Four Scottish Poets: A Smirr of Myth

The purpose of this article is to follow a thread through a handful of poems by four Scottish poets. This thread is a mythical or numinous pervasion of their verse in differing degrees and differing ways. It does not claim that all their poetry is on a mythical or numinous theme, but that this mythical spirit inhabits a great deal of their verse.

The word numinous will be used in this article in a simplistic way, meaning an 'animated' natural world - where 'animate' retains all of its etymological origins. The use of the word numinous is not intended to invoke specific theories connected with it. One might relate it to the word local that is so often used in the poetry of John Burnside, and which seems to have an ambiguity of meaning: at once, a localised place but, perhaps more pertinently, something true to its origins, non-globalized, and with the hint of its own genius loci. Burnside describes a “blanking out” by the snow, “till everything/is one/wide/incognito;/and all the world is local” (Burnside, 2011, p.54), and he describes Adam and Eve walking in their garden “stunned with local wonder” (Burnside, 2000, p.20). It is possible to locate a numinosity in the pristine or unspoiled essence of the “local”. We feel this spirituality of nature as something we are losing or may have, in part, already lost:

“When they were flesh and blood, these deities

Were local, like the fauna” (Burnside, 2011, p.52).

Where do we find the mythical, the spiritual, or the numinous? Is it located anywhere? Common sense tells us that locations are a matter of geography and an awareness of our own position relative to other places. The mythical and the spiritual are elsewhere; they do not have coordinates. Yet mythical thought is not so simply extruded from the here and there. Indeed, some might say that it has a particular immediacy of presence.

Ernst Cassirer in Mythical Thought talks of “that dynamic which belongs to the essence of every true spiritual form of expression. In every such form the rigid limit between 'inside' and 'outside', the 'subjective' and the 'objective', does not subsist as such but begins, as it were, to grow fluid...each, rather, is reflected in the other, and only in this reciprocal reflection does each disclose its own meaning" (Cassirer, 1955, p. 99).

The spiritual and the mythical, therefore, may have a simultaneity of location: a location that is blurred and strengthened at the same time. It is a location that inheres in the body as much as it does in what the body sees or almost sees. But this “dynamic” implies it is not purely located in the body nor outside it, but brings these two locations together congruously and not conterminously - just as we may glimpse something, fleetingly, in that outside world, so may we glimpse something within ourselves.

In his poem The Dance of Life, John Burnside writes:

"Be quick when you switch on the light

and you'll see the dark

was how my father put it:


the otherlife of things

before a look

immerses them" (Burnside, 2000, p.42).

What seems to be implied here is not a separation or estrangement from the world, but a world that is glimpsed or seen in the space between there and 'almost there'. Like the hunted prey in The Fair Chase:

'...but now and then, the beast was almost there,

glimpsed through the trees,

or lifting its head from a stream" (Burnside, 2011, p.3).

The glimpsed stag

There is a similar ‘there’ and ‘not-there’ in Robin Robertson's poem Swimming in the Woods:

"When she stopped, the water stopped,

and the sun re-made her as a tree,

banded and freckled and foxed


I stare at the wet shape on the tiles

till it fades; when she came and sat next to me

after her swim and walked away

back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly" (Robertson, 2006, p.18).

The only sensible trace left behind, the watermark, is in the process of evaporating, which, in combination with the almost dryadic description of the swimmer, imparts a slow infusion of the magical and the mythical to the poem.

But it is not simply the external world that is uncertainly formed and placed: the poet, the observer, is also partially or wholly hidden, as if they too might be trying to avoid capture:

"...the silence takes time

to reassemble around me

like a dream retrieved.

No one will find me here" (Robertson, 2006, p.46).

This sense is echoed in Kathleen Jamie's The Tree House, in which she says: "Here/ I was unseeable." (2004, p.41)

With Jamie, the numinous is chiefly brought out by a sense of injustice or in a heightened expression of that injustice. The poem ends by observing that the treehouse is being held, atlas-like, by the tree and yet it is made of dead trees, of “planks and packing chests”:

"a gall

we've asked the tree to carry

of its own dead, and every spring

to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall" (p.43).

Tree house

In much of Jamie's poetry she hints at the ecological lament: that something more powerful than ourselves (despite being ourselves, collectively) is destroying something that is greater than us.

In Flight of the Birds the poet asks:

" - Suppose as a last ditch, we gathered

empty-handed at the town's edge and called

each bird by name, might we yet prevail

upon wren, water rail, tiny anointed goldcrest

to remain within our sentience in this,

the only world?" (2004, p.39)

It is a truism that we love more what we are losing or have lost, but there is clearly a sense of bereavement in the tone of Jamie's poetry that mourns not only the destruction of nature but also, equally importantly, humanity's loss of contact with nature. It is, perhaps, this sense of loss that intensifies a feeling for nature: making that feeling, not a pathetic fallacy as some might call it, but an identification with the numinous, the mythical in nature - an identification born of the fact that the numinous or mythical is both present in body and world. This intermingled, interconnectedness of the world has, perhaps in a more ominous than numinous tone, a strident clarity in Robert Crawford's Columban (1999):

"Steelworks are flailing through the oceans,

Dirtying them as they migrate.

Dying patients, the newborn in incubators

Each have their own long, caring numbers,

Tags on the red legs of birds." (p.14)

In his satirical poems, Laughing Giftball and Zero, which deal with nuclear weaponry, there is an even more ominous and closer intermingling at an atomic level. In Deincarnation (1999), the world is siphoned off into binary code:

"Each daybreak laptops siphon off the glens


Digitized, blue, massive Roshven

Loses its substance


Each loch beyond is cleared of itself

Gaelic names, flora, rainfall

So close, the tangible spirited away,

Cybered in a world of light." (p.65)

Here, however, in this intermingling, both nature and humanity lose their identities and in their coincidence are, in their essence, destroyed; the opposite of reincarnation.


It is vividly different to his poem Pollenation (1999) that alludes to the arrival of Christianity in Scotland in the form of St. Columba. But that form has an equally fluid, aqueous feel to it:

"Clogging thatched roots, dampened masses

Meld with bleared weather and mellow lowing of cows;


Downpoured through heat's bodiless shimmer" (p.3).

Some may say that it is reading too much into it to take great note of the rain as it appears in Scottish poetry. After all, the rain is commonplace in Scotland and perhaps therefore commonplace in written verse. However, in this poem there is the suggestion of a confluence of land and sea, the phrase “bleared weather” giving the image of a blended, fluid world. Similarly, the mythic and the numinous, pervasive presences in the world and in these Scottish poems, are blended, mutually merging entities - it is implied in much of this poetry that our relationship with them should be equally congruous and engaged.

It is water that effects the change in Robertson's The Death of Actaeon (2006), when Artemis throws a handful into his face and he is transformed into a stag - the fateful but complete merging of man and animal. Yet, as he is being savaged by his dogs, the poet writes:

"Drowning now,

his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,

as if a god was being born

- not a mortal soul transformed and torn apart" (p.16).

It is as if this transformation were something almost to aspire to - an apotheosis in the meeting of man and nature. And if that is overstating it, then we may see nonetheless, within the union of the world and humanity where it is divided, a salvation. It is salvation that we appear to be far from obtaining, yet it can be glimpsed:

"I remember a meadow at dusk

in another rain

(and this is nostalgia now); I remember

I stood in a wind like gossamer and watched

three roe fawns and a doe

come quietly, one by one, through the silvering grasses,

wary, but curious, giving me just enough space

to feel safe,

their watchfulness reminding me of something

lost, a creaturely

awareness I could only glimpse" (Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012, 2013, p.11).

'Smirr' meaning gentle rain Scottish

The beginning of the intimation of this exchange, an exchange not only between species but between nature in nature and humanity estranged from nature, is expressed in White-sided Dolphins, where the dolphins match speed with a boat:


just for a short time

we travelled as one


'took it in turn

to swoon up through our pressure wave,

careen and appraise us

with a speculative eye" (Jamie, 2004, p.22).

Perhaps it is not so much an estrangement from the world but a world which is only half glimpsed. Yet this sense of the mythical, because it is 'located' in both the body and in the world, is a means of finding a reconciliation between man and nature, a correspondence. One might also ask: what better medium than poetry could there be to effect this reconciliation? In Pipistrelles (2004) Jamie writes:

"till the air seemed to quicken

and the bats were a single

edgy intelligence, testing their idea

for a new form

which unfolded and cohered

before our eyes" (p.30).

The expressive form of poetry can, in itself make a new form, blending the numinous with our ordinary vision of things. It can possibly erase that false distinction between man and nature, natural and fabricated. The hope is that it can reestablish a connection that has that same immediacy of the mythical.

"The rain showers

release you from a broken tune

but when the sun blinks, as it must,

how you'll sparkle -

like a fountain in a wood

of untold fountains" (Jamie, 2004, p.7).


Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 2: Mythical Thought. Yale University Press.

Burnside, J. (2000).The Asylum Dance. Jonathan Cape.

Burnside, J. (2011). Black Cat Bone. Jonathan Cape.

Robertson, R. (2006) Swithering. Picador.

Jamie, K. (2004). The Tree House. Picador.

Crawford, R. (1999). Spirit Machines. Jonathan Cape.

Burnside, J (2013). Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012. In C. MacDougall and Z. Strachan (Eds.), Black Middens: New Writing Scotland 31. ASLS.

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Oliver Nicholson

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