Ahead of her appearance at A Write Highland Hoolie, we caught up with poet and playwright, Jackie Kay
Two years ago, the award-winning Glaswegian writer Jackie Kay was appointed Scotland’s Makar.
“I love being Makar,” Jackie says, smiling broadly. “I can’t imagine a greater honour than being asked to be a country’s national poet.”
The Scottish Government-appointed post of Makar lasts for five years, and though the highlights so far have been many, one in particular stands out.
“Reading my specially-written poem – Threshold – in front of my parents at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in July 2016 was a highlight.“The Queen was also in attendance and one stanza of my poem says: Good day Ma’am, Ma’am, good day, Good morning Helen and John Kay. It was lovely to be able to include my parents, who adopted me when I was only days old, in the same verse as the Queen.
“After the ceremony, my dad, who is 91, told me it was one of the best days of his life and my mum said, ‘Who would ever have thought that the wee baby we brought home in a basket would one day be up there as Makar?’
“They’re very proud of me,” Jackie continues. “But I’m as proud of them as they are of me. I’m so lucky to have John and Helen Kay as my mum and dad.
“I’m equally proud of my son, Matthew, who makes amazing documentary films. He’s only 28 and he’s such a brilliant person. If I’d done nothing else with my life other than bring Matthew into the world, that would have been just fine.”
However, Jackie Kay MBE has no shortage of achievements against her name. Among her long list of highly-acclaimed work, she has won awards for a collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers; her first novel, Trumpet; and bestselling memoir, Red Dust Road.
“Scotland has a very supportive creative community”
“As the third Makar, I’m following in the footsteps of two wonderful poets who I first met in the early days of my writing – Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead,” says Jackie.
“Edwin Morgan was a fabulous human being and poet. Latterly, Mum and I would visit him in his nursing home where we always had great discussions about poetry.
“Liz is such a good friend. She’s been a huge influence on me and has always been there – one of the first poetry readings I ever did was in Scunthorpe with Liz.
“Scotland has a very supportive creative community,” she says. “I started writing poems when I was still at school and I was given so much encouragement by Scottish writers, including Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray, who was the first writer I ever met.”
In fact, it was Alasdair who recognised Jackie’s talent. He also inspired the then 17-year-old to follow a career in writing rather than acting.
“My English teacher sent me to see Alasdair after she’d read my poems. As Alasdair opened his front door to me, he said, ‘There’s no doubt about it at all in my mind, you are a writer.’
“I repeated those magic words all the way home. They seemed to grant me a lease of life.”
Having very successfully lived up to Alasdair Gray’s words, as Makar, Jackie is keen to encourage Scotland’s next generation of writers.
“This is a good time to be a poet in Scotland, although I don’t think there’s ever been a bad time. Scotland’s always been very rich culturally.”
The Role Of Scotland’s Poet Laureate
Jackie explains that she can shape the role of Makar as she wishes – even doing a poetry reading at the remote Rannoch train station!
“I have a lot of freedom. In my five years as Makar, I want to do lots of different things, including bringing poetry to unexpected places.
“It’s my ambition to get round as many of Scotland’s islands as possible so I can stitch together a tapestry of poems, with a stanza about each island. So far, I’ve been to Shetland, Harris, Lewis and Uist. I had a wonderful time in these islands, with people coming from all over to hear me.
“Being Makar enables me to get out and about and talk to people and I love that – and I’m continually surprised by how everyone’s embraced the word ‘Makar’.
“I like it when people stop me and ask ‘Are you the Makar?’ I love the old and the new in the word and I love the fact that ‘the Makar’ is a character distinct from myself.”
“Poetry should play an active role in public life. Particularly at the moment when things are becoming increasingly worrying across the world. It’s vital to have a strong alternative voice and that voice could be poetry.
“I’d like to get a number of poets to write a poem on a topical issue. We’d then attend the Scottish Parliament so the MSPs could listen to poets instead of other politicians.
“And I’d like to do a whisky tour of Scotland with a few poets when we would all write poems about whisky,” laughs Jackie, expertly moving back into lighter territory.
A Girl From Bishy
As well as being Makar, a writer and a poet, Jackie is also the Chancellor of Salford University.
“I live between my own house in Manchester and my parents’ home in Bishopbriggs,” says Jackie.
“I always enjoy being at home in Bishopbriggs. There are lots of good memories of growing up here with my brother Maxwell.”
Helen and John Kay had also adopted Maxwell as a baby. They are passionate Communists, which perhaps explains why so many of Jackie’s memories feature political marches, which she admits aren’t a typical childhood pastime.
“I loved meeting at George Square and marching against apartheid, for peace, for the shipbuilders, shouting out chants and meeting up with other people,” she says. “And I loved our family holidays. We would go to all these different places – Mull, Campbelltown, Torridon, Lochinver, even as far as Devon.
“Of course, my childhood wasn’t always rosy. It wasn’t easy being a black kid – and a lesbian teenager – in Scotland in the 70s. There was a lot of name-calling and bullying. Some kids were expelled from school because of things they did to me.
“But it’s now 2017 and I’m 55 and lots of people have tricky childhoods.
“My son had a very different childhood to me. He grew up in an area where there were lots of black people. He possibly shared my feelings of being different from other children – but for Matthew, that was because his mum was a lesbian rather than his colour.
“But, like me, my son grew up with a lot of love. I poured all of my interests into him – and the more you pour into a kid, the more they get out of life, which is a philosophy I’ve borrowed from my amazing parents.”
“Poetry holds up a unique mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul”
Jackie grew up knowing she was adopted and that her birth father was Nigerian and her birth mother Scottish.
“I feel strongly Scottish and strongly Nigerian,” explains Jackie, who wrote about finding her birth parents in Red Dust Road, a book she describes as “a love letter to my adoptive parents”.
“When I’m in Nigeria, despite having been born and brought up in Scotland, I feel strangely at home. However, people from more than one place often find that happens. That’s probably going to be the way of the world.
“In years to come, I think people like George Mackay Brown, who never move from the place of their birth, are going to be very, very unusual.
“Scotland has become a multi-tongued, multi-ethnic community. Poetry holds up a unique mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul. As Makar, my ambition is to reflect the true face of today’s Scotland. Syrian refugees, Doric Scots, Nigerian Scots, Muslim Scots, Gaelic Scots… We’re all Scots and poetry can help bring us together.”
You can catch Jackie Kay’s poetry live at the Mallaig book festival,
A Write Highland Hoolie, November 9-11.
Click here to find out more.
This interview originally appeared in The Scots Magazine March 2017 issue.