On National Poetry Day Gavin Bell joins a postman poet on his rounds

of Kintyre, where inspiration seems to hang in the salty air and the

muse can be encountered on any bend on the road

IT WAS the two heifers blocking a narrow road near Machrihanish that

made Angus Martin stop and think. He was behind schedule with his

morning postal deliveries, and he was irritated by the hold-up. Then he

thought: ''My destination isn't going to move. I'm still going to get

there; just a wee bit later.'' So he sat back in his van and admired the

young cows, and by the time they moved on the outline of a poem was

taking shape in his mind.

A few hours later, Martin sat on a deserted beach watching the grey

Atlantic rollers breaking on the shore. Then he lit a pipe, and wrote a

poem about the absurdity of allowing the demands of the clock to

interfere with the natural rhythms of life. He called it Two Heifers At


It often happens like this with Angus Martin, the postman-poet of

Campbeltown. He'll be driving along on his rural rounds, thinking of

nothing in particular, when he'll see or experience something that will

summon his muse.

On another occasion, watching fishermen emptying their lobster creels

inspired an allegorical verse in which a human ends up in a ''keep box''

-- the last resting place of lobsters.

''I find this job very conducive to both thinking and writing

poetry,'' he says. ''As you can see, it's relatively stress-free, and

quite pleasant most of the time.''

We are bumping along a muddy track meandering over the green hills of

south Kintyre, past farms and whitewashed cottages, with flocks of gulls

and rooks wheeling in the fields. Washing lines are snapping in a fresh

breeze, and friendly sheepdogs trot up for a pat as Martin delivers his


''I can say I'm quite happy doing this job. One of the benefits is

that at the end of the day I can lock up the van and go home, and forget

my work till the morning. That keeps my head clear for my own

thoughts,'' he says.

It is just as well for Martin that he enjoys his ''day job'', because

he would be hard-pressed to support his family on his income from

writing poetry. Although well regarded in the writing fraternity, and

lauded by the Scottish Arts Council, there is limited public demand for

his verse. His last royalty cheque, from a collection of poems, was for

#2. He has had five other books published, on social history and the

fishing industry, but they have not made much money either.

He accepts this state of affairs philosophically: ''Obviously, poetry

doesn't have a wide popular appeal, and I don't see how that can ever

change much. It will probably remain a minority interest. That's just

the way it is.''

In any case, Martin is happier driving his red post van around Kintyre

six days a week than he would be locked away in an ivory tower with his

muse. ''I don't think I could just write poetry. It could be done, of

course. You could shut yourself away and just write, but I prefer

society. I think it's more sensible to keep active in the world, and to

move around people.''

It is still hard to make ends meet on his salary, with three young

daughters to bring up, and he is deeply grateful to the Scottish Arts

Council for its support. A bursary awarded this year, designed to give

him more time to write, was very welcome. ''In a sense, I don't approve

of hand-outs,'' he says. ''If you're a writer you'll write, even if all

you have is a candle and a stub of pencil. But there are times when a

financial lift is necessary, and that's where the Arts Council does

really good work.''

Martin's job helps him in other ways. Working in a traditional, rural

community he hears old Scots expressions which are peculiar to the area,

or which have died out in other parts of the country; he collects such

words and phrases for the Scottish National Dictionary project in

Edinburgh, and incorporates many of them in his poetry, which is

increasingly influenced by Scots idioms.

But most of all it is being in the open air, and having time to

reflect on nature and history, that inspires and breathes life into his

poetry. He recently stumbled across a small, bronze-age site while

hill-walking, and four poems came from the discovery. At Ballygregan

Farm, an old, grey place on a hill, he says: ''There was an ancestor of

mine, Colin McGuiness, who lived here a couple of hundred years ago.''

He says it as if it was yesterday.

Before joining the Post Office 16 years ago, Martin was a herring

fisherman and his ties to the sea remain strong. Weather permitting, his

favourite spot for contemplation and composition is a remote beach where

his only company is gulls and sometimes starlings flitting above the

flying spray.

He will not be participating in any of today's National Poetry Day

events, partly because he has not been invited to do anything and partly

because he is reluctant to organise anything himself. He is a

soft-spoken, modest man who does not impose himself on the community he

lives in. ''I usually do only one reading a year. There's only so much

you can do in a small place like this.''

He has not cultivated a wider audience because he is happy where he

is, and he dislikes travelling. Family holidays are spent a few miles

away in a caravan at Southend. He has never driven on a motorway, and

doubts if he ever will. A forthcoming jaunt to Edinburgh, to take his

daughters to the zoo and the National Museum, will be undertaken by bus

and train.

So while other poets are rushing around today on reading tours, Angus

Martin will be driving his van at its usual sedate pace through the

Kintyre countryside, with a notebook in his pocket and his thoughts

drifting towards the birds and the animals around him.

This suits him fine -- he can live without fame and fortune, and he's

not sure he deserves them anyway. ''I don't rate myself particularly

highly as a poet,'' he says. ''I've some merit, no doubt, but if I was

using a football analogy I wouldn't put myself in the premier league.

I'd be somewhere near the bottom of the first division, I think.'' He

pauses reflectively, then says: ''But then, the potential's aye there,

isn't it?''

At the other end of the country, on the Isle of Lewis, another poet

has taken the bold step of resigning from a secure job to devote himself

to full-time writing.

Ian Stephen, a coastguard at Stornoway for 10 years, made the move

this year after winning a literary award and being granted a Scottish

Arts Council bursary. His prize in the inaugural Robert Louis Stevenson

award, sponsored by the international distribution company Christian

Salvesen, was two months in a French village frequented by Stevenson and

other writers and artists in the 1870s. The outcome was a new collection

of poems which will be published soon.

Free for the first time to concentrate on his writing, Stephen

developed a systematic approach in France which he was loath to

surrender on his return to Lewis. After discussing the options with his

wife, who has a part-time job in the voluntary sector, he decided to

make the break from HM Coastguards.

''It wasn't an easy decision to make, especially since I liked my job

and it was secure and reasonably well paid,'' he recalls. ''We knew we

would take a drop in earnings, but in the end we decided it would be

worth it in terms of having a more balanced life. The award and the

bursary made it a lot easier, of course, and now we're quite happy with

the move.''

Like his kindred spirit in Kintyre, Ian Stephen has been strongly

influenced by his ''day job'' -- seafaring themes pervade much of his

writing, and maritime rescue operations, in particular, have produced

several short stories. Of one of his poetry collections, a Herald

reviewer wrote: ''His main subjects -- seas, winds and tides, shorelines

and horizons -- are expressed in precisely observed details of shape,

colour, texture and movement that capture the spirit of a place as well

as the topography.''

Stephen says: ''The coastguard job was very good for subject matter.

It gave me a lot in terms of experience and contact with the rest of the

world, but writing had to take second place, which was frustrating. I'm

much happier now.''

Finances are tight, with two young sons to support, but Ian Stephen

manages to keep his family above the fiscal Plimsoll line with freelance

journalism and occasional poetry readings on radio and television. He

will not be featuring in any events today, however.

He is busy completing his new collection of poetry, working on a

novel, and preparing to return to France to give a series of readings

and workshops at international schools. It seems likely that Robert

Louis Stevenson would approve.