Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Jessie Mackay’s ‘Scotland Unfree’



Scotland Unfree


Two hundred long winters and thirty forbye

Have narrowed to nought since you first were unqueened, —

When cold, cunning usury made you the teind*

To Empery’s coffer, black treason unweened,

Undreamed of where yonder your mightiest lie,

Scotland unfree.


But they hear, but they heave, blessed mounds on the heath,

That house their true clay for you, mourner and mother,

Mounded for God and for you, not another,

Hear the moor-sloganing, brother to brother,

Hear it from Orkney to Tweed and to Leith,

Scotland unfree!


Mother of martyrs, now hear ye the living;

Mother of makers, world-marches away,

Who set your high mark, in their bold hodden gray,

On masterless wild and blue, bounteous bay, —

Palms for your honour, brave air, but, the giving,

Scotland unfree!


Hear you the living that fare never forth

From your guerdonless thrift in the halted out-flowing.

Too long your life-river, all-hoping, unknowing,

Gold-ribboned the seas from the dawn to down-going

Of sums that had set for your cradling North.

Scotland unfree.


Gold ribbons you gave to the seas of the west.

The world had your best of divine discontent.

Your parasites battened; despoiled and forspent,

‘Twas the babes of your breast, ’twas your children that went;

No steading in life, and no anchor of rest,

Scotland unfree!


What now and what more, when the world is at halt? —

When winds of all destinies clash in the blue?

The gadflies of battles are stinging anew,

Meanly to risk, or unhallowedly rue,

The redeless old nations in fear and at fault,

Scotland unfree.


Redeless they gather, no nation are you,

Mother of sages, the seal on your lips,

The gyve on your arm, by dead havens of ships,

Silent, interned, and betrayed to eclipse;

Scarce a name, not a nation! Is Caledon through,

Scotland unfree?


Lure-word of sophistry, “Britain!” quo’ she,

Weaver of phrases—high word and poor favour!

Your peers they are bidden—jejune and a-waver,—

To brag and to bicker; what salt and what savour?

“Britain?” what Britain that’s wanting of thee,

Scotland unfree!


Scotia, North Britain, draw biddably nigh,

Re-born to the day, and for ever re-born,

To the mock of moor-purple and crackle of thorn,

Your hour of re-queening: come, preen and adorn!

For your fairings you have but to dance and to die,

Scotland unfree!


Dance featly and fair, for your lords would be pleasured.

Skirl to their fancy, the caber let fly;

There’s gold for the lifting and silver forbye;

But, redeless, quiescent, to-morrow you die,

When for ever of yours shall your glens be untreasured,

Scotalnd unfree.


Be done with the talking, let scorning be done.

Bid Britain be Britain; whose vassal be ye,

Druidess, Norna, and chrissom Culdee?

One in a triad blent, one, two, and three;

God’s in His heaven, and Albyn is one,

Scotland the free!


Riddle us fairly that triad of yore;—

Sisterly queens that for ever are twain,

Sisterly queens that have done with disdain,

En-sceptred in one at the gates of the main

Live you, so live you, or none shall live more,

Scotland the free!



* Tribute

Note from Jessie: At the date of writing, May 31st, 1935, no answer has been reported to the recent joint demand of Scotland and Wales to be granted immediate Dominion status. The position has become increasingly impossible under the conditions of this century. For fifty years Scottish Home Rule Bills have been introduced, talked out or thrown out. Now national feeling demands the full and only solution of an impossible situation.


Jessie Mackay,  Vigil and Other Poems, Whitcombe & Tombs, 1935






‘Scotland Unfree’ is the final poem in Jessie Mackay’s final book, Vigil and Other Poems.


Jessie Mackay (1864 – 1938)  We have a poetry prize honouring Jessie Mackay’s legacy: the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry in our national book awards.  Jessie was born in Rakaia, Canterbury and grew up on several remote sheep stations. She trained as a teacher, taught briefly and then devoted her life to politics and poetry. Jessie wrote countless letters to newspapers and articles on issues such as the plight of women, the vote for women, prohibition, ending the war and Scottish Home Rule. The latter affected her deeply as her Scottish parents spoke of their beloved homeland and the cruel land clearances. Perhaps this is why she revealed such a concern for Māori issues in a number of poems: the fact that land, language, stories and culture make a people. To take them away is to dispossess them. Cruelly. Unforgivably. Pākehā might write poems differently now, after decades of interrogating colonialism; perhaps less likely to borrow myth but, like Jessie, many poets are showing history in a new light  (such as Parihaka).  Jessie often drew us to the women’s point of view.

Towards the end of her life over 300 admirers presented Jessie with a testimonial letter that praised her outstanding humanitarian work and contributions to New Zealand literature. On her death the media sung her praises yet you are hard pressed to find her work in anthologies and we have no Jessie Mackay in print. When I first started reading her work it felt like a foreign country but the more time I spent in the archives, and the more time I spent with her writing, the more she moved me.

The first chapter in my forthcoming book, Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry, seeks to draw Jessie’s poetry closer. I am moved by her political stamina and by her battle to be heard as a woman writing. I have picked one of her Scottish poems to post as it feels very timely. What would she think? What would she think about Brexit and our own local tragedies? She would be weeping with her feet in the southern stream, and she would be speaking out. She would be writing poetry.

My book is out in August with Massey University Press.

This year’s poetry finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival Award event: Tuesday 14 May, 7 pm- 8.30 pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.

The finalists: Helen Heath, Therese Lloyd, Erik Kennedy, Tay Tibble


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