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William Soutar (1898 – 1943)

Scottish poet and diarist, known for his ‘bairn rhymes’, and recently honoured by the City of Edinburgh.

William Soutar

Known as Scotland’s answer to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, with the words of the country’s famed writers etched into the flagstone, Makars’ Court in Lady Stair’s Close has added Edinburgh alumnus William Soutar to its illustrious collection of memorials.

Medical condition

Soutar was born in Perth where he attended the Southern District School and Perth Academy. Joining the Royal Navy in 1916, he served for two years with the North Atlantic Fleet. However, by the time he was demobilised in November 1918, he was already suffering from a crippling inflammatory condition which would eventually be diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis.

Soutar enrolled at the University of Edinburgh initially to study medicine, but soon transferred to English Literature. His condition worsened during his university years, and, on graduating in 1923, he realised that he would be unable to pursue a career in journalism as he had wished.

Instead, he began teacher training in 1924 but had to return to Perth to undergo medical treatment for his now diagnosed illness. His condition steadily worsened and Soutar remained in Perth under his parents' care.

Soutar the poet

Soutar wrote poetry from childhood, publishing in his school magazine, 'The Young Barbarian', and the University magazine, 'The Student'. His first volume, 'Gleanings by an Undergraduate', was published in 1923.

In the 1920s Soutar made regular contact with literary contemporaries Hugh MacDiarmid and Ezra Pound. These encounters served to crystalise his frustration with the fashionable poetry of his day, and he turned increasingly to writing in Scots with the aim of revitalising the Scottish literary tradition.

He also excelled in ‘bairn rhymes’, children’s verses in Scots originally written for an orphaned Australian cousin, Evelyn, whom his parents had adopted. He collected these in the volume 'Seeds in the Wind' (1933) which he hoped would be used by Scottish schools to keep the language alive. Soutar published eight further volumes of poetry in Scots and English between 1923 and 1943. These increasingly reflected a passionate socialist pacifism, initially inspired by Soutar’s First World War experiences but thrown into heightened focus by the Spanish Civil War.

Soutar the diarist

Soutar was also one of Scotland’s great diarists. He began keeping a diary in 1919 and made daily entries throughout the days of his illness, as well as keeping separate journals for philosophical mediations, dreams, and humorous everyday events.

From 1930 to the end of his life he was bed-ridden. Nonetheless he wrote and read voraciously, and entertained a stream of visitors, including MacDiarmid, Helen Cruickshank, George Bruce, Tom Scott and William Montgomerie. His bedroom is regarded as one of the centres of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Soutar was increasingly weakened by tuberculosis. Reduced to almost complete paralysis, but still able to work on his 'Diary of a Dying Man' – now regarded as one of the major works of 20th century Scottish prose – Soutar died in October 1943.

William Soutar Papers

The University’s Centre for Special Collections holds the William Soutar Papers, consisting of manuscripts of poems in English sent by Soutar to his doctor, John Fraser, and William Morrison, editor of the Scots Observer.

They are an invaluable resource for scholars researching Soutar's often overlooked poetry in English. Far from abandoning English for Scots, as is often asserted, Soutar continued to write prolifically in both languages.

Related links

The William Soutar Papers Makars' Court