn’t be hindered by lack of information. There are clues that exist inside us, like Darlene’s poem finds. Curious what information you might be intrigued by. It might be more historical than what I’m thinking? :)

          • says

            clues that exist inside of us – that’s where i’m at after some fruitless searching. it’s not the movies where everyone is gleeful to share their current life with those who share blood. i had a telephone conversation with a half-sister that could’ve been fodder for a soap opera. but, at least i did discover i have native american blood in these here veins. it explains something about my dark hair and hazel green eyes vs. the blonde, blue eyes of my other kin.

            i’ve written on it. maybe i can share. sometime.

            thanks for the dialogue and encouragement.

            the best family sometimes are your friends. 😉


  4. says

    I love the photos and rich heritage of the Highlands. I WISH I was Scottish, but I’m not. But I go to every Celtic everything around here. Just love the culture and the way they kept the Gospel simple.

    Our friend Jeff Johnson sang about Iona, a centuries-old vanguard of monasticism.

    • says

      These photos certainly reinforce the enchantment! Thank you for taking time to read this, Linda, and to comment, sharing your dreams of the moors. My mom has been able to go several times, and we’ve enjoyed her photos and stories. It’s the next-best thing to going there myself–living vicariously. :)

  5. Dugald MacGilp says

    I enjoyed your post very much. I work for Keep Scotland Beautiful (an environmental charity) and I am the Development Officer for Eco-Schools Scotland responsible for our Young Reporters for the Environment programme. Many years ago Norman MacCaig was teaching at Stirling University when I was an undergraduate. I was not taking English Literature but did hear him read his work. He invited his old friend (and by then very frail) Hugh McDiarmid to give a guest lecture which I was priveleged to witness. It is wonderful that MacCaig’s works are now part of Scotland’s High School poetry syllabus.

    Three men are pulling
    at the starboard oar,
    the man I am and was
    and the man I’ll be.

    The boat sails
    to a blind horizon.
    Who’s pulling on the port side oar
    that keeps our course straight?

    Pull as we may
    We’re kept from turning
    to port or starboard by that
    invisible oarsman.

    ‘Crew’ by Norman MacCaig

    • says

      Wonderful! So nice to meet you here, Dugald, and good to know someone is working hard to keep Scotland beautiful. As you can see, we all want that, even those of us on this side of the pond.

      And thanks for sharing your personal story about Mr. MacCaig and Mr. McDiarmid and how their poetry impacted you.

      This poem you shared–I’ll be thinking about that invisible oarsman keeping my course straight.

  6. Marcy Terwilliger says

    I’m a Campbell with the big round eyes and my mother was Irish so I’m Scot/Irish and growing up heard many stories of my people in Scotland mostly. My grandmother was a Zwick and her parents were from Canada. We had one Grandfather who was a Preacher but the faith was never mentioned. We were told an Uncle who was a black sheep of the family was kicked out of Scotland. All I do know is growing up we had potatoes every night for dinner, seven days a week. If you’ve never read the story of potatoes and how they kept themselves and other’s alive because of growing them it makes for an interesting story. I long to go, to kiss the ground, to wallow in it. With each setback I see a sharp decline in my health. There’s no way my body could walk it, for even now to run errands lands me in bed for hours. Diseases are so awful to have but I have enjoyed writing, meeting each of you, pushing myself to do better, reading a poem everyday. These are things I will miss one day but I’m ever so thankful to have been a part of. Yo make me smile through the tears.

    • says

      Oh, Marcy, I feel like you and I are walking the moors together in our hearts and minds, even if we never make it there in person. And I’m so sorry that you are going through struggles that keep you from living the way you want–but how beautiful that poetry–and those who love poetry–are helping you live a rich, creative, mentally stimulating life. I’m so thankful you’re here, that you’re part of our world here at Tweetspeak, and that we share these roots tracing to Scotland.

      Thank you for reminding me how precious and essential potatoes were for sustenance. Bless you.

  7. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Though the lass be fair
    with freckles and red hair
    she skips among the rocks
    near the cliffs that plunge
    to the sea below.
    Crashing waves
    hit like thunder
    their sound so loud
    my ears doeth hurt.
    I’m just a lass
    encouraged to wander
    the mighty giant green
    Where dragons
    once roamed
    now men of stone.
    Old churches in crumbles
    castles take their tumbles.
    Bits and pieces
    stones broken
    some cast aside.
    Who lived in
    this castle?
    Follow the
    stone walls
    which go on
    for miles
    until I reach
    my home.

  8. says

    What a rich poetic legacy and gorgeous landscapes…Thank you for taking me with you…I want to visit Scotland…George MacDonald is someone I have been wanting to read. Inspiring post :)

  9. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Marilyn, thank you, yes, much time has passed, sounds like a great idea. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep have you been any good?

    Ann, we are walking those moors together as our long skirts bellow in a time when our heads were covered in black velvet hats with satin ties. The mind is so strong you can go anywhere, anytime and be at peace with the green at your feet. In real life before the disease started taking my body, I’m smiling right now because I built stone walls. Drove to places where empty old houses stood abandoned and there I walked and plucked the old stones and carried them home. My joy came from building old stone walls. They were my hand work, my fingerprints were all over them. Heck, that’s why I drive a truck girl.


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