Brian Johnstone was a Scottish poet, born in Edinburgh in 1950.  Before his death he lived in Fife with his wife, the artist Jean Johnstone. Working as a primary school teacher for over twenty years, Johnstone began work as a freelance events organiser in the 1990s. In 1991 he founded Edinburgh’s Shore Poets, and ran Cave Readings for the Pittenweem Arts Festival from 1995-99. Leaving primary teaching in 1997, he went on to teach creative writing for a number of institutions, including the University of St Andrews Centre for Continuing Education and the Open College of the Arts. In 1998 he co-founded StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, for which he worked as director from 2000-2010, and of which he was an honorary president. At the time of the recording for the Poetry Archive, he had published three full collections, The Lizard Silence, The Book of Belongings and Dry Stone Work, as well as a number of chapbooks.  Juke Box Jeopardy followed in 2018, and The Marks on the Map published just before his death in 2021. His poetry was recognised with numerous grants and awards, including the Writer’s Bureau Prize, the Mallard Prize, a prize in the National Poetry Competition, and several Scottish Arts Council and Creative Scotland Grants. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages and he appeared at a wide range of internationnal poetry festivals in Europe and North Africa.

Johnstone’s poetry is often vigorous and muscular in its language, while retaining delicacy and subtlety in its movement. A poem like “The Thousand Blows” demonstrates his use of language as a material every bit as weighty and pliable as the woodworking tools the poem describes. It opens with a clear statement of purpose which, in its gravity and resonance, recalls early Heaney: “What’s done to wood cannot be / undone.”  Throughout this oblique ars poetica, the concentration of Johnstone’s diction is leavened by the skill of the enjambment and fluidity of syntax, and what follows is a moving history of both the working objects and the craftsmen who wielded them. Indeed, many of Johnstone’s poems might be said to be describing two things at once: the ostensible subject, and the poem itself as it comes into being. With an ingenious eye, he finds in the material and sensual worlds’ analogues for the tools – such as syntax and enjambment – he employs to describe them, allowing the world the poem illuminates to illuminate the workings of the poem in return. Take the vivid opening of “Tree Surgeons”, in which the poem’s technical manoeuvres are mirrored by the movements of the eponymous subject:

They range amongst the upper limbs


like primates encumbered with care,


find parts of trees we’d recognise

as human gestures on the level,


pass rope through crooks of elbows,

bends of knees, and anchor on


to laterals that bear the strain,

the dead weight of the saw


to make their surgery complete…

Aside from his technical expertise, Johnstone was a poet remarkable for his deep engagement with history, as demonstrated by a poem like “Empire Days”, which illuminates vividly the “atlas of despair” which is the legacy of the British colonies. Another poem “Projection” – which recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s entrancing poem “The Map” – describes a scene in which the particular projection used in a map of the world brings to the poet’s mind a series of surreal images, from the childlike and natural (“They’e peeled the globe the way / you would a piece of fruit in one”) to the onimous (“the atlas… conjures // Russia, Greenland, Arctic Canada, / grows them like a culture on a slide”). It is perhaps in his precise renderings of Scottish landscapes, such as in “A Proof of the Uists”, that the poet is at his most deeply involving, turning away from the mapping tendency of humans only to register, with extraordinary clarity, the mediation of culture in all our figurations of nature:

No pencil, ruler, mapping pen

could graph these islands the way


light and shadow,

scrolling their profile along the horizon,


show them today. Current and tide race,

cumulus, stratus


texture the page they glide upon,

while sunlight – sea reflected – streaks


like bog cotton tugged in the wind,

cutting the lines which swell


to peak after peak, each its own

distance away…


The complex sonic patterns of these poems are brought to life in this recording by Johnstone’s rich, expressive delivery.

Poems by Brian Johnstone

Reservoir - Brian Johnstone
How Well It Burns - Brian Johnstone
Early Photographs of Historic Towns - Brian Johnstone
Brian Johnstone in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

Books by Brian Johnstone



prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition

Prize website

Writers’ Bureau Prize

Prize website

Mallard Prize

Poetry at the Fringe during the Edinburgh Festival

Prize website

Featured in the Archive