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Donald Mackay – An Appreciation

by Willie Hershaw

I first met Donald Mackay in the David Hume Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh University in 1976. In fact, he was the first fellow student who spoke to me. We were both first year undergraduates studying English Language and Literature and we ended up going for a pint at Teviot Row. Donald was a seemingly laid back fellow who rolled incredibly thin cigarettes from a little tin. As I got to know him better I realised that although we came from very different backgrounds we shared much in common. We both looked like long haired hippy types at that point. Shy and dour was the combination. He had an obsessive interest in poetry - writing it and reading it. We shared the same political views - left wing Scottish Nationalism. Our heroes were John McLean, Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson. We were both into Folk Music. We enjoyed what was then termed “real ale”. He was the first vegetarian I met. We became pals.

Later I discovered that despite Donald’s quiet demeanour and dry sense of humour he was very determined and principled - he had a moral seriousness and deep interest in spirituality and this revealed itself in his poems. He had high standards that he applied both to himself and to others. When he had a cause he believed in nothing would deflect him. And Donald introduced me to many causes, all of them worthy, forcing me into thinking and often reappraising.  Neither of us felt that we fitted in with the Eng. Lit. colonialist agenda at Edinburgh. Donald was openly critical of both the antiquated curriculum and the equally antiquated attitudes of some of the teaching staff. So he was marked down. It was a great loss to me when my mate left Edinburgh after two years and changed his course. He went to Aberdeen where he was much happier and felt encouraged and included. Later he completed his PhD in Religious Studies. I missed his company and our arguments and his major influence on my ideas but I admired his gumption for not putting up with an unfair situation. I enjoyed my many visits up to Aberdeen where we would resume our ongoing poetical/political /philosophical/debate and visit new pubs.

As the years passed we kept in touch, but in an increasingly desultory way. Neither of us were interested in sharing the minutiae of our domestic lives in epistolary form and the Internet had not been invented.  Neither of us were phone guys let alone mobile phone guys. At one point Donald, who had lived in various airts of Africa, Derry, Leeds, was bringing up his family in Earlsferry just a few miles along the coast from me in Kirkcaldy and I didn’t even know he was there. Eventually he and his wife Pauline settled in Caithness and he became an RE teacher. Donald and Pauline were married for 35 years and they were blessed with four children. Whenever I spoke with Donald I knew that his family were the single most important and signifcant part of his life. For the remaining 26 years of this life he lived in Caithness among a landscape he loved.

Pauline and Donald stayed with us briefly in Lochgelly when he came down for the launch at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh of his pamphlet Kept in the Dark published by Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat Press in 2007. A second Mariscat publication, On Time, was shortlisted for The Callum MacDonald Award in 2012.

One day in 2019 I realised that I had pretty much lost touch with my old mate. I was too embarrassed to make the effort to pick up the phone. And then out of the blue an email arrived from Donald. It was like I had only seen him the day before as we picked up from where we had left off. Poems started to flurry back and forth between Caithness and Fife. Although he never revealed much, I realised, reading between the lines,  that his health was not good. Having reached an age when he could leave teaching and enjoy other aspects of life, this seemed very cruel.  

When the poems stopped arriving I assumed that he was in hospital for treatment. Nevertheless, the news of his death from cancer was completely unexpected. For Pauline to lose her husband and the children their Dad was a terrible blow. I’ve not read the poems since. Despite the sadness I am glad that I was able to reconnect with Donald and share in his poetry before he left us. I will remember him always as being quietly spoken in a way that made you lean in to listen - his words were always worth the hearing.

Donald’s earlier writing often portrayed a troubled soul on a quest  - personal, spiritual, metaphysical. The later ones he sent me are different. The former concerns are still present but there is wider social inclusiveness and there is anger and disgust at the contemporary political situation and those who practise its dark arts. The poems are sparer and a bit bleaker like the Caithness landscape has seeped into them. Punctuation and vocabulary have been stripped back to the bare bone to make the meaning the clearer. The lines can be angular and jagged with the syntax reflecting the poet’s leaping thoughts. They are full of irony and sometimes caustic images. Yet there are many unexpected flashes and epiphanies like orchids in a peat bog. There are moments of acceptance and serenity among the rage. These final poems are true to Donald as I knew him.

Lochgelly, Fife, February 2021


Donald Mackay - Late Poems

Donald Mackay was a teacher from Caithness whose poetry pamphlets were published by Mariscat and in publications such as The Dark Horse, with which he had a long connection.

APoem by Donald Mackay
At the BallPoem by Donald Mackay
Beyond the Split StanePoem by Donald Mackay
CrashPoem by Donald Mackay
Donald Mackay – An AppreciationArticle by Willie Hershaw
Seeing ScotlandPoem by Donald Mackay
SS Great BritainPoem by Donald Mackay
The BeastPoem by Donald Mackay
The BookPoem by Donald Mackay
The MasterPoem by Donald Mackay
The VestigiumPoem by Donald Mackay
ThesesPoem by Donald Mackay
To the Year's EndPoem by Donald Mackay

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