The Scottish poet, artist, and pacifist Ian Hamilton Finlay has died at 80:

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in the Bahamas of Scottish parents in 1925. He was called up in 1944, and served in the Army for three years. When demobilised in 1947 he attended Glasgow College of Art, though he considered himself then primarily to be a writer — and indeed throughout his career referred to himself as a poet rather than an artist. After college he lived in Perthshire, making a precarious living by writing: he published a volume of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, and had several scripts broadcast by the BBC.

In 1966 he made what was to prove the most momentous decision of his life, by moving with his wife into a property at Stonypath in rural Lanarkshire, with extensive grounds which would eventually come to be known as Little Sparta. Here he began to work on the garden which became central to his life’s work.

The transition from writer to visual artist was gradual. As a poet, Finlay had become dissatisfied with, as he saw it, the failure of verse on the page to reflect its meaning in purely visual terms. Then by chance he found a book of Brazilian writings which exemplified “concrete poetry”, in which the look of the text on the page was as important as, if not more important than, the bare significance of the words. Many of his subsequent works have taken the form of brief poetic texts beautifully lettered, printed or cut into stone tablets, alongside sculptural pieces in which the words, if any, are used for their visual associations and evocative effect.

You can see some gorgeous photos of Little Sparta by Philip Hunter here, and there’s a nice MetaFilter thread on him from last year, which I closed with what is now an even more appropriate Finlay quote, “a little poem inscribed on a rock set into the earth”:


An appreciation by Brian Kim Stefans contains a wonderful “translation” of a Lorine Niedecker poem into Scots. Niedecker:

She now lay deaf to death.

She could have grown a good rutabaga
in the burial ground
  and how she’d have loved these woods.

One of her pallbearers said I
  like a damfool followed a deer
wanted to see her jump a fence
  [never’d seen a deer jump a fence]

pretty thing
  the way she runs.

And Finlay:

Noo lyin deef tae daith…

Och, think on aa the rhubarb
she micht hae grawn there
on her lair
  an hoo she wud
hae lood sic wids.

The wan o her pallbearers saye
  I, silly eedjit
gaed aff ahint a deer
never’d seen a deer

Loup over a fence — O
    the braw
      wee dear…

Via wood s lot.

Update (May 2023). I have added (in brackets) a line Stefans inadvertently omitted from the original, and fixed some punctuation and spacing. At some point after 1956 Niedecker added the word “dead” at the start, and this is considered the title in her Collected. I also note that (according to a 1994 article in Chapman) “Niedecker was not entirely happy with the translations.”


  1. michael farris says

    Also of possible interest is the death monday of Stanisław Lem
    “W Krakowie w wieku 85 lat zmarł w poniedziałek Stanisław Lem, jeden z największych pisarzy fantastyki naukowej. Jest wiele jego zasługi w tym, że “naukowa” dziś jest ona nie tylko z nazwy. …
    Urodzony w 1921 r. we Lwowie Lem po wojnie repatriował się wraz z rodziną do Krakowa. Niemal natychmiast zaczął też pisać utwory wojenne i fantastyczne…”
    “Stanislaw Lem died at the age of 85 in Cracow Monday. He was one of the greatest science fiction writers and it’s partly thanks to him that the word ‘science’ is not an empty modifier….
    Born in 1921 in Lvov, he resettled with his family in Cracow after the war (my note: prewar Lvov was part of Poland, post war Lvov was part of the Soviet Union). He began almost at once to write war and science fiction stories…”

  2. Umm, that headline looks like an imperative. Some periods might have been useful.

  3. I must be stone-thick. And deaf.
    WAVE ave is a poem?

  4. It’s concrete poetry (based on the forms of words and letters at least as much as meaning). Not everyone’s cup of tea, obviously, but you’d want to see it in context at Little Sparta before making a final judgment.

  5. Sounds like he was loaded–how many artists can afford to travel around and buy a lot of land without scoring any blockbusters?

  6. araucaria says

    I find it interesting that he translates “rutabaga” as “rhubarb”. If I understand correctly, rutabaga is the turnip-like vegetable (Brassica napus, I think) which Brits would call “swede” and we Scots would call a “neep”. (Mashed neeps and tatties are of course the traditional accompaniment to haggis.) Presumably Finlay felt the similar sound was more important than the exact reference.
    So does anybody know where “rutabaga” comes from? It sounds such a strange word to those of us east of the pond!

  7. Araucaria, this clears it up. And Scots were as British as anyone else, last I checked …

  8. Thanks Aidan. I now have my fill of neeps… And yes, I count myself as both Scots and British.

  9. I saw it in the pictures you linked to, LH. You mean the one with the stream of water coming down from the stone wall with the word “wave” above the opening?
    Very unimpressive, if you ask me. As poetry as much as gardening exercise as much as exercise in typographic fonts.
    And those stepping stones with inscriptions on them are downright dangerous: try not to get dizzy while reading and walking on water simultaneously.

  10. Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Unda’ was just a hundred yards or so from my office in grad school. It’s a work of art I looked at many times, and really appreciated.

Speak Your Mind