by Colin Waters

Crichton’s Close, 5th Sept 2016

September 5, 2016 | by Colin Waters

Al fresco poetry readings! What could be nicer? Until our recent refurbishment, the Scottish Poetry Library had at its entrance a series of broad concrete steps that could double as seating for an outdoors reading. We even had a plinth on which performers could rest their papers. Great idea, but it had one equally great flaw. This is Scotland and as we all know we’re only allowed six days of sunshine per year, few of which coincided with the dates of planned readings on our steps.

I thought of our abandoned steps recently as I slipped and tumbled down a muddy slope, breaking my umbrella as I went. At the time I was visiting Little Sparta in Dunsyre, near the Pentland Hills. Little Sparta was the passion project of the late poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. According to the pamphlet you’re handed on arrival, Little Sparta – An introduction to the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, my destination was ‘a created landscape, made of trees, plants, stones and water, and of the imagination, as words and ideas are incorporated into the art works which form integral parts of what you see.’

An opportunity arose to visit Little Sparta in mid-August, when its current owners set up a Friday bus service leaving for Finlay’s rural wonderland from the Library during the Festival. I had only seen pictures before my visit, and was particularly taken with a great golden head, apparently modelled on Saint-Just, a sign of Finlay’s abiding interest in the French Revolution.

The morning I was due to visit was dry. Yes, the BBC website had warned of rain that afternoon, but for some reason – magical thinking, no doubt – I was unconvinced. The closer the bus got to Little Sparta, the greyer grew the sky. On arrival, while beginning the ascent of the long path that leads to Little Sparta’s, the rain began to fall and was soon torrential.

I was miserable instantly. My little black umbrella stood Canute-like against the rain, my trainers grew sodden. Still, I thought, I’ve got three and a half hours to kill before the bus goes back to Edinburgh, might as well make the effort.  I tried to navigate a path around the 260 artworks dotted around the garden, guided by the pamphlet, although it was soon soggy and hard to operate in rain and wind while also holding an umbrella. The real discovery for me was that the humble midge is impervious to rain; gusts of them curtained the paths between artworks. After slipping down a short slope, however, I was ready to throw in the towel. Moments after the fall, I came across the great golden head. 

So foul was my mood, I was tempted to take a run at it and rugby-kick the head over the horizon. Instead, I retreated to the minibus, the first of our party to seek sanctuary there. I spent two and half hours, soaked, listening to the driver talk about shuttling groups of businessmen between golf courses; pneumonia would have been a welcome distraction.

You can browse the Scottish Poetry Library’s autumn events brochure here:

The first Scottish Poetry Library event to take place is a reading group focussing on Jackie Kay, which is at the SPL on Saturday 17 September, 11am, £5 (£3). For more details:

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