Welcome to the Kingdom of Fife! On occasion, a place of haar and tragic mystery, as we heard last night. Today it may not quite be the sunbather’s paradise that Scotland has been for most of the tour, but it’s bright behind the clouds, and the motorway coming into St Andrews is lined with bright yellow and blue wildflowers.
We pass a man wearing a National Collective t-shirt as we come into the town – we cheer but I don’t think he heard us. Once we’re tucked into the tumbling streets of the old town, we manage to have a sit – down meal together, not a usual occurrence on tour. We even get the odd few minutes to actually talk to one another. There’s a flurry of activity over dinner as we cover eventualities for Stirling. ‘Can we get 300 yellow ponchos by tomorrow morning? No? Okay, thanks anyway.’
We assemble in the Trinity Church Hall for our penultimate Yestival event. This one is unusual, entirely poetry. St Andrews feels like a literary sort of place. Poets, argumentative buggers that they are (when they’re doing it right) have an interesting place in Scotland’s cultural history. Dunbar and MacDiarmid’s all-guns-blazing flytings, the infinite number of Robert Burnses we’ve created over the years, the clear-eyed lyricism of Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown.
Jenny Lindsay’s hosting tonight, this being very much her field of expertise. We’ve got Brian Johnstone again, this time with musical accompaniment from Richard Ingham. He visits four points in time, past and future, in Scotland’s political history. Then Anna Crowe’s poem Tentsmuir Flora examines the idea that existing native flowers only show a moment in time, the idea of what is native is fluid and changeable. Past moments are held in the earth, a shellfish midden in the garden. People change too, becoming native and leaving, Fife remaining, stretched between Forth and Tay like a vellum skin.
Milton Balgonie kicks off the second half with an unpublished Burns poem – about the bard’s first Vindaloo. Its provenance may be challenged by leading scholars. But that’s one of the great things about the traditional Scottish attitude to poetry – it’s there to be spoken and twisted and reused and transformed and made new. It’s not sacrosanct for keeping in books. My great-auntie Florrie said everyone should know at least one Burns poem by heart. She was also a great believer in making your own. Another auntie, who’s dropped in for a little bit of the show, tells us she’s been writing lately too.
Billy Kay invokes another great poetic ghost, reciting Robert Ferguson’s words. Ferguson was a student here, and still features as a character in the university’s Kate Kennedy parade, when students dress up as famous alumni and tour the streets. And then we’re into Dunbar himself – his Remonstrance to the King, persuading him to leave Stirling and come back to Edinburgh. The line between poet and politician was not a clear one in Dunbar’s Scotland. Then Kay moves into his own words, recalling his mother’s early memories of being taught the Red Flag in an Ayrshire mining town, and the betrayal of those principles by Labour, now toom tabards, who sing the Red Flag soft and douce. The people’s flag lies rent and torn.
Robert Crawford conjures up the faces of modern Scottish politics in medieval-style grotesquerie – oh, whit a big parade! He’s a great performer, too, his words as much at home in the air as on the page, declarations and testaments. His poem, A Scottish Constitution, has been on our minds all tour – we had it printed on postcards to hand out at Summerhall.
One of the things we’re trying to do here at National Collective is bring the poetry back into politics – get that attitude back that says we don’t leave it to professional politicians, or indeed professional poets – but we all have a voice and words of our own to add to the conversation. The very act of voicing thoughts is powerful in itself.
Jamie finishes the night with No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, his voice ringing out through the church hall. At the back, I link arms with Jenny and Rós and Zara and we sing along, shoulders to the wheel.