9 Voices That Capture the Sound of Modern Scotland
Michael Pedersen, author of "Boy Friends," curates a list of word sculptors from the other side of the pond
This year, Scotland is host to a year-long celebration called A Year of Stories 2022. A celebration of the great storytellers of Caledonia that have set the world ablaze, we will, of course, be harking back to classics like Robert Burns, Muriel Spark, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as the more recent likes of Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling—both of whom have made their salient mark, nationally and internationally. But who’s next in line? Who are some of the cult crusaders of the future—the young lexical butter churners people should know about and be ready to cherish? Funny you should ask, because I’m zesty and chomping at the bit to tell ye!
Me, I’m Michael Pedersen, a Scottish poet who’s toured my books/words the globe over. I just unfurled my first book of prose, Boy Friends, which launched in the UK in July 2022 and arrives in North America in September 2022. Boy Friends is a love letter to friendship, a paean to friends everywhere: those here, there, and elsewhere. Though grief is squat in the belly of this book, on account of the untimely departure of a dearest human, it’s a tome of gooey celebration—for the friends we love to excess, yet still not nearly enough.
And to my Sound of Scotland curatorial credentials? Well, I’ve been programming and curating events in Scotland for the past ten-plus years—for Neu! Reekie! (the prize-winning literary collective I co-founded in 2011), and alongside the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Burns & Beyond Festival, the Scottish Poetry Library, and many more lustrous arts bodies. So, I present below a few words on The Sound of Scotland—as seen from my harbour. These are the writers and word sculptors making vital magics over this side of the pond. Each in the list is coming for North America, if they’ve not already landed. My advice is get ahead of the curve and begin your feasting now. Slàinte!
Watt is a poet hailing from the Shetland Islands who utilises Shetlandic language to craft poetry that vibrates through the bones and thrums in the skin. Her debut collection Moder Dy (Mother Wave), published by Scotland’s own Polygon Books, won her the Edwin Morgan Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, and an Eric Gregory Award. Her smouldering, susurrus tones ensure these poems crackle into the ears like the best sounding bonfires.
A working-class writer, social commentator, and hip-hop artist who happens to be one of the most adroit public speakers this country has to offer. He’s gone on to produce two bestselling books—Poverty Safari and The Social Distance Between Us—and fashioned a mordant live show out of each tome. Between them, the two have been translated into multiple languages, birthed an associated BBC TV series, and earned Darren the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. You can catch him waxing masterfully on the “The Blindboy Podcast” or Russell Brand’s “Under The Skin.”
Though born in England, Hollie McNish is Scottish enough for me. She’s regularly on Scottish cultural showcases and is a ubiquitous presence on our live literature scene—trust me, her Glaswegian parents wouldn’t have it any other way. Hollie’s words have been shared many many millions of times across social media and YouTube, she won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and has a Sunday Times bestseller under her belt straps. She’s known to be taboo-busting, sweetly sentimental, trenchantly political, and a favourite amongst mums and parents, for whom she writes splendiferously. To say the world needs Hollie McNish (which The Scotsman, our national newspaper, did) is bang on the bell. The book to check out first is: Slug & Other Things I’ve Been Told To Hate.
This Scottish/Algerian poet is one of the most vivifying and vivacious writers on the Scottish scene. A favourite of the Scottish Poetry Library, her most recent collection Hand Over Mouth Music, published by Liverpool’s Pavilion Press, won the Saltire Prize for Best Collection (our Scottish Book Awards). She’s as stylish in person as her words are stirring on the page, and is already working on her first memoir, which is going to be a sumptuous read.
Foremost known as a novelist, Jenni’s debut The Panopticon became a true sensation, adapted for stage by the National Theatre of Scotland and soon to be produced for the big screen. Her most recent novel, Luckenbooth, is a contemporary masterpiece and continues to enthral readers the world over. Not only that, she’s a superb poet, has a history of singing in punk bands, just announced a memoir, and is currently adapting Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist for TV at his canny request. Her work gives glorious voice to ancient Edinburgh tenements, to the Devil’s daughter, to the care-home kids, to witches, to all us pariahs and cowgirls.
Another of Scotland’s ace Shetland writers, Malachy has just unfurled a new fishing memoir entitled Illuminated By Water. Available in both the UK and North America, this deeply ruminative, ponderous, love letter to fishing, is edifying enough for the aficionados whilst being gorgeously welcoming to those more entranced by the mystic, meditative elements of the sport. A flag waved also to his around-the-world travelogue-esque memoir, Sixty Degrees North.
Hannah’s currently Edinburgh’s Makar, the poet of the capital city. She also curates an incredible literary festival called Coastwords out in the stunning seaside town of Dunbar—go there if you can, Hannah will keep you right. Alongside her snazzy poetic cred, Hannah’s making an esteemed name for herself as a playwright. Her autobiographical play, The Drift, toured with National Theatre of Scotland, and her second play, Lament for Sheku Bayoh (a pertinent exploration of the tragic story of a Black man who died in police custody) was an NTS, Royal Lyceum Theatre, and Edinburgh International Festival collaborative production. Hannah has been crucial in carving out spaces and stages for writers of colour in Scotland, and her own debut collection (Blood, Salt, Spring) is a triumph.
William/Billy came bounding into the literary scene with the moniker “the roofer poet,” on account of the labouring work he undertook on Scotland’s rooftops. This trade gave him a unique vantage on the scurrying occupants and scavengers of the streets below—a bird’s-eye view and poems bursting with brio. Published by the august Carcanet poetry press, Billy soon won a New Writers Award and an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary. His collections Dirt and Bevel are pullulating with musicality, mischief, sword-sharp wit, and gloopy beauty. If the, somewhat hackneyed, “poet of the people” banner was to be revitalised for anyone, Billy would be front-runner to own it.
Yes, okay, they’re not book writers and that’s bucking the trend of what came before. But it’s a sound you need to hear: Scotland reimagined; the soundtrack of Trainspotting 2; the beat of the street of Edinburgh. Besides, we’ve published one of their frontmen, Kayus Bankole, in our poetry anthology series (Neu! Reekie! #UntitledOne), and they unfurl a concert within the pages of my book. The band has won the Mercury Music Prize and the Scottish Album of the Year (twice), on top of collaborations with Massive Attack. The sermons this band uncage upon crowds are stupendous, and, for a few attuned humans, life-altering. To listen to YF is to be engulfed within a cosmic storm. Pop, hip-hop, krautrock, avant-garde wailing, gospel—they come coruscating into each genre and bursting out the other end.