The McCash Poetry Prize

James McCash, the founder of the McCash Poetry Prize competition, was a graduate of the University of Glasgow. A trained engineer, in the 1970s he won a Glasgow Herald poetry competition which had as its theme the Walter Scott quotation, ‘This is my own, my native land!’ The competition was not specifically for poetry in Scots, but his winning entry used a modern interpretation of classical sixteenth-century Scots to admirable effect.

Subsequently Mr McCash gave a generous endowment to Glasgow University for the establishment of an annual competition for poetry in the Scots language. The competition received a new impetus and much enlarged entry when the university and The Herald newspaper agreed to run it jointly in 2003, since the Glasgow-based paper, through its terrestrial and online presence, has been able to publicise it globally.

The alliance has been a fruitful one, with the judging panels including the official Scots Makars or national poets, the late Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead, as well as Douglas Gifford, Emeritus Professor of Scottish Literature, Nigel Leask, Regius Professor of English Literature and Language, Alan Riach, poet and Professor of Scottish Literature, and Zoe Strachan, novelist and Reader in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.

In some years a particular theme has been set: ‘Heroes’ in 2005 to mark the 700th anniversary of William Wallace’s death; a reprise of ‘This is my own, my native land!’ on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union of 1707; and ‘Homecoming’ in the official Homecoming year, 2009, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth. In 2012, with the prospect of a referendum on independence for Scotland on the horizon, the theme was ‘The Pleasures of Hope’, recalling the title of a poem by Byron’s contemporary, Thomas Campbell.

Each theme was treated in a wide variety of ways, from the serious and sombre to the humorous and idiosyncratic. This was wholly welcome, since the judges have never wished to restrict poets to some limited, inward-looking view of themselves or their culture but rather have prized poems that are lively, open-minded, unprejudiced, meditative, satirical, passionate, witty – in short, in any tone that is carried through the language convincingly.

In 2012, an anthology of 101 poems co-edited by Lesley Duncan, poetry editor of The Herald, and Alan Riach, was published by Kennedy & Boyd: The Smeddum Test:21st-Century Poems in Scots.

The title (taken from one of the poems) employs that good Scots word ‘smeddum’, meaning strength of character, spirit, energy, vigorous common sense, and resourcefulness. The quality of the best poetry is always locked into a distinction of language. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that, whether the poems are written in Scots, Gaelic, or English, or any other language. All languages bear meanings that can be translated into other languages but, as the great American poet Robert Lowell has said, ‘The excellence of a poet depends on the unique opportunities of his native language.’

Scots is a language of many varieties and dialects, many uses and effects; close to English in many ways, but different from it in essence and extent when sampled in speech and writing, and most powerfully in poetry. In Scotland, for many generations, Gaelic and English have had the status of authoritative languages, while Scots has often been considered as nothing more than ‘a dialect of English’ – subordinate, or, worse, merely slang. Of course it is not. However it was not until 2011 that the National Census listed Scots alongside Gaelic and English as one of Scotland’s officially recognised languages.

From the start, the judges of the McCash Poetry Prize have taken a liberal and relaxed view of what constitutes the Scots language, so any variety or local idiom is open to consideration. Thus entries have ranged from modern re-workings of the classic Scots of the late Medieval and Renaissance Makars to MacDiarmid’s early twentieth-century literary vernacular, from a variety of regional dialects, from the South-West’s Burnsian tradition to the distinctive idioms of Shaetlan in the northernmost archipelago, to the Borders Scots of the Ballads, and from the Doric of the north-east to the urban idioms of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee.

This makes for a lively linguistic mix. And gives a cheering insight into the continued vitality of spoken Scots, in spite of past pressures to conform to standard English in the nation’s classrooms, and the perhaps more insidious pressures to linguistic conformity imposed by mass media and the internet.

Happily, spoken Scots remains irrepressible in the daily lives of the people. Our poets make full use of the additional riches of the Scots vocabulary and idiom in their work and also demonstrate how adaptable the language is in dealing not only with the evergreen themes of love and loss, mortality, and nature, but contemporary issues. Over the years, the Tian’anmen Square massacre, the Iraq War, and the Dunblane massacre are among the subjects treated with thoughtfulness and passion.

The poets themselves demonstrate the democratic nature of the creative instinct among Scots folk, whether at home or as part of the world-wide Scottish diaspora. Prizewinners have included a former miner and psychiatric nurse, a North-Sea oil worker, a woman who achieved her university doctorate at the age of 79, a New England farmer of Scottish ancestry, as well as academics, teachers, students, and professional writers.

All are welcome.

The current 2020 McCash Poetry Competition for poems in Scots is open. The theme is ‘Travelling hopefully…’ Poems must be original, hitherto unpublished, and no more than 30 lines long. Poets may submit up to three entries. They should be printed or written legibly on A4 paper and sent by surface mail to McCash Poetry Competition, c/o Lesley Duncan, The Herald, 200 Renfield Street, Glasgow, G2 3QB or sent by e-mail to Entry is free.

The judges will be Alan Riach, poet and Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University; Zoe Strachan, novelist and Reader in Creative Writing at the university, and Lesley Duncan, poetry editor of The Herald.