MONDAY marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edwin Morgan, a literary giant of the humblest sort and a man whose long career was marked by many firsts, among them the honour of being named the inaugural Scots Makar, the national poet of Scotland.

Hailed as “an exceptional human being whose talent has touched the lives of thousands” by then First Minister Jack McConnell, Morgan was handed the mantle in 2004 by which time he had already coursed undaunted into his ninth decade with the poem At Eighty. “Push the boat out, compañeros,” it starts, “push the boat out, whatever the sea”. It ends with the exhortation: “Unknown is best, it beckons best”, a re-phrasing of one of his favourite maxims and the one which could be said to have been his guiding principle in both art and life: “Change Rules OK!”. Any way you read it, it works.

The superlatives and tributes showered on Morgan and his work would have continued for the rest of the year and into the next had the ongoing pandemic and the need for social distancing not spoiled the party. A two-day conference to be held at Glasgow University has been cancelled but some of the other planned projects are going ahead, such as Hold Hands Among The Atoms, a video channel to be hosted online, and The Second Life, an artists’ grant scheme and a nod to the title of one of his most celebrated collections. Hold Hands Among The Atoms goes live on Monday with a video titled Open The Doors!, the title taken from the poem Morgan wrote to celebrate the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. A new film exploring aspects of Morgan’s work and legacy will be posted on the 27th of each month.

In the more traditional world of paper and print, Edinburgh-based publisher Birlinn has produced The Edwin Morgan Twenties, a five-book boxset collection divided into five categories – Love, Scotland, Take Heart, Space And Spaces and Menagerie – with each book containing 20 poems. Meanwhile Glasgow-based indie publisher Speculative Books is putting out a collection of poetry drawn from an open submission and inspired by Morgan’s celebrated scrapbooks, described by them as “visually arresting, playful, dynamic … a queer visual diary, a catalogue of images, and a surreal bricolage”. They’re currently held in Glasgow University Library.

Come Monday itself the hashtag #edwinmorgan100 will be trending in Scotland as readers post their favourite poems on social media, and the event organisers have commissioned a series of digital birthday cards which can be downloaded and posted online. And, of course, many will also find the time to raise a glass or two in celebration.

Among them will be Morgan’s close friend Jackie Kay, a poet and author and the woman who currently holds the position of Makar, having assumed it from Liz Lochhead in 2016.

“I think I’ll mark it quietly myself with a wee malt in my own wee quaich, and I’ll toast him with a Talisker,” she tells me. “He wasn’t a great drinker but he’ll appreciate the toast. You always thought that he would live until 100 but in a way he has because we’ll all be thinking of him and celebrating him.”

Like many Scots, Kay first encountered the work of Edwin Morgan as a teenager, in her case at high school in Bishopbriggs in Glasgow.

“It was interesting because he was one of the few contemporary poets we studied and looked at,” she says. “I didn’t know he was gay then because he wasn’t out as a gay man, but I remember the ambiguity of the love poems because there wasn’t a direct person being addressed. I sensed from the poems that there were things not being said in his love poems that were said in others, so I was curious about that even at that age and found it interesting.”

Kay was 17 when she first heard Morgan read, at the Highland Institute in Sauchiehall Street. “He was an amazing reader of his work. He was quite diffident and shy in person but then he’d get on stage and he was absolutely hilarious. He’d have people crying with laughter, so that was really amazing. A bit after that I got to read with him myself, which was even better. I remember doing a reading with him in Cardiff when I was about 27, before I was published. There was me, Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig. It felt like an extraordinary experience.” She still has a photograph of the event.

Kay subsequently became friendly with Morgan. She visited him in the care home he moved to until his death aged 90 in 2010, and exchanged letters with him. Friendly as they were, however, it was difficult to become close to him. Kay remembers a man who could be guarded and secretive.

“I think he got into the way of being secretive after years and years of being in the closet,” she says. “I remember making a radio programme with him once called Word On the Street and I asked him about whether he missed the secrecy that being gay involved and to my surprise he said he did, because there was a great power to a secret. There was just the two of you that shared it.”

Born in Glasgow in 1920 and raised in Rutherglen, Morgan grew up an only child in a wealthy family. His father, Stanley, was the director of a company of iron and steel merchants. Morgan attended Rutherglen Academy (notable former pupils include Midge Ure and Stan Laurel) and in 1937 enrolled at Glasgow University. Called up in 1940, he registered as a conscientious objector (to the great dismay of his parents) but spent the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Middle East.

After returning to his studies in 1947 and graduating from Glasgow University in English Language and Literature he took a lecturing job in the English department. And there he stayed until retirement in 1980.

Morgan published his first poetry collection in 1952 but it was the arrival of The Second Life in 1968 that announced him as a major voice in Scottish poetry. By then he had encountered and been influenced by the American Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, and written some of the poems which remain among his most popular. That list includes The Death Of Marilyn Monroe and King Billy, about the demise and funeral of Billy Fullerton, leader of notorious Glasgow razor gang the Billy Boys.

Like Jackie Kay, the actress Elaine C Smith first encountered Morgan’s work at school, and those two poems in particular have stayed with her.

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“I remember being struck by how much it resonated culturally with me,” she says. “We’d been reading Burns before and that didn’t so much reflect where I lived and where I came from. King Billy certainly did that.” Later, when she was trying for drama school, Smith used Morgan’s The Death Of Marilyn Monroe as her audition piece and their paths crossed in person many times over the following years. “I don’t mean that we were great friends or anything like that, but I shared many a political platform with him. He was there at the inaugural meeting of artists for an independent Scotland, and as ever had great things to say – incisive, funny, and a man full of humility as well.”

For fellow actress Kate Dickie and for author and broadcaster Damien Barr, presenter of BBC Scotland’s The Big Scottish Book Club, it was a similar story.

“Edwin's poetry had a massive impact on my life,” says Dickie. “I discovered him when I was 15 in English class at school. I’d never read any contemporary poetry and I didn’t know that poems could be like stories and modern and touch me and that I could relate to and that I could get. I was blown away.”

Barr, growing up gay in a small village in Lanarkshire, had no idea that the poems he was reading celebrated the love between two men or even that their author was still alive. “I thought all poets had to be dead, but Edwin Morgan was very much still alive and very much still writing about the country that he helped shape with his words. And what an incredible thing for a poet to shape a nation – Edwin Morgan shaped our nation with his words just as surely as politicians shape it with their laws.”

As well as finding his poetic voice by the early-1960s Morgan had also found love: with John Scott, a storeman in a factory. They remained partners until Scott’s death in 1978. Meeting Scott, Morgan said in 1990, “was probably the thing that unleashed most of the poems in the 1960s … Most of them, not every one exactly, but most of them did come out of things that actually happened.” One example is Strawberries, still one of Morgan’s most popular poems. It wasn’t until 1990, however, that Morgan came out publicly as gay. Until then, his view of his own sexuality was that it was personal. What eventually changed his mind was politics.

“I think he would have felt, like a lot of people, that it wasn’t really anybody’s business,” says Kay. “But it was also a generational thing. It wasn’t that long ago from his point of view that it was illegal and as a gay man you developed a whole way of being to try to avoid being arrested. I think these habits run deep and are hard to shake off even when you’re able to. So it was partly society’s fault and partly his own reticence, being quite a private person and thinking that he didn’t need to share it until Clause 28 made him think he absolutely had to.”

A particularly spiteful and pernicious element of the 1988 Local Government Act brought in by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, Clause 28 stipulated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

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Morgan was 70 when he came out in 1990. By then he had published widely and in a dazzling array of formats, from sonnets to concrete poetry, and throughout the 1990s and in the years that followed the opening of the Scottish Parliament he found younger collaborators in other fields of artistic endeavour, particularly music. The jazz musician Tommy Smith set a series of Morgan poems about the history of the earth to music in 1997, calling the project Planet Wave. A mixture of music, poetry, electronica, samples and performance it has become a significant part of the repertoire of Smith’s National Jazz Orchestras of Scotland and was performed by it as recently as February. Meanwhile Morgan collaborated with the rock band Idlewild on their 2002 album The Remote Part and five years later two of his poems were used on The Ballad Of The Book, an collaborative album between Scottish musicians and Scottish poets curated by Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble.

As well as poetry Morgan also translated the work of others, beginning with a 1952 translation of Beowulf which is still in use today, and when he won the prestigious Soros Translation Award in 1985 he blew the prize money on a trip to Lapland on Concorde. That was the closest he ever came to space, though things stellar, cosmic and interplanetary were an abiding interest and influence. He was one of the first private citizens to put his name down for a putative space flight and his 1973 collection From Glasgow To Saturn contains such cock-eyed gems as The First Men On Mercury.

“There were certain themes he returned to again and again,” says Jackie Kay. “He wrote a lot about love, about Scotland, about changes in our society, changes in technology. He wrote a lot about life on other planets and about owning and claiming landscape … but I think the thing about him is that he can’t really be boxed into categories and that’s what’s refreshing about him.”

So as well as looking backwards and celebrating a life and the work it produced, the Edwin Morgan centenary programme is about asking Scots to look forward, as Morgan himself did, tirelessly and relentlessly.

“I think his lasting legacy is that he broke doors open,” says Jackie Kay. For her, Morgan was in the very vanguard of 20th century Scottish writers, a true pioneer, and it’s that which we should remember on Monday and for the months ahead.

“He was interested in absolutely everything. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge and his mind was amazing. There was nothing that couldn’t be included in a poem – anything that interested him, he could find a way to write about it. That’s interesting as a writer because a lot of poets aren’t necessarily like that. They might find things interesting but not be able to write about them or find a poem in them. But Eddy could find poems in the most surprising places. In that way he burst down the stable doors and let out all these horses. He has allowed people a great deal of freedom.”

And as the man himself might have said, freedom rules OK.

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