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About Tom Scott

Tom Scott (1918-95) was one of the major 20th-century poets in Scots, a leading member of the second generation of Scottish Renaissance writers, and an important scholar of Scottish medieval verse.


Tom Scott was born in Partick, Glasgow, son of a shipyard boiler-maker. When Scott’s father lost his job in the slump of 1931, he moved the family to St Andrews to work for Scott’s maternal grandfather, a master builder. Scott attended Madras College, St Andrews, leaving school at fifteen to work as a butcher’s messenger boy and as a labourer in his grandfather’s building firm. When World War II broke out, Scott was assigned to the pay corps, first in Perth then Manchester, where bombing raids inspired his first published poem ‘Sea Dirge’ (1941). Scott was subsequently posted to Lagos, Nigeria. After the war, he lived for several years in London, working as a film extra at Ealing Studios and befriending W. S. Graham and G. S. Fraser and other poets associated with the New Apocalypse movement. He returned to Scotland in 1952 to study at Newbattle Abbey, an adult education college in Midlothian, under the wardenship of Edwin Muir. He went on to attend Edinburgh University, achieving a First Class degree in English and completing a PhD on the medieval Scots makar William Dunbar.

The Poet

Scott’s first poems were in English but in the early 1950s he became interested in the Scots verse tradition, discovering both the makars (Dunbar, Henryson, Gavin Douglas) and the poets of the interwar Scottish Literary Renaissance. His first major work in Scots was a volume of translations from the 15th-century French poet François Villon, Seeven Poems o Maister Francis Villon (1953), which was praised by both T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His first original publication in Scots was An Ode til New Jerusalem (1956), inspired by his lifelong faith in Socialism. Scott believed that only the long poem could offer an integrated vision of life, and spent the following years working on The Ship, where the sinking of the Titanic serves as an allegory for the economic and social decline of Europe. It was finally published to great critical acclaim in 1963. His next work, At the Shrine of the Unkent Sodger (1968), was a volume of satirical anti-war lyrics. He returned to the longer form with the partly autobiographical Brand the Builder (1975), where the decline of St Andrews is symbolical of the waning of Scottish culture in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and Union with England. Scott’s later works include two further book length poems, The Tree (1977), a meditation on evolution, and The Dirty Business (1986), again inspired by Scott’s pacifism. His shorter lyrics, published in literary journals through his life, were anthologized as Collected Shorter Poems (1993).

The Scholar

Scott’s PhD on Dunbar evolved into the major monograph Dunbar: a Critical Exposition of the Poems (1966). He also worked throughout his life on a comprehensive history of Scots literature, which never found a publisher. The opening chapters have recently been made available online by the Robert Henryson Society (see link below). Scott’s passion for the makars is also reflected in his anthology Late Medieval Scots Poetry (1967). Scott taught literature for the Open University during the 1970s but largely earned his living as a freelance writer. As a respected critic, he was asked to edit the Oxford Book of Scottish Verse (with John MacQueen, 1966) and Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (1970), both of which exerted a great influence on how Scottish poetry was read over the coming decades.

The Translator

Scott saw his poetry, and that of the medieval makars, as belonging firmly to the European tradition. Having made his poetic debut in a Scots with a translation from Villon, he went on to publish masterful translations of many other major European poets, including Dante, St John of the Cross, Baudelaire, and Ungaretti.


Scott’s poetry was the subject of special issues of the literary journals Chapman (Spring 1987) and Agenda (1992). Some of his verse has been translated into Italian by Enzo Bonventre and Carla Sassi.

Further Reading

  • Duncan Glen, 'Tom Scott: A Hairst o Musins', in his Selected Scottish and Other Essays (Kirkcaldy: Akros, 1999), pp. 92-96.
  • 'Tom Scott Special Issue', Agenda, vol. 30, no. 4-vol. 31, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 1993)
  • 'Tom Scott Special Issue', Chapman, vol. 9, nos. 4-5 (Spring 1987)

Online Resources

Includes a biographical profile, a selected bibliography, and links to publications by and about Tom Scott in the Scottish Poetry Library's online catalogue. The Scottish Poetry Library is open to everyone to use and free to join.