25* things you didn’t know about the Scottish Poetry Library

May 14, 2010



*Only 24 are true…

1. It was the American born, Glasgow based poet Larry Butler who asked that fateful question in 1981 – ‘where is the Poetry Library in Edinburgh?’

2. The inaugural party for the SPL saw the birth not only of a new national organisation, but a new national dish. Vegetarian haggis, as created by Meg Stiven and Gowan Calder and packed in plastic by John Macsween of Edinburgh, proved such a success that Macsween developed the recipe for commercial use. The mix of ‘vegetable margarine, kidney beans, lentils, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, carrots, turnip and mushrooms; together with the traditional oatmeal, onions and our special blend of spices and seasoning’ is now sold all over Scotland and beyond, and Macsween remain long-standing and generous supporters of the SPL.

3. The plates and dishes used to feed the 300-strong crowd at the launch party were borrowed from George Watson’s College and had to be returned (clean) in time for school lunches the next day.

4. One of the most obscure enquiries our Assistant Librarian Lizzie MacGregor has ever solved began: ‘It was a poem I read in a magazine at the dentist in 1954…’ She eventually tracked down the elusive poem, an anonymous piece that had apparently been composed upon the wall of Ryvoan Bothy, and ‘fortunately copied before lost’ – somehow making its way into a magazine in that dentist’s waiting room in 1954, and eventually into an anthology, Poems of the Scottish Hills (Aberdeen University Press, 1982).

5. When the SPL applied to the Scottish Arts Council for captital Lottery funding for the proposed new Library building in Crichton’s Close, the application was registered as number 001 – the first of its kind.

6. Tessa Ransford wrote a poem talking about a ‘house of poetry’ in 1974 – ten years before she founded the SPL. It included the lines:

I shall fill the place with books
with books of poetry
wherein the very self of things
speaks its reality

And through the links and lines
between them
seep like irrigation
waters from the deep earth
the flow of imagination

The poem proved oddly prophetic in large ways (the SPL was opened in 1984, and the current building thirteen years later)and small (the a new spring that sprung on this old brewery site has caused waters from the deep earth literally to seep in and through the SPL).

7. Buried beneath the SPL building is a time capsule. Its contents include, among other things, poems from a Herald competition for a millennial poem, a poem by Colin Will written specially for the new building, poems by our Honorary Presidents at that time, George Bruce and Derick Thomson (still Honorary President today) and a blessing from Charles Robertson, Minister of Canongate Parish.

8. The longest ever loan from our collection lasted 17 years, from 1990 to 2007. Luckily for the borrower, the SPL doesn’t have fines!

9. Our strapline ‘by leaves we live’, adopted in 2004, is taken from the words of philanthropist, teacher and town planner Sir Patrick Geddes:‘This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.’

10. Unusual visitors to the library have included a baby blackbird, which flew into the ‘new acquisitions’ and roosted there until a rescue

11. The library has served as Muse to many architectural students, as well as poets: in recent memory, an innocently-labelled ‘legless’ chair received two poems in its honour.

12. The largest number of people to cross the threshold on one day was 1,147.

13. The SPL has several hidden pieces of artwork – the black stripes across the front window display these words from a seventeenth century Gaelic poem, with English and Scots translations by Derick Thomson and Neil R MacCallum:

Ní h-ór, ní h-ionmhus eile,

do ghéibha uaim d’ áiridhe,

ní cána no comha cruidh,

acht rogha ar ndána dheacruigh.

~

It is not gold or other treasure

that you will get from me in special;

it is not tribute, nor gift of cattle,

but the choicest of our hard-

wrought poems.

~

It isna gowd or ither treisurs

Argyle in special wins frae me,

I gie nae nowt as youissless fairins

But braw poems alane for ye.

14. Welcomed to the Scottish Poetry Library, a group of awed pre-schoolers were asked what they thought they’d find within. Much lip-licking and brow-furrowing and wide-eyed gazing around, and then … ‘A cat!’

15. The SPL features in Ian Rankin’s final Rebus novel, Exit Music – in which a Librarian gasps, and clutches a hand to her cardigan. All characters are presumably works of fiction, and any resemblance to real people is entirely coincidental.

16. The most-borrowed author is Edwin Morgan – making it all the more appropriate that the SPL should house the Edwin Morgan Archive, opened in April 2009.

17. The first book to be barcoded when the SPL adopted an automated circulation system was The Poetry of the Scots, by Duncan Glen (Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

18. The most enigmatic remark in our visitors’ book reads: ‘Things as they are not…’ We think it’s complimentary – any suggestions as to what it might mean?

19. Visitors complain that the SPL is indeed a ‘hidden’ treasure. While the sign at the entrance to Crichton’s Close is discreet, it took seven years, and latterly much lobbying by the first Edinburgh Makar, Stewart Conn, to gain permission to put up even this small sign.

20. The wrought steel words: ‘A Nation is Forged in the Hearth of Poetry’ that adorn the building at the entrace to Crichton’s Close were composed by John Purser. He explains:‘The line was specially written as a commission for the building. I first of all looked for an existing quotation that would meet the bill, but was unsuccessful. The line was composed with many things in mind – namely that the building was primarily for housing – hence the image of the hearth as a symbol of the home and its vital role in the community. Also the fact that the letters were in forged steel on an exposed steel beam – hence hearth and forged.

‘The national element was to reflect the importance of the site itself on the Royal Mile and leading towards our new parliament then under construction. The poetry element (which was in the end the fons et origo of it all) reflected the statement at the closing of the old parliament “thus endeth an auld sang” as well as reflecting the hearth as the place where the oral tradition thrived and where the dream at least of a culture that feels the need to organise itself as a nation was and is kept alive in many parts of the world. In other words, a complex of images and thoughts was at the basis of the line.

It was deliberate also that that part of it which could be read in the High Street without looking into the close made a semantic unit – A Nation Is Forged in the Hearth – whereas the part leading into the SPL was grammatically imperfect, thus ensuring that the inner world of thought and reflection was ultimately dependent upon the outer world of society and commerce, even though the statement as a whole puts poetry at the forefront and makes it the fire that energises the whole.’

21. Our collection includes Burns in Esperanto, as well as Polish, French, Norwegian, Gaelic, Spanish, German and Swiss-German, Russian, Swedish and Czech – and our Librarians are at least as likely to be asked for Burns in translation as in the original Scots.

22. At a squeeze, the rug in our children’s section – designed by Mary Louise Coulouris and woven by Louise Kirkwood, and depicting the MacDiarmid poem Hungry Waters – can fit 26 children.

23. Mail-order clothing retailer Boden thought the SPL was a dead ringer for an architect’s studio, and held a photoshoot here in summer 2008 to showcase their range of ‘architect’s shirts’. We did not realise that dropping library books – carefully colour co-ordinated – would be part of the bargain.

24. The oddest things left behind in lost property at the SPL were a cake, a pair of dentures and a bound PhD thesis on Modernism in contemporary Gaelic ballad forms.

25. From the Librarian, January 2003: ‘To the Member whose shoes were melted by our floor lights on the mezzanine floor, can I apologise? We do not use these any more and assure you that your footwear will be safe on your next visit.’

T
his piece first appeared in Issue 4 of our newsletter, the Poetry Reader.

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