photograph of Stewart Conn by Gunnie Moberg

photo: Gunnie Moberg




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Stewart Conn was born in Glasgow in 1936, and grew up in Kilmarnock. Though his father was a minister, one branch of the family were farmers, and much of his early poetry is distinctive for its Ayrshire farm settings, animals and people—almost mythic figures seen through a boy’s eyes—and its depiction of a way of life since virtually vanished. He subsequently lived in Glasgow’s west end, a stone’s throw from the Botanics and the University. During these years much of his poetry probed familial, often parental relationships, against a changing city background; or responded to a sense of place, in this country and abroad.

1977 saw his transfer, as BBC Scotland’s head of radio drama, to Edinburgh where he and his wife Judy, with their two young sons, moved the following year, and have lived since. A selection from his collections up to that point, with their familiar themes and environments—Stoats in the Sunlight (1968) and Under the Ice (1978), winners of Scottish Arts Council Awards, and An Ear to the Ground (1972, a Poetry Book Society Choice)—duly provided the basis for a new and selected volume In the Kibble Palace (1987). In 1992, shortly after receiving a gold medal award at the New York International Radio Festival for his production of John Purser’s play Carver, he left the BBC to become a freelance writer.

Following on this The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1992), its title sequence spoken by a range of characters in Renoir’s painting, focuses on the nature and power of art; while In the Blood (1995) reverts to his Kilmarnock days, the Upper Clyde and the Ayrshire coast. At the Aviary (1995) records fleeting visits to South Africa and to Botswana’s magical Okavango Delta. Stolen Light: Selected Poems (1999, short-listed for Saltire Book of the Year) aligns poems from these books with new work. The same year Lànima del Teixidor (Edicions Proa, Barcelona) comprised a selection of poems by him and by Anna Crowe. He has been further translated into Catalan (by Miquel Desclot), French, Italian, Polish and Croatian.

In Distances (2001), alongside short personal memoirs of George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith, and observations on Alasdair Maclean and W. S. Graham, are prose pieces on Ayrshire and the Forest of Ettrick, and on being with an African theatre troupe rehearsing in the Bophuthatswana bush. Interwoven with these are vignettes, poems, and wry slants on the writer’s lot.


From 2002 to 2005 he was Edinburgh’s inaugural Makar, his main role raising the profile of the city in poetry and vice versa. In terms of his own work this inspired a sequence conjuring up Roull of Corstorphin, elegised in Dunbar’s great Lament, and central to Ghosts at Cockcrow (2005).  An emphasis on human transience and the interplay of our affections marked the pamphlet The Loving-Cup (2007), poems from which reappeared in The Breakfast Room  (2010, the 2011 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Poetry Book  of the Year); while much of his pamphlet Estuary (2012) was incorporated in The Touch of Time: New and Selected Poems (2014).

His most recent publications since Against the Light (2016), with its central themes of intimacy and vulnerability, are Aspects of Edinburgh (2019), the main focus of its poems, set against evocative drawings by John Knight, being on the capital and its immediate environs; and Underwood (2022), its title and cover image that of the old standard upright typewriter on which his father had typed his sermons, and he hammered out his own first poems and plays. As editor, and in the footsteps of the much earlier 100 Favourite Scottish Poems (2006) and 100 Favourite Scottish Love Poems (2008), came Other Worlds: an anthology of Scottish Island Poems (2022).

His published plays include The King, The Burning, The Aquarium, Play Donkey, Thistlewood, Herman and Hugh Miller (the last two being Edinburgh Fringe First winners); with a revised version of I Didn't Always Live Here tying in with the play’s 2013 revival at the Finborough Theatre, London. His adaptation of George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, with music by Alasdair Nicolson, was broadcast from the St Magnus Festival, in Orkney; while Four Folk Tales, set by the same composer, were performed in an LSO Discovery Season at St Luke’s, Covent Garden.

He has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, StAnza, AyeWrite, and others from Bristol and Bath to Ullapool and Wigtown; participated in Poetry Festivals in Paris, Tetova, Vilnius and Zagreb; given campus readings for Wisconsin University; and recorded a selection from his work for the Poetry Archive. He has received awards from the Eric Gregory Trust, the Scottish Arts Council, the Society of Authors, the Poetry Book Society and the English-Speaking Union; and was in 2006 the first recipient of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland’s Iain Crichton Smith Award for services to literature. He is a fellow of the RSAMD, an honorary fellow of the ASL, and a Knight of Mark Twain.

23 Jan 2023