Poet. An appreciation

THERE are poets who welcome other poets, and poets who assume a vatic air of superiority, secure in their sense of unassailable self-worth.

I’ve met both kinds, and while sometimes the latter are indeed fine poets on the page, you wouldn’t want to share a long train journey with them. And it’s no measure of quality, in the end.

Some of the best are of the former company, and David C Purdie was a poet of this kind. Companionable, always in dialogue, actual or imagined, never simply given to pronouncement as if from on high.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1940 and worked as a joiner in the city and as an insurance agent in Midlothian. This aspect of his character and career characterised his poems: practical, literal, with an immediate, everyday sense of what’s useful in the world.

The Scots language and the sense of voice was at the heart of all his poems. His first collection was entitled The Biggers (Dunbar: Calder Wood Press, 2008). “The Biggars” (the word means “builders”) begins like this: "We are the biggars, puir buggers,/the lads that pits ruifs owre yer heids:/we’re brickies an jyners and sclaters,/an plumbers an penters an spreids."

It’s a poem in praise of tradesfolk, those whom middle-class, bourgeois folk, and even aristos and landowners, cannot live without, who, in the class system or feudal legacy of social strata, are so often, so easily undervalued. These folk wear “wellies an glaury auld duds” and their sweat, blood and spittle are impregnated with “the stour o cement an o timmer”. They are the craftsmen who lay floors, repair ceilings and roofs, and build our homes, beyond the provenance even of draughtsmen and architects.

Purdie’s work in the building trade and his innate understanding of the Scots language, his own tongue, among the folk he grew up with and knew best, informed all his best poetry. He spoke Scots naturally, as a native, regularly reviewing for Lallans, the Scots language magazine.

He sang for 25 years as a tenor in The Kevock Choir, was a member of the Penicuik Writers’ Group and the School of Poets, and with Neil MacCallum, recorded poems by Sydney Goodsir Smith for the sound archive Scotsoun, now in the Scottish Poetry Library.

He was on the committee responsible for commissioning the sculptor David Annand’s lovely statue of Robert Fergusson now in place loping down the Royal Mile towards the Scottish Poetry Library, outside the Canongate Kirk, in whose grounds the remains of Burns’s lover Nancy Maclehose (“Clarinda”) are interred, along with those of Fergusson himself, marked by a headstone that Burns sponsored, and about which Robert Garioch wrote one of his finest Edinburgh sonnets, “At Robert Fergusson’s Grave”. So: Fergusson, Burns, Garioch: a distinctive tradition of Scots language poets, among whom David Purdie is in good company.

His poetry appeared in many magazines, and he won a handful of prizes. He translated into Scots, including the English poets William Barnes, Oliver Goldsmith and S.T. Coleridge, and most remarkably, The Gododdin of Aneirin (Calder Wood Press, 2009), from ancient Brythonic (Old Welsh).

He wrote that he felt attracted to translating this because “the Gododdin was a Lothian tribe who feasted and caroused for a year … in their chief fort where Edinburgh Castle now stands. I can see them in my mind’s eye riding off to their doom down that rocky ridge now called the Royal Mile.”

Perhaps his most haunting, lasting poem is The Warld Nixt Door, for which he was shortlisted for the McCash prize, and which is reprinted in The Smeddum Test: 21st-Century Poems in Scots (Kilkerran: Kennedy & Boyd, 2013). This is how it begins: "Hyne awa at the dwyne o day,/whaur lift an sea ir nacrous gray,/an the jyne atween is scantlins seen,/the’r a glimp o a warld nixt door.

"Whaur the tirnin yirth scliffs the lift,/ye’ll see the hinger slichtlie shift,/syne glamourie licht i the gloam o nicht,/sypes in frae the warld nixt door."

We might think of David Purdie among those Scots language poets who have gone before, the tradespeople and working men and women he knew, even among the carousing warriors of the Godothin, and among older Scots-speaking family and friends, in “the warld nixt door”. He is in good company.