Biography

Robert Garioch was, along with William Soutar and Sidney Goodsir Smith, one of a generation of poets who continued the work begun by Hugh MacDiarmid, whose 1920s collections Sangschaw, Penny Wheep and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle were revolutionary in using the Scots language as the medium for a modern, European style of poetry.

Robert Garioch Sutherland was born in Edinburgh in 1909. He studied English at Edinburgh University between 1927 and 1931. At this time he began to write poetry in Scots. Garioch published his first collection Seventeen Poems for 6d with the Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean) in 1940. This was followed by Chuckies on the Cairn (1949), Garioch's first full book of poetry. Garioch spent many years working as a schoolteacher in the London area, both before and after the Second World War. During the War, Garioch served as a signalman, and was captured and became a prisoner of war. His wartime experiences are recounted in prose in Two Men and a Blanket: Memoirs of Captivity (1975).

He returned to Edinburgh in the late 1950s and took early retirement from teaching in the mid 1960s. Thereafter Garioch worked in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh where he held a Writer's Fellowship from 1971 until 1973. He died in the spring of 1981.

Works

While MacDiarmid was to move away from Scots language poetry, Garioch and others would write poetry in Scots throughout their careers. While MacDiarmid’s eclecticism embraced words from many different areas and historical periods, Garioch’s poetry is rooted in the various voices associated with his native Edinburgh, from the voices he heard in the Cowgate to the voice of his great eighteenth century predecessor, Robert Fergusson.

Many of the characteristic features of Garioch’s poetry, its wit, often self-deprecating tone and virtuosic use of traditional verse forms, were already apparent from the beginning of his literary career. Despite the influence of Hugh MacDiarmid (‘Not Burns, Dunbar!’), Garioch was able to return to the Standard Habbie stanza used by Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns in the eighteenth century, establishing a continuity between his own poetry and that of previous generations of Scots poets, or Makars. In one of his most famous poems in this form, ‘To Robert Fergusson’, Garioch sets up a dialogue between his own Edinburgh and that of the eighteenth century, between the poetry of the modern Scottish Renaissance and that of the eighteenth century vernacular revival.

Edinburgh is an important presence in Garioch’s poetry. In the comic poem ‘Embro to the Ploy’ Garioch uses a verse form associated with the medieval Scots tradition in order to paint a picture of the recently established Edinburgh International Festival. Elsewhere, in ‘Heard in the Cougate’ and ‘Fi’baw in the Street’, he uses voices which are much closer to a phonetic transcription of Edinburgh speech, while trying to present a continuity between these voices and the literary Scots of the traditions he draws upon. As Garioch’s speaker says of Edinburgh’s English and Scots speech in ‘To Robert Fergusson’, ‘the corrupt twang / of Cougait is the nearer tae / the leid ye sang’ (‘To Robert Fergusson’ in Complete Poetical Works, 21).

Garioch’s poetry often moves beyond his native place in search of inspiration. One of Garioch’s most skilfully crafted poems, ‘Sisyphus’, describes a figure from Classical mythology who was doomed to push a boulder up hill only to have it roll down so that he would have to start all over again. Garioch uses a verse form borrowed from Classical epic poetry, elevating the status of the language in which he chooses to write. Garioch’s Sisyphus becomes, however, a distinctively modern figure, complicit in his own wage-slavery: Whit was he thinkin about, that he jist gied the boulder a wee shove?/ Bumpity doun in the corrie gaed whuddran the pitiless whun stane,/ Sisyphus dodderan eftir it, shair of his cheque at the month’s end. (‘Sisyphus’ in Complete Poetical Works, 28).

For Garioch, the focus is not on the punishment endured by Sisyphus, but on the role played by Sisyphus in that punishment, suggesting that we see him not as an exceptional figure, but representative of the ways in which people build their own mental prisons in the modern world.

Garioch also wrote poetry based upon his wartime experiences. These include ‘The Wire’, one of Garioch’s most ambitious poems and reckoned by many to be among his finest. Here, Garioch uses the image of wartime barbed wire to link together the sufferings of many ordinary soldiers:

This endless muir is thrang wi folk

that hirple aye aa airts at aince

wi neither purport nor content

nor rest, in fidgan impotence.

They gae in danger of the Wire

but staucher on anither mile

frae line to line of spider steel

to loup anither deidlie stile.

(‘The Wire’ in Complete Poetical Works, 50).

The measured tone of this poem, when set alongside his other work, demonstrates both the great range of his poetry and his conviction that the Scots language could deal with as many subjects as poetry itself, from the comic to the deadly serious. Few Scots Makars in the twentieth century were able, as Garioch was, to write poetry in Scots of such range and technical sophistication.

Some of Garioch’s best work appears in his translations from the work of other poets, notably Sorley MacLean and the Italian poet Guiseppe Belli (1791-1863), whose Roman sonnets Garioch translated into Scots. Garioch translated over a hundred of these sonnets, resulting in a group of poems which display the range of Garioch’s poetry and the consummate skill with which he handles both his subject matter and his poetic craft. Garioch’s sonnets from Belli must sit alongside W. L. Lorimer’s New Testament in Scots (1983) as one of the major achievements of twentieth century Scots translation.

Reading Lists

Primary

Seventeen Poems for 6d with Somhairle MacGill-Eain (1940)

Chuckies on the Cairn (1949)

The Masque of Edinburgh (1954)

The Big Music (1971)

Doktor Faust in Rose Street (1973)

Two Men and a Blanket: Memoirs of Captivity (1975)

Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Robin Fulton (1983)

Secondary

Fulton, Robin (ed.) A Garioch Miscellany (1986)

Smith, Iain Crichton, ‘The Power of Craftmanship: The Poetry of Robert Garioch’, Towards the Human (1986) pp. 167-70

Tremayne, Sydney, ‘Robert Garioch’, Akros 16(47) (1981) pp. 110-13

Tulloch, Graham, 'Robert Garioch', Lines Review 88 (1984) pp. 11-15

‘Robert Garioch’s Different Styles of Scots’, SLJ 12(1) (1985) pp. 53-69

Watson, Roderick, ‘The Speaker in the Gairdens: The Poetry of Robert Garioch’, Akros 16 (1971) pp. 69-76

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