Makar or Poet?

The word ‘Makar’ has a whole different set of meanings than ‘Poet’. For a start it is free of all the Romantic associations we inherited from Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley and so on who endowed us, whether they intended to or not, with a legacy of the poet as a uniquely sensitive artist with a (typically tragic) sense of his own importance as an artist. From ‘poet’ we get ‘poetic’: beautiful and imaginative language – another legacy of the Romantics.

‘Makar’ is much more down-to-earth. Perhaps it is in the root of the word in ‘make’, a word which has always existed in one form or another throughout the entire history of the language. ‘Poet’ comes from the Greek where it means much the same as ‘Makar’ – creator, maker, composer. But we tend to regard words that are derived from Latin or Greek as being prettier, or more erudite, or of higher value in our culture than words which come from Anglo-Saxon roots.

‘Makar’ places the writer of verse more on a par with carpenters and blacksmiths, rather than the Muse. It implies that writing verse is a craft (another Saxon word) that can be learned like any other through apprenticeship and lots of practice, rather than some kind of divine gift that only an elite few can have. It implies hard work rather than inspiration. Not that Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley et al didn’t work hard to learn their craft, merely that the English word ‘poet’ has for us certain mystical associations that the Romantics helped to create. The closest word in English to ‘makar’ isn’t ‘poet’, but ‘wordsmith’ – a person who forges verse through the diligent application of skill.

Traditionally the three great Makars in Scottish literature are Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. Often when some modern critics and academics refer to the Makars they mean these guys. But the word ‘makar’ enjoyed a period of rehabilitation during the Scottish literary renaissance in the early 20th century when Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Garioch, William Souter and others sought to reinvigorate the Scots language and poetic tradition. They too became known as makars.

For a while the word was used in a derogatory sense (a cartoon by Tom Leonard reads: “Makars’ Society: Gran’ meetin’ the nicht tae decide the spellin’ o’ this poster” Intimate Voices, 1984) and it is true that MacDiarmid et al unwittingly took Scottish literature down a bit of a cul-de-sac of pedantic squabbling over precise definitions of words, and what was authentically Scots and what wasn’t. Fortunately, the work of poets like Tom Leonard, Edwin Morgan, Carol-Anne Duffy, Liz Lochhead and countless others have taken Scottish poetry on a more outward-looking, international course in the late 20th century and into the 21st century.

Nowadays, we are not so caught up with ourselves and questions about national identity and cultural differentiation – devolution in 1999 has made us feel more secure about being Scottish. Now we are able to apply the word ‘makar’ confidently and unselfconsciously to the men and women throughout Scotland’s enormously rich literary history who took common, and uncommon, words and made them into works of great and lasting value.