Growing up in Fraserburgh, on the tip of the north-east, and where the Moray Firth meets the North Sea, George Bruce knew the value of small communities, and also how they related to the wider world, both for good and ill.
In his poem Kinnaird Head
This is the outermost edge of Buchan.
Inland the sea birds range,
The tree's leaf has salt upon it,
The tree turns to the low stone wall.
And here a promontory rises towards Norway.
Elsewhere, he refers to the local Greig family, of whom certain members emigrated to Norway, and of whom one became that country's most famous composer, Edvard Grieg, best known for his music for Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt
. For Bruce, the perspectives you could acquire by living and working on the coast were of infinite value. Further south along that coast, Fife inspired one of his most resonant poems, A Gateway to the Sea – At the East Port, St Andrews
. Of the ancient cathedral and university town, a small town, Bruce celebrated a significance which extended well beyond its boundaries, and homed in on its interactions with that wider world: 'The European sun knew those streets'. This poem moved me so much that I quoted it at the end of my book of short stories, Slavonic Dances
(2017). At the conclusion of each of these three tales, a Scot who has had a relationship with Eastern Europe finds him or herself looking from a Fife shore in an easterly direction. Bruce's poem evokes the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral; here are its last lines:
Under the touch the guardian stone remains
Holding memory, reproving desire, securing hope
In the stop of water, in the lull of night
Before dawn kindles a new day.
Bruce's generation knew only too well that the future of Europe, and of their Scotland as part of Europe, couldn't be taken for granted. He himself passed his childhood in the shadow of the First World War and lived through the Second. In his writings, he displays a keen, if sombre, interest in the literatures of Europe. Writers such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a German-speaking Czech Jew from Prague, could evoke the sinister 'progress' of the 20th century, in a Europe increasingly alienated and dehumanised.
George Bruce knew the need for a spiritual wake-up call: 'In our mass produced society,' he wrote, 'where the beginnings and ends of things are rarely seen by one person, life does not present itself as a meaningful tale. […] The point at which […] experience generalises itself is where particular places, domestic things, are seen and felt as belonging to an order of experience that we can all share, because it is part of human history'.
George Bruce's working life was marked by variety, and as such – together with the powerful influences of his Fraserburgh upbringing – he was able to draw on wide experience to match, and to enrich, his wide-ranging imagination. He taught at Dundee High School, commuting between there and Wormit on the Fife side of the Tay, and later became a BBC producer, responsible for programmes in literature, music and the visual arts (indeed, his keen interest in the other arts, Scottish and international, fed into his poetry – as witness, for example, his poems on the Polish pianist-composer Chopin and the Dutch painter Rembrandt). Having been a student at Aberdeen University, and eventually settling in Edinburgh, he had a relationship to all four of Scotland's major cities, as well as, of course, its smaller towns and communities.
I first met him in 1983, when I became involved in the teaching of an evening class in Scottish literature at St Andrews University. It was a 10-week course; I taught the first eight classes and George was responsible for the last two. The planning stage involved exchanges of letters between us and the Extra-Mural Department's head, and in due course George and I met in person. I will never forget how stimulated I was by his lectures and the passion with which he recalled a detail from his youth – the dumping of unsold herring in the sea at a time when malnourished children were suffering from rickets in the Glasgow slums: couldn't the fish have been quickly transported there? Injustice and inequality would rouse this warm-hearted man to sudden fury. His generous emotions as a man have always added a special poignancy to my reading of his poetry.
After I became the first librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library in 1984, I got to know George better as he was a frequent visitor. During the late 1980s and early 90s, we occupied two floors of the premises in Edinburgh's Tweeddale Court in the Old Town. The upstairs flat was used for visiting poets from overseas and also for the annual Library Christmas party. George always had a party piece (and more) for us and the atmosphere was electrifying.
The year 1999 marked both his 90th birthday and the launch of his book Pursuit: Poems 1986-1998
; as ever, George was the life and soul. He was not a big man physically but the energy was closely packed within him, always ready to burst into expansive (and often quirkily comic) poetry. You were always aware of how his work resonated with a deep regard for Scotland and with the wider world of which it was a part.
It was said of him that, as he got older, his thoughts turned back to his youth in the north-east and to the Scots language – the Doric – to which, though it had never left him, he returned as a medium for his poetry. In 1991, the Mercat Press of Edinburgh published my anthology of contemporary poetry in Scots, The New Makars
. At a launch party, George told me that when he received my invitation to contribute, he had said to himself, 'Fit am I going to send to Tom Hubbard?' He went on to tell me how: 'In the middle o the nicht, I woke up and lowped oot o the bed and stertit to write some lines o the poem I sent ye'. The poem was Weys o Self-Preservin Natur
and the north-east coastal theme is clear as the poet handles a clam-shell fossil:
Aince there stirred under this shall – life.
I thocht o the bearers o the chyne o life
that would gang on and on or lang deid this haund,
and yet the mair I vrocht at thocht
the mair I kent hoo peerie was the thocht.
In the summer of 2002, I was returning from a conference in the Netherlands and at Waverley Station I bumped into Duncan Glen, Scottish poet/publisher and a friend, who told me that George had died. In less than a year, early in 2003, Greta Thunberg was born. It was as if George was making way for the upcoming generations: I think he'd have issued his trademark chuckle at that. Many of his poems display a sense of ecological urgency such as has stirred Ms Thunberg and her friends to action. Scotland's green movement – and not only the movement – could well take heed of the writings of George Bruce.
While re-reading George's autobiographical essays, I was much taken by his story of how his father gave him a row when he caught him walking dangerously on narrow planks at the harbour's edge. I couldn't help but recall him telling us how, when well into his 80s (and even 90s?) his daughter gave him a row for running to catch a bus. I think that when we get older we become more aware of the generations on either side of us – we say to our sons, daughters, nephews and nieces, 'You take after your gran / grandad' – and so we experience a strong desire both to honour the past and to hope for the future.
In 1979, as he reached 70, his thoughts turned to those early years in Fraserburgh and he extracted a wider meaning from the area's two main occupations, farming and fishing: 'Whereas each piece of landscape draws attention by its difference from any other to locality, the sea proclaims its universality'. That observation sums up much of the significance of his poetry. It informs his poem Aberdeen, the Granite City
The town secured by folk that warsled
With water, earth and stone; quarrying,
Shaping, smoothing their unforgiving stone […]
From the other side of the country, here's his Castle Tioram, Loch Moidart
The tide comes in and empties the castle
of all its bloody memories […]
The day's tourists have departed in time before the causeway returns underwater; kids have been playing in a scene of once terrible beauty, but now:
skraichs – the sea birds have it for themselves.
Beyond Scotland, George's deep love and respect for mainland European cultures is eloquently expressed in poems such as Chopin at 10 Warriston Crescent – 1848
, on the great Polish exile's recital at the house which would one day belong to one of George's Edinburgh neighbours; at the time of his tour of Scotland, Chopin was already near to his early death:
It wis the cold that got ye
and yon twisty stairs; you sclimmin
them like yer hert ti burst. […]
you soon't oot a' rooms and ha's
and ower a' watters tae Europe
and across the plains wi snaw […]
Set that beside George's splendid evocation of a small Danish town with its painted houses and cobbled streets, the birthplace of that country's best-known writer:
the fairy tale was written into the stones
and waited for the poor boy to grow
to tell the tales that knocked on doors
at nights like drums that drummed, 'All's well!'
(At H C Andersen's Hus – Odense
A fellow poet and contemporary of George Bruce's was Tom Scott (1918-95), who wrote of yet another Scottish poet that 'if Scotland were truly Scotland, his lines would be on everyone's lips'. Scott's words, I believe, apply equally to the poetry of George Bruce.
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland. His most recent book is 'The Devil and Michael Scot: a Gallimaufry of Fife and Beyond' (Grace Note Publications, 2020)