‘Perthshire 101: A Poetic Gazetteer’, edited by Andy Jackson 

I’ll be honest, there are some niche poetry anthologies that seem to me a bit de trop – we barely notice if they do or don’t exist as they serve pretty much as an ego boost for the poets included and the editor, and little else. This isn’t one of those. There are many districts, cities, bailiwicks and hinterlands of Scotland already amply covered by poetry anthologies. Dundee, for instance, is satiated with them, as is Glasgow, Edinburgh, the Highlands and Islands, the Orkneys and Shetlands. But, curiously, Scotland’s ‘big county’, or ‘the Shire’, seems unaccounted for despite the presence of an army of poets within its borders, both past and present. Andy Jackson, the editor of Perthshire 101, tells us that this very county is ‘the grandest, most engaging region of Scotland’ and I’ve no reason to gainsay him, having spent some of the happiest years of my life as an undergraduate student at Stirling University, and venturing into adjacent Perthshire whenever I could. Jackson also points out that this anthology offers the reader a ‘whistlestop tour’ of all the myriad cultural, historical, topographical, folkloric and scientific riches this county can boast about, and it’s up to her sons and daughters in the muse to do the praising. 

Firstly, I like how the book is strategically designed, divided into the four airts of the county, beginning in the North, moving through the East, South and West and culminating in the Fair City of Perth itself. I could well imagine someone, a literary-minded tourist perhaps, using this book as they might some sort of poetic Baedeker. Andy Jackson’s initial plan was to invite poets from Perthshire, or allied to it, to ‘choose up to four themes’ to ensure that a lot of ground was covered, and it certainly is. We begin with Morag Anderson’s fine tribute to the doughty, mostly Irish emigrant, labourers, the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ who were drafted in to help with the gruelling work of hydro-electric schemes ‘bringing electric power to the glens and to northern Scotland’:

Stars partition the sky like Stations of the Cross,
the last wash of light offers itself west.
I walk worn muscles to the corrugated camp,
pray I’ll sink in sleep’s deep trench,
stroll Donegal’s bladderwrack shores.
But this far from home, God is small

& frivolous.

(from ‘Hollowing a Mountain’)

Anderson’s poem is, in many ways, an auspicious start, a strong poem but one which talks about bringing light that carries on through the rest of the anthology. The closing poem about a much-loved music institution, George T Watt’s ‘Concorde Music: a Villanelle’, finds us in Perth in the present day. There’s a sense of beginning in the past as a means of illuminating the present, making what might seem like our mundane surroundings suddenly magical. But between these two book-end poems, it seems like a small galaxy unfolds, page by page. I’ll squeeze in my main criticism now – here are 101 poems by 28 poets but I would have liked to see greater representation. Where is Dunning’s Walter Perrie, or Callander’s Sally Evans, or Dunblane’s Chris Powici? As an aside, it is good to see Jackson’s own concrete poem tribute to the late Margaret Gillies Brown, one of Perthshire’s greatest makars. I’ve a feeling that enough poets could have been sourced to have a poem each, but perhaps this isn’t the point. One of the virtues of having four poems by a poet is that as you progress through the book, you find yourself drawn to some voices more than others. Harry Smart’s poems always seemed to me very welcome when they cropped up:

[…] You’ll not see us

leap like autumn silver through Tummel’s peat-brown water
into Faskally, which is not a real loch anyway. But 
by the grace of brittle-boned John Berry we climb
this stairway not to heaven but to all we know of love.

(from ‘An Apophatic Theology of the Pitlochry Fish Ladder’)

But I was grateful too to encounter voices I’d not heard before, such as Fiona Thackeray whose poem ‘The Discarded Realm’ covers Friarton Recycling Centre. Now you might think on the basis of a poem about a rubbish tip that this book is just Perthshire’s answer to Irvine Welsh and Kevin Williamson’s wickedly funny mock tourist book A Visitor’s Guide to Edinburgh (1995). However, Thackeray shows us that poetry can often lurk in the most unlikely or incongruous of places, like the ‘red-eyed woman in a Subaru Legacy’ who is ‘moving on… letting go’ and just wants rid of some old chairs that were never her choice in the first place. Or there’s the probable alcoholic who has been given an ultimatum to get rid of his stash, so he uncorks all his wine behind the bottle bin and tips it out, bluffing to confused observers that ‘My wife over-ordered’. 

This anthology does its job well, giving the reader enough familiarity to feel at home but also plenty of material that is not common knowledge. Did you know, for instance, that local legend posits Pontius Pilate’s birthplace as Fortingall? An absurd myth, naturally, but one that gives rise to a wonderful image by Kenneth Steven:

All I know is that every time I’m here,
listening to the water roaring the River Lyon
I think of him, imagine those hands
deep in the sore cold of the water,
and the hands of the man he condemned 
sore with the cold of nails. 

(from ‘Pontius Pilate’)

There is much to be gleaned and enjoyed from the historical poems and portraits, but I’d argue that the main strength of this anthology is showing us the vitality of Perthshire in the present, as the flower of its ancestral parts. Anywhere that trades upon its own beauty is vulnerable to losing something of its identity and Richard Watt’s mordantly witty Edwin-Morgan-esque sci-fi poem about future visitors to earth (and to Perthshire) shows us the risk of commoditising place:

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
To your next four hours on earth
Here is a guidebook, enjoy your stay
Shuffle hushed on tarmacadam
Laid over scholars who came before
Just to take their own place in the queue
Potentially this very spot is where
John Stuart Mill dreamed of a Costa

(from ‘Our Stakeholders are Tomorrow’s Shareholders’)

So, we are invited to visit the multifarious and very happening big county of Perthshire, be it in person or just on the page. One of the mantras of responsible tourism is to ‘take only photos / leave only footprints’ and Karen Macfarlane’s poem about berry-picking as a child in the Carse of Gowrie shows us that we may try to plunder a place of all it has to offer us, but it’s often select vivid memories that we really keep and treasure, which is what Perthshire 101 is all about:

By four o’clock, I’m a wild girl
with mad tattoos and seeds in my hair.
I’m half asleep,
my cheek pillowed 
on red-spattered earth.
Mum’s trying hard not to laugh.
She licks her hanky, sets about me,
threatening a bath when we get in.
She scrubs away the berry stains 
but only from my skin.

(from ‘The Berries, Carse of Gowrie 1975’)

Perthshire 101: A Poetic Gazetteer is published by Tippermuir Books

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