Hugh MacDiarmid – the poet, communist and nationalist who breathed life into the Scottish Leid


SOMETIMES described as Scotland’s greatest poet since Bobby Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid is credited with restoring Scots as a literary language and leading a Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s.

If you visually know the individual, you are likely to imagine a remarkable, even kenspeckle, figure with a tweed jacket, rebellious hair, mustache and a pipe, crossing the heather with his trusty cromach pushing its way past him.

Not a millennium then. Nope. He was born Christopher Murray Grieve on August 11, 1892 and, although it is tempting to believe him, the love child of McGlashan, from the television comedy Absolutely, and Grigor McWatt – from the wonderfully creative novel by Annalena McAfee Hame – the prosaic truth is that his father was a postman. He was therefore destined to become a man of letters.

The family lived above the public library (where his mother was a guardian) in the town of Langholm in Dumfriesshire, dangerously close to the border with England. Young Christopher is said to have brought tomes from that literacy haunt upstairs in a laundry basket. So all hope of leading a normal life with a useful profession has vanished.

He was educated at Langholm Academy and then at Broughton Junior Student Center, Edinburgh, which he left in 1911, possibly as a result of some opaque jiggery-pokery involving misplaced books and postage stamps. So qualified, he found work in journalism with the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch before moving to Wales and writing for the socialist Merthyr Pioneer headed by his fellow Scottish and Labor Party founder Keir Hardie.

Subsequently, in a particularly itinerant life, he worked for the Clydebank and Renfrew Press before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the war in 1914. After this war (First World) he became editor-in-chief of the Montrose Review.

In the meantime he was an enthusiastic student of the Scottish language or Leid, and in 1922 adopted the MacDiarmid handle. However, his first book, Annals of the Five Senses, published in 1923 at his own expense, was a mixture of prose and poetry in English.

In 1926 his most famous work, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, was published, the most Scottish title in the history of poetry. The opening lines of the book-length poem read: I amna fou ‘sae muckle as fatigue – deid dune / It’s gey and hard wark coupin’ gless for gless / Wi ‘Cruivie and Gilsanquhar and like / And I’m no ‘juist as beautiful as I was.

I see. MacDiarmid expert Kenneth Buthlay describes A Drunk Man as “filled with fine lyrics, satire, theft, parody, slapstick, occasional verse, Rabelaisian jokes, metaphysical vanities, translations and adaptations, meditations sustained and speculation on philosophical and religious issues, elementary symbols, and obscure and other allusions ”. Yes, that’s almost verbatim what I thought.

Either way, MacDiarmid has rolled out its own “synthetic Scottish” language, mixing several dialects. In his later work he returned mainly to English or, indeed, “synthetic English”, combining scientific vocabulary while, with less universal acclaim, he moved on to more factual verses.

The Poetry Foundation notes that his work is “often characterized as lyrical, argumentative, controversial and contradictory”, while English critic (with Scottish parents) Ian Hamilton has ruled that MacDiarmid “makes its own rules, despises categories, opens up rules. sealed compartments, overlaps disciplines, despises social, cultural and academic cliques and slaps… ”

Hamilton also wrote that he had encountered in MacDiarmid a reference to “mither-fochin scones,” which rather brought him back, until he consulted the glossary and found that in MacDiarmid’s Scots, ” to foch ”meant“ to turn [used of scones on a griddle]”.

In 1929, MacDiarmid left for London, where he worked for a year for Compton Mackenzie’s Vox magazine. Next came Liverpool from 1930 to 1931, London again, then the village of Thakeham in West Sussex, before returning to Scotland and, in 1933, moving with this son and his second wife to the pretty colony of Sodom (at l ‘Sudheim origin) on Shetland Island of Whalsay.

In 1942, war work took him to Glasgow, where he lived until 1949, when the English and anti-Scottish writer George Orwell sent him to MI5 among those “those to whom we shouldn’t. not trust ”. Indeed, it had been monitored by the British secret services since 1943.

How? ‘Or’ What? Did his poems undermine morale? Probably not, but his opinions might have it. In 1941 he wrote in a letter: “On the whole, I consider the Axis Powers, although more violently evil at the moment, less dangerous than our own long-term government and indistinguishable in their purpose. ”

There was also the little problem of his communism. And, uh, his Scottish nationalism. Indeed, our Hugh had put his fingers in various political pies since the age of 16, when he joined the Independent Labor Party.

In 1928 he was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland – what happened to that? He left them because of his Communist views and was expelled from the Communist Party because of his nationalist views.

He also flirted with Mussolini-style fascism in the 1920s, when it had a more left-wing component, but pooped it when it became a bit on the far right. His daughter-in-law, Deirdre Grieve, said: “I think he has nurtured almost any ideals that it was possible to nurture at one point or another.”

The man himself said, “I am. . . interested only in a very subordinate way to the politics of socialism as a political theory; my real concern for socialism is an artist’s organized approach to the interdependencies of life. Right-oh.

MacDiarmid ran for the Westminster elections for the SNP in Glasgow Kelvingrove in 1945 (excellent timing) and 1950, and for the Communist Party in Kinross and Western Perthshire in 1964, winning 127 votes.

Between 1949 and 1951 he lived in a house on the grounds of Dungavel House (now an immigrant detention center), Lanarkshire, before settling – finally – in a cottage called Brownsbank (Brounsbank in Scottish) in Candymill, near Biggar. Visitors to the cottage included Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Allen Ginsberg, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Seamus Heaney.

He died in 1978 at the age of 86, a monumental literary figure who breathed new life into words like bleezin, loupin and foch.

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