Kathleen Jamie is about to stand down as Makar, our poet laureate. She talks to our Writer at Large about identity politics, the Yes movement, climate change and hating interviews

In an age of immediate answers, when everyone has an opinion before they have even heard the question, Kathleen Jamie is unique. She is like the last of a lost species, a survivor from a past time when people thought slowly so they’d come to the right conclusion– not the easy one.

Indeed, the demands of this interview literally pained her.

When I emailed Jamie, after we spoke, she said the experience of being asked to respond so quickly to complex questions left her feeling “really bruised – out of my depth, muddled and floundering. That’s why I am a writer – it gives me time to think and rewrite, advance and retreat”.

That trait undoubtedly makes her such a great Makar. Jamie has been Scotland’s national poet since 2021. She’s about to stand down from the role.

Her departure – and the release of her intimately beautiful new book Cairn – is the reason we’re talking. Jamie’s publicist asked for this interview to take place.

Yet, for the first time, I felt guilty during an interview. It’s not that I pressed Jamie the way I might a politician. We’re on friendly terms – I hope. There were moments of laughter during our discussion.

However, as we talked, I realised that for a woman of such intellect, for a writer who cherishes nuance, the demands of the media are such a curse that the experience is capable, as she said, of “reducing me to tears”.

Contentious political debate sends her “anxiety levels sky-high”. So I went softly – but, evidently, I probed. She’s our national poet, after all, and people are interested in her views about the nation, but I tried to make the experience as gentle as possible.

She squirms in the spotlight. That’s certainly curious for a public figure, but it’s hard not to respect this side of Jamie’s character, when everywhere people thirst for attention. Dignity defines her.

That desire to flee from the world is present throughout our conversation. She tells me that although she has “quite enjoyed” being Makar, and will “probably miss” the role, she aches to sit alone in her “garret” once she steps down later this summer. Isn’t that proof of the poetic soul?

In another first in my career, when I listened to the recording of our discussion, there is more of my voice than of Jamie’s, and long periods of silence where she searches for the right words before deciding to answer. So Jamie isn’t an easy interview, but believe me, it’s rewarding to talk to her. When she finally does offer an opinion, you get a true glimpse into her mind, and know that what she’s telling you is honest.

Despite her aversion to publicity, Jamie had to confront the limelight on becoming Makar.

One of her first duties was attending the state opening of Holyrood in 2021. “I stood on a wee balcony, looking down on the late Queen, Nicola Sturgeon, and all her ministers. The Queen is gone, Nicola Sturgeon is wherever Nicola Sturgeon is, and sometimes you think ‘I’m the last one standing’.”

It’s an apt thought. Her new book Cairn reflects on her life. She’s now aged 60. The “cairn” makes a fitting metaphor: a small tower of rocks, a little work of art, standing alone in the landscape, placed there as a marker saying “I was here”.



Jamie’s latest work ‘Cairn’



Jamie wrote a poem for the opening of Parliament called The Morrow-bird. It exhorts politicians to “seek good governance … Act bold. Be kind. Stay strong”. As Makar, Jamie wrote poems about COP26, the Ukraine invasion, and the Queen’s death. The last wasn’t easy. “I’m no royalist,” she explains.

Initially, she considered a “dignified silence” but realised the magnitude of the event meant “it needed some response”. She adds: “ I thought ‘come on, you’re the national poet, this is a national event par excellence. It’s your role to keep poetry at the heart of national life, so sit down – write’.”

As a citizen, however, Jamie hoped the death of the Queen might “simply draw a line and not take the monarchy forward. She’d have been the perfect last monarch. Of course, that didn’t happen, but I thought we could just end it there. I’d time for the Queen. Yes, there’s all the wealth and privilege, but she’d a sense of public service which we’re sadly lacking in public life today”.

Anyone acquainted with Jamie’s poetry knows just how connected her writing is to nature and the Scottish landscape.

She initially intended to focus her Makarship on climate change – a perfect marriage of theme and writer.

“What else is worth writing about?” Jamie asks. “If not our relationship to the world we’re living in … The public isn’t angry enough. If the worst predictions come true, we’re going to be in a hell of a mess. If we’re losing agricultural land hand over fist, how will we feed ourselves? If ocean temperatures are going through the roof, we’re talking about the death of the seas. It’s serious.”

Jamie makes clear that she isn’t, however, “an activist. I’m a writer”. That turns her thoughts to modern-day Scottish activism and “the stramash” recently when the Edinburgh Book Festival ended its relationship with sponsor Baillie Gifford, following pressure from protesters over links to fossil fuels and Israel. The Borders Book Festival followed suit.

“Is that the right way to go?” Jamie asks. She and other leading writers criticised the move in an open letter.

“Getting rid of [Ballie Gifford] so suddenly endangers a festival which brings together all the human attributes which will navigate us through [the climate crisis].

“We’re all flawed. We’re all – in the West – heavily implicated in the environmental crisis, from the gubbins in our smartphones to holiday flights.

“Book festivals are very low-hanging fruit.

“Taking down the very forum where we can, in a civil way, have conversations, express ideas, listen, bear witness, use our imaginations – all the things we need as we go into the future

– just felt counterproductive … Surely we can do better than this?”

She adds: “I was shocked by the hostility I heard against the festival itself … Not only against the sponsor.” It was “the usual trash”.

“Its supporters were accused of being effete, hysterical, middle-class Edinburghers.”



WHAT does she make of boycotts and no-platforming generally? “I think it’s horrible. Awful. Activism and creative writing are very different. Activists know what they want before they set out and are hell-bent to get it. Writers have no idea what they’re going to do when they start off, jotting down a few words on the back of an envelope. Several years later, you’ve written something.”

Again, it’s that slow, deliberate writerly mode of thinking, as a means of seeking personal, honest truth.

Jamie would dearly like to see companies like Baillie Gifford “disinvest” in fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean cutting them adrift. “I can hold contradictions in my head. We all can. We all do. And there are, of course, contradictions: yes, I want squeaky clean book festivals, but God knows I’ve no idea what that looks like.”

And who’s squeaky clean anyway, she ponders. All of us use “Chinese-made” technology yet barely think about “Uyghurs in wretched labour camps”.

Jamie’s sadness at the state of the world is palpable in her writing. It reflects her own unhappiness too. She wrote Cairn – a fragmentary collection of poems and short observational pieces – amid “sadnesses. My father died shortly before I began. There are griefs, undercurrents, that we all revisit”.

The melancholy in Cairn also reflects the horror she feels at “passing on to our a children a world that’s so far from perfect, and we won’t be around to fix for them. To be falsely optimistic would be a lie”.

The fragmentary style of her new book “maybe echoes our fragmentary culture”, Jamie says. In one way – perhaps the negative way – culture has “splintered” in the digital age. There’s little we watch, read or listen to together any more that provides a sense of unified culture.

However, diversity has also fragmented culture, and to Jamie that’s no bad thing. “There’s a massive corrective going on, bringing into culture people who have been sidelined. That’s absolutely necessary.” She embraces the shift away “from the white monoculture I come from”.

The fragmentation of culture has affected her writing, however. “When I started as Makar, I thought ‘can I write a national poem’? I thought ‘I can’t’, because what is that? Who is the nation, who am I speaking for? It’s so diverse and fragmented I couldn’t presume to say there’s a ‘we’ that I can speak on behalf of … I don’t feel a sense of Scottish cohesion the way I used to, the sense of a coherent country. It feels anxious, bitty.”

Then to underscore her point about holding contradictions in mind, she adds: “Having said that, we do need some unity as a species to say how we’re going to get through this.”

The way culture has atomised – particularly through social media, which you’ll sometimes, remarkably, find Jamie using – makes “concentrating harder”, she says. That’s not good for any intellectual. “I’m aware of it in a way 20-year-olds probably wouldn’t be, and I know how to get around it: just shut down everything electronic and sit in a room. Boring Sunday afternoons did us a lot of good.”






HER own children are in their mid-20s now. There’s a strain of melancholy which comes with that too. “My kids don’t actually need me as a parent any more, that sense of handing over is strong. I’m very glad they can still come to me and say ‘I’m in a pickle’. I couldn’t have done that with my parents. The fact they can come to me with their emotional upsets – I’m secretly proud of that.”

Did she have issues with her parents she wished had been resolved? Her mother is also dead. Jamie replies: “From the moment they were born, I absolutely decided I was going to tell my kids that I loved them, there were going to be in no doubt. That’s made for a very happy relationship.”

She wants to be “a granny”. However, the roles of “wife, mother and daughter” never sat easily with Jamie. She “loves being those things”, but “didn’t feel they were conducive to my creative practice. I am those things, but they’re not integral. It’s not my identity, as kids would say now”.

The modern attitude to identity troubles her. Jamie says her generation saw “identity as something to be transcended, but the young today wrap themselves in their identities”, adding: “My generation thought identity was to be overcome, that identity was a burden, like a backpack. The young have their identities in front, pushing them like wheelbarrows or supermarket trolleys. I don’t know which is right, but it’s a big generational difference.”

The conversation about identity turns to the thorny issue of whether writers should “stay in their lane”. In other words: white novelists, for example, shouldn’t assume to write about the experiences of black characters.

Yet don’t need writers to be able to think – to imagine – themselves into the lives of people who are different to them? To lose that would risk empathy, no? Jamie replies by considering how important it is for writers to “think their way into the lives of other creatures, like endangered species”.

Amid the climate crisis, she adds. “We must do this to advocate for them. So we’re in a weird situation where we can think ourselves into the form of a lizard, but we can’t think ourselves into the form of our next-door neighbour. One is essential to the furtherance of the planet, the other is deemed impossible and illegitimate. Strange.

“How are we going to survive if we shut down empathy? It’s what we don’t want to happen.

“It’s a whole bloody mess, isn’t it? This moment we find ourselves in is a mighty odd one, and one I couldn’t have predicted when I was young.”

In her darkest moments, when Jamie surveys the world, she feels “stupefied, punch-drunk, scared, helpless, but then I think ‘well, I’ll be dead in 20 years’.”

However, she’s certainly not retreating from the fray. “Artists are part of the solution. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation and we’ve some skills that aren’t worth just chucking in a skip: empathy, imagination, witnessing, noticing. We need to carry those through the bottleneck we’re entering.” What is the ‘bottleneck’? “Wanton destructiveness.”

I ask if a woman of her intellect feels debate in Scotland has become petty? “Did you say petty?” she asks. “You’re probably right. We have a whole tranche of intellectual life that’s missing. We’ve no public intellectuals.”


SHE laments the state of intellectual culture in Scotland compared to Ireland or London. “We have a terrible lack of magazine culture, journal culture. Where’s the space for those long, highly-intelligent, thought-through, dare I say intellectual, reads? We haven’t got any critical culture to speak of at the moment.

“My book will be reviewed more in England than Scotland because we don’t have the space here. Where do our intellectuals go if they’ve got 5,000 words to write on whatever – where do they publish that? Absolutely nowhere.”

She questions if Scotland – home to the Enlightenment – “ever prided itself on intellectualism. I sometimes think it’s a leftover from the Reformation that means we just can’t tolerate hierarchies.

“We can’t tolerate that somebody’s smarter or more talented. We just have to keep levelling.

“Why has Ireland got more Nobel Prize winners than we’ll ever have? Because they’re more comfortable with the idea that some people are just geniuses – and the funding of course.”

She is incensed by those who think artists are elites, removed from society’s concerns. It particularly upsets her when that criticism comes from what she refers to as “the leftovers of the Yes campaign, who are now without reason and purpose and morphing into something else”. Jamie, it should be noted, supports independence, though was “late coming to the SNP”.

Independence marchers in Glasgow

“People who you’d think would be broadly in favour of art, suddenly turn around and say ‘you’re all a bunch of middle-class wankers’. You think, ‘wait a minute, do you want cultural autonomy, independence, or don’t you? Because you’re behaving in a way that suggests you don’t’.

“If you want cultural autonomy, you need people enabling that, you need artists and intellectuals without digging them down, which I’m afraid I see rather more of. Petty is the word, isn’t it? But is that not universal?”

She notes how hostile some members of the Yes movement were over the Edinburgh Book Festival’s links to Baillie Gifford. “We don’t have political autonomy, but we do, near as dammit, have cultural autonomy, and why any ‘Yes’ faction would be hostile to its expression is beyond me.”


The conversation turns to independence. “There is no ‘Yes movement’ any more,” she says. “There are certain commentators, is all.” She adds: “Were there a referendum tomorrow, I’d vote for independence, just so we can do our own stuff and try to build the country we want, but it’s been undermined at every turn. I mean, we can’t even get a bloody bottle return scheme.”

On the failure of the DRS – a simple but necessary policy amid climate change, Jamie believes – she says: “Whether it was Westminster being bloody-minded or SNP/Green failings, I don’t know. It just shows that good government isn’t prevailing. That’s the point at issue, isn’t it? That’s why we’re in such a cul-de-sac. Do we need less devolution or more? Union or independence? Well, it’s been a decade since indyref and we are stuck. To develop a pro-independence movement again, it would have to come out of politics and into civic society and onto the street, we’d need a whole new suite of younger people doing it their way. Obviously, the political vehicle has failed, the SNP.”

She pauses, considers what she’s saying, and sighs: “God, we’re not going to see independence in our lifetimes are we? We need to start again, with civic society. But I don’t have any hope that’s going to happen … I’ll always vote, but I’m beginning to understand people who say ‘I’m not going to bother, it changes nothing’. I never thought I’d say that.”

Jamie won’t, though, “pass judgment on Nicola Sturgeon and her husband” until the legal process is over.


Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon


“Our whole party system is awful. Holyrood was supposed to fix that. It was supposed to be different to Westminster. It hasn’t fixed it. We still have these stupid, petty rivalries. They’re not governing for the people, they’re just bitching at each other. Somehow as citizens we’ve allowed this to happen.

“We’ve done something wrong. It might go away if you have a massive Labour majority in Scotland [at the General Election]. It might shift something, we might stop thinking ‘they’re unionist, I’m not with them’, or ‘I like what they say but they’re independence-minded’. But the rest of the world is full of binaries like that, isn’t it?”

Would a Labour win, Jamie ponders, mean that in terms of independence “the moment is finished?”. SNP defeat will mean plenty of unionists “smirking and crowing, because that’s what they do. It’ll be awful”. Jamie has few regrets, although she’s appalled at the way older generations have “let down” the young, “even on the simple matter of getting a house. Why is that so bloody difficult? Why is it denied to them?”.

She wonders if deep in humanity’s subconscious the knowledge of the existential threat the climate crisis poses has fed into the way the world has unravelled, creating “all these anxieties, bitching and polarisation. Something bigger is pressing down on us – that a great collapse is going on – and that can only be somewhere in the back of our minds”.

However, she notes the experience of white Europeans compared to Africans, when it comes to the consequences of climate change, will be vastly different. “Western Europe and America have driven this disaster,” she says.


BLACK Lives Matter was a “real wake-up call” to her. “For the first time, I encountered a protest movement which wasn’t by me, but about me, saying ‘look at yourself, you’ve got to change’. I thought ‘that’s me telt’.” She sees the movement as one of the “most powerful moments” in recent history.

Jamie is from a relatively average middle-class family and doubts her ancestors made fortunes in the slave trade, but supports “the conversation about the colonial past and reparations. My mother’s people were coal miners, so they weren’t out there colonising or on the plantations, but doubtless we benefited from it, the wealth that surrounds us now came from somewhere. Having said that, I look out my window and see nothing but abject poverty sometimes in this country”.

She’d like to see “a whole new economic system that does away with these grotesque inequalities. A citizen’s wage would be an interesting experiment”.

Jamie adds: “We’ve got a General Election coming up. Is it going to make one iota of a difference? Labour could be an awful lot more radical.”

The lack of working-class voices in public life and the arts worries her. Austerity has smashed access to the arts for young people from low-income families. People need time to learn how to be artists, but today “folk have to work two jobs just to pay the rent … When I started out in the 1980s, you could sign on the dole and spend time developing your art. Now young people are simply hammered”.

The “bloody money is there”, she says, to fund a better society. “We know exactly where it is – offshore accounts. It’s not in our schemes, schools, hospitals or theatres.”

There’s one subject Jamie has no interest in, however: the culture war over gender and trans rights. “I don’t want to go there,” she says.

“I don’t know what to think. I understand both sides. It’s bloody sides, isn’t it? Side this, side that.”

For Jamie, the cause of the world’s misfortunes lies with our “leaders”. She sees those in power as “psychopaths, sociopaths, really quite evil people, complete narcissists”.

“How did we as a citizenry allow this to happen? How do we prevent these people getting anywhere near positions of power? You can’t become a bus driver without doing psychometric testing.”

Jamie seems tired now, so I bring the conversation to a close. “Thank you,” she says.

“I’m exhausted. I really do just want to go into my garret now and shut the door.”