In Robert Garioch we find the very definition of a live tradition in writing. He is a conduit from the medieval past to the living present, breaking new ground for writers who would come after him.
Garioch had a deep affinity for the early Makars – Robert Henryson in particular, whose moral fable The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous is the inspiration for Garioch’s Fable (Twa Mice). Scots writers have always, since the very beginning, taken their cues from Europe, and Garioch is no different. His classical education – a legacy of the Humanists – gave him a profound leaning towards the Humanist tradition. He is a translator of George Buchanan’s Latin verse keeping this tradition live and extending it into the 20th century.
Garioch drew inspiration from MacDiarmid and made a significant contribution to the Scottish Literary Renaissance. But he was no mere follower, or acolyte. Garioch’s choice of Scots as his poetic medium was not driven by overtly political notions, rather it was the voice of the street he sought to recapture. Whereas MacDiarmid’s early works like The Eemis Stane or The Bonnie Broukit Bairn are dense and difficult, linguistically and intellectually, Garioch’s work strikes us as much more human, more down to earth. MacDiarmid’s poetry paved the way for Garioch and allowed him to use the language of Fergusson and the forms of Dunbar and Henryson. The difficult work had already been done – MacDiarmid allowed Garioch and others, like Sydney Goodsir Smith, to use Scots in a fresh and modern way, without resorting to cliché and imitation, something which has marred a substantial amount of poetry in Scots since the time of Burns. Garioch rehabilitated traditional verse forms, such as the Burns Stanza (or the ‘Standard Habbie’ stanza as it is sometimes known) in poems like To Robert Fergusson, and gave them currency in the living tradition.
But it is to Robert Fergusson that Garioch seems to owe most. The poem he addresses to his poetic ‘elder brother’ is a moving tribute – though Garioch spares him “the Scottish elegiac line”. It begins with Garioch addressing Fergusson: “tho twa-hunder year/ awa, your image is mair clear/ nor monie things that nou appear/ in braid daylicht.” Suggesting that the lucid verse of Fergusson makes more sense to him, has more relevance to him now, than many aspects of modern life. The poem addresses several of these changing and challenging difficulties and compares Fergusson’s time with his own. Garioch also points out certain things they have in common, such as the school they both attended: “The Auld High Schule (gane Royal syne)/ your Alma Mater was and mine”. He compares their influences: “Ye’d quote frae Ramsay, I frae Grieve” (Christopher Murray Grieve is Hugh MacDiarmid’s real name.) And in an extended sequence he imagines going out on the town with him, going round the pubs, singing songs, having a few drinks. Like true brothers, or the closest of friends.
Like Fergusson, much of Garioch’s work is concerned with local matters. Poems such as Embro to the Ploy satirise the in-migration of toffs and foreigners and the jaunts of local riff-raff during the 3-week ‘splore’ of the Festival when Edinburgh is transformed out of recognition. Other poems such as Glisk of the Great gently send up the Scottish obsession with status and wealth.
But it would be unfair and untrue to label Garioch a parochial poet. His outlook is international and universal, though his language and humour and persona remain profoundly Scottish. By drawing on two of Scottish literature’s most fertile grounds – the intellectual/ Humanist and the satirical/ local – Garioch creates something new. He does not follow in either tradition, but fuses or synthesises them. We might argue that true creativity lies not in the ability to create something from nothing, but to invent things anew, for one’s times, in one’s own voice. Garioch’s achievement was to reinvigorate the forgotten traditions of the Makars and make them relevant to the concerns of the 20th century, opening up a whole new field for others, such as Edwin Morgan, to explore. In taking up MacDiarmid’s lead he kept Scots vital and alive.