The Scotsman Sessions #376: Hugh McMillan
Surely few poets can describe the origins of their craft in as novel a way as Hugh McMillan. “I always liked writing poetry,” he says. “I was put off at school by a perfectionist English teacher who was also a published poet, but I came back to it after I was looking in Dumfries library for the answers to a quiz on the back of a cheesecake packet to win a trip on the Orient Express.
“I saw a poster for the Scottish National Open Poetry Competition, now defunct, and thought I may as well have a go. That got me back into it. It's a brilliant wee perfect art form, which you can nibble away at, you can do a poem in a day. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes you throw it away, but it's a condensed art form that brings immense pleasure.”
McMillan won (the competition, not the cheesecake trip), and his first collection, Tramontana, was published in 1990 through Alasdair Gray’s Dog and Bone imprint. “It was a short-lived publishing venture, but it produced lots of lovely books,” says McMillan. “It’s priceless now because of the Alasdair Gray cover, not because of the poetry inside. He came down to the New Bazaar pub in Dumfries to launch it, and did this beautiful wee sketch of me reading, which unfortunately I've lost.”
McMillan’s life and work is linked to Dumfries and Galloway. He grew up there and studied at Dumfries Academy, where he taught history for many years, a job from which he’s now retired. “The Academy's a rife birthplace for poets,” he says. “Ron Butlin went to school there, Alison Fell, all sorts of people.”
He describes his three Scotsman Session poems as follows: “One is “Marguerite D’Ecosse”, about a little known Scottish princess who married France’s King Louis XI. It was a loveless marriage – basically the French king just wanted Scottish troops to help against the English during the Hundred Years War. She wrote poetry, and when she died as a teenager, he tore all the verses up. It's bringing her back into the spotlight, rather than the usual thuggish kings who hog it.
“The second is “If Columba Hid Bin Chowkit by Eithne”, postulating on the story that St Columba came across and converted the Scots and Picts to Christianity, particularly the Pictish princess Eithne, who in legend became a Christian. In my version, she strangles him, thus putting an end to pernicious Christianity forever. The third one is “Three Words in a Poem”, written when I was wondering whether the order of words in poetry matters at all.”
History, he says, is an ever-present in his poems. “I look at Scotland’s history, which is often a footnote on page 86 in books on British history. Whether that’s a pernicious plot or just an accident I don't know, but I like to reframe and reinterpret it; not necessarily as a great praise of Scotland's past, because unfortunately when people deliver their history, they make up narratives, don’t they?
“It’s not preachy, it’s meant to be a bit of fun. I've always felt humour is a big part of the work – you sometimes get the meaning across much more than you do without it. I was once too quick to rush into jokes, but I think I've got better. I hope so, anyway. You feel you’re improving all the time, otherwise there’s no point in doing it.”