Founder of the Scottish Poetry Library

Born: July 8, 1938;
Died: September 2, 2015.

TESSA RANSFORD, who has died of cancer aged 76, was an editor, translator and activist and the founder-director of the Scottish Poetry Library. With a group of strong supporters, among them some of the most distinguished poets of the time, she established the library in 1984 and devoted herself to its work, including the creation of a new building which was opened in 1999.

She was the daughter of Sir Alister and Lady Torfrida Ransford – her father was Master of the Mint in Bombay and responsible for all the coinage for the British forces east of Suez. Among her first memories of Scotland were her bleak schooldays at St Leonards, where she was already writing poetry and discovering, in the school library, the work of Rabindranath Tagore which put her in touch with her “Indian self”. Ransford has paid tribute to her parents as very enlightened and the family, once settled in Scotland, became involved in Edinburgh cultural circles.

As a student at Edinburgh Universlty, Ransford was influenced by the philosophy of John MacMurray and also studied German under Eudo C Mason, who was an authority on Rilke – a lifelong love
of Ransford’s – and who strongly encouraged her appreciation of poetry.
Ransford could be said to belong to an Edinburgh University tradition of philosopher-poets, including younger colleagues such as Walter Perrie and Robert Calder.

She married Kay Stiven, a Church of Scotland missionary, and accompanied him to Pakistan where three of their children were born. Those eight years, from 1960 to 1968, were gruelling: “We’re in the midst of a dust storm and hot dry weather,” she wrote to her parents, “we still have no air conditioner. Roland and Hilda [her son and elder daughter] have had malaria and been ill and very fractious and wan with temps up to 104.”

Back in Edinburgh, she worked at the Netherbow Centre and found a publisher for her first books of poetry. By the beginning of the 1980s she had established a relationship with Ramsay Head Press and her collection Fools And Angels appeared in 1984, the year in which the Scottish Poetry Library opened its doors.

The idea of the library came to Ransford as the result of a conversation with the expatriate American poet Larry Butler. She went on to gather a group of like-minded people including Angus Calder, Joy Hendry and Billy Wolfe; I came on board as the first librarian. These were heady years, with grants from the Scottish Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation but with no prospect of long-term survival for the library.

Ransford, as director, shared a salary with me, and we were backed up by voluntary helpers whose experience in the library – we hoped – would serve them well on their future paths. Taking our cue from lines of MacDiarmid – “If there is ocht in Scotland that’s worth hae’n / There is nae distance to which it’s unattached” – we sought to combine that poet’s ideation with popular appeal, to build a thoroughly Scottish collection together with extensive international stock, and with an awareness that poetry connected with the other arts and with life itself.

In 1997, the library moved from its cramped quarters in Tweeddale Court to a new building, designed by the architect Malcolm Fraser, and located further down the Royal Mile. In due course it would acquire a neighbour in the form of the Scottish Parliament.

As if the Poetry Library and her own art were not enough, Ransford founded a School of Poets that nurtured many who went on to establish reputations; by 1988 she was also the editor of Lines Review, that respected veteran of Scottish literary magazines. Its publisher, Callum Macdonald, became her second husband, and following his death in 1999 – the year in which she retired from the Poetry Library – she founded the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award for poetry pamphlets.
“The poets featured in the prize and short lists,” said Lesley Duncan, poetry editor of The Herald, “are a litany of contemporary talent and the standards of design and typography are admirably high. It could be argued that the CMMA, as it is fondly referred to, has established the companionable and inexpensive poetry pamphlet as the standard way of disseminating new poetry.”

In later years Ransford held a fellowship of the Royal Literary Fund at the Edinburgh-based Centre for Human Ecology and at Queen Margaret University, and from 2003 to 2006 she served as president of the Scottish Centre of International PEN. As ever she maintained her freelance work as poet, translator, reviewer and essayist. She was awarded the OBE, as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Paisley.

Ransford’s poetry fuses lyricism and intellectuality: not, for many, the most obvious partnership, but she told me that she never thought in terms of either/or. As well as her Indian self she expressed her Scottish self in many poetic celebrations of her country’s landscape and culture, most recently and eloquently in her collection Made in Scotland: Poems and Evocations of Holyrood Park (Luath, 2014), which is further graced by photography from Mike Knowles, a long-term visual arts collaborator and friend.

It is fitting that her valedictory collection (Luath, June 2015), bears the title A Good Cause: Ransford has been one of the most engagee of Scottish writers. Only last year she campaigned vigorously for a Yes vote in the independence referendum, and for her this was very much part of wider international causes such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Greenpeace and the like.

In her writing and in her activism at the Poetry Library and elsewhere, she was much inspired by the work of the great Scottish-international polymath Patrick Geddes and his insistence on the interconnectedness of place, work, and folk. Michael Lister has written well of Ransford’s theme of the angelic. This owed much, I believe, to a non-Christian source, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Indeed, it is a short Rilke poem, as translated by Ransford, that sums up for me her integrative vision (a phrase we favoured during and after our Poetry Library days): “Since delight has winged you / over countless previous precipices, / engineer bold bridges now / whose arching defies geometries.”