One Hundred Years of Hugh MacDiarmid

In the one hundred years since the name Hugh M‘Diarmid first appeared in print, I’ve spent the last thirty of them trying to make his work more available, in Scotland and internationally. Since 1992, when Carcanet began publishing MacDiarmid’s collected works under my General Editorship, his readership has grown and diminished and grown again; his impact has been recognised, scorned, returned to and, for many, secured. ‘We must get him out of the hands of the Scots!’ one early piece of advice was given to me. We must put him back into the hands and minds of new generations, I replied. The battle continues.

Lifting him and his work right out of overfamiliar contexts and clichéd responses is a perennial imperative. But who wouldn’t be captured at once by verse such as this, from ‘By Wauchopeside’:

I used to hear a blackie mony a nicht
Singin’ awa’ t’ an unconscionable’ oor
Wi’ nocht but the water keepin’t company
(Or nocht that ony human ear could hear)
– And wondered if the blackie heard it either
Or cared whether it was singin’ tae or no’!
O there’s nae sayin’ what my verses awn
To memories like these. Ha’e I come back
To find oot? Or to borrow mair? Or see
Their helpless puirness to what gar’d them be?
            Late sang the blackie but it stopt at last.
            The river still ga’ed singin’ past.


Nature poetry better than Wordsworth. Or this, a beautifully touching poem in which the mortal physicality of being human cuts through the material circumstances of poverty and deprivation, even as those circumstances are recognised and opposed:

The dirty licht that through the winnock seeps
Into this unkempt room has glozed strange sichts;
Heaven like a Peepin’ Tam ’twixt chimley-pots
Keeks i’ the drab fore-nichts.

The folk that hed it last – the selfsame bed –
Were a great hulkin’ cairter an’ his bride.
She deed i’ child-birth – on this verra spot
Whaur we’ll lie side by side.

An’ everything’s deid-grey except oor een.
Wi’ wee waugh jokes we strip an’ intae bed…
An’ suddenly oor een sing oot like stars
An’ a’ oor misery’s shed.

What tho’ the auld dour licht is undeceived?
What tho’ a callous morn oure shairly comes?
For a wee while we ken but een like stars,
An’ oor herts gaen’ like drums.

Mony’s the dreich back bedroom whaur the same
Sad little miracle tak’s place ilk’ nicht,
An’ orra shapes o’ sickly-hued mankind
Cheenge into forms o’ licht.

‘Back Bedroom’


The Scots poems have their advocates but it is much more than that. Back in 1992, there was some thought that a small anthology of the early poems might be published but as I recall, nothing – in that seventieth anniversary year – was actually in print and available. Nothing. The last thirty years have changed that, at least. I remember on Orchard Road in Singapore, in the big Kinokuniya bookshop in the mid-1990s, seeing a row of the Carcanet edition on the shelves. Another comment I remember from that time was the English poet and university don Jeremy Prynne, on the phone to me from Cambridge, when I told him of what I was intending to do to bring MacDiarmid back into print: ‘Well, he’s not going to go away, is he?’

I met him in the last years of his life but my reading of him began at my secondary school, in Gravesend, in Kent, deep in darkest south-east England, of all places, when the Headmaster, James Brogden, asked me if I’d read this poet, living now, writing in the language of Scotland, the nation I had come from to this school in the south of England. I had not. He told me I should. A teacher, Chris Botten, then introduced me to the poetry of Robert Henryson, the fifteenth-century Scots Makar whose masterwork, The Testament of Cresseid, I studied in the little Penguin Books edition edited by MacDiarmid and published in 1973. In the summer of 1976, I was in the old John Smith’s bookshop in St Vincent Street in Glasgow, picked up a copy of the lovely pocket-sized 200 Burns Club edition of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and opened it and my eyes widened and my brain went into fast acceleration mode. Here was a verse fluent and driving, in a language I knew from cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends, and it was dealing with matters of adult sexuality and politics and spirit. I wanted to read more.

Later that summer I found the address of the publisher William MacLellan, on Garnethill in Glasgow, near the School of Art. I went there and knocked on the door. Bill’s wife, the concert pianist Agnes Walker, opened it and let me in. Bill was sitting in his armchair by the fireplace, pipe in hand, dressed in kilt and grey tweed jacket, with a high pile of copies of MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce piled up beside him, as if he was guarding them. A couple of small Scottie dogs bounced around energetically. I asked if I might buy a copy of the book, and did, for £4.95. (It was the second edition from 1956.) That weekend, in my grandparents’ home, in Calderbank, near Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, I sat down and read it, cover to cover. That was a different kind of exhilaration: a hunt that started then that’s never ended.

The following year, at Cambridge University, my tutor, Tim Cribb, who had met and knew MacDiarmid and his wife Valda, told me that if I was enthusiastic about his work I should go and meet him, he would welcome the visit, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

One late afternoon a fellow-student friend named Chris Larsen and I decided that the time had come. We set off, hitch-hiking overnight from Cambridge to Edinburgh. The next day, one of my uncles took us by car to Biggar, we found Brownsbank Cottage after various enquiries and wrong roads, and Chris and I went up and knocked on the door. As we were waiting, we saw the old man sitting by the window in Valda’s room, watching a rugby match on the TV in the near corner. Valda answered the door and fiercely demanded to know who we were. Bona fides somewhat shyly offered, knowing we were risking rudeness, ‘Well, you’d better come in,’ she said, and admitted us. The conversation continued in further visits through those last years of MacDiarmid’s life, and with Valda, after his death, and has never really ended.

There’s a TV programme currently available on YouTube, ‘People and Politics’, a Thames Television broadcast from 1977, in which, about twenty minutes in, MacDiarmid is invited to speak. This is the year before his death and two years before the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution (March 1st), which most voters in Scotland approved only for the result to be torpedoed by a Labour party minister at Westminster. Shortly after that (May 3rd), Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came into power with a majority of votes in England. This is what MacDiarmid says in 1977:

I’ve got no interest whatever in devolution of any kind at all, of any degree. I want Scottish independence, and ultimately a Scottish Republic. That’s not a new idea. But the majority of the Scottish people don’t want that. The majority of the Scottish people don’t know any more than they’ve ever known what they want. In any case, they couldn’t want what I stand for because until quite recently, Scottish schools, colleges and universities had no courses in Scottish literature or the Scottish languages. They were entirely conditioned by English standards. I want to break away from all that. I want complete disjunction from England…


In other words, poetry, the work of all the arts, is a major fact of any society, but no less important politically is education, the work of all people, but particularly educational institutions, all of them, and the politicians charged with helping make such education happen. MacDiarmid said, ‘until quite recently…’. Let’s remind ourselves of the establishment of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies in 1970 and of the Department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow in 1971. He knew what he was talking about.

My personal story of encountering MacDiarmid and his work overlaps with the last years of his life and the rise of neoliberal economics internationally and emphatically within the UK, and the political structures that have continued to hold Scotland in a judicial trap. We’re still trying to free ourselves. The work of the poetry and all the arts, as MacDiarmid demonstrated, and as the poems quoted above show, is no use as a panacea, nor compensation, nor therapy, and it’s certainly no guarantee of economic growth. That it should be seen as such is a very silly notion. Above all, it’s no good if it doesn’t touch what humanity is at its best, what human potential is at its fullest. And for over one hundred years that’s what MacDiarmid has been teaching us to understand.

The last time I met him, near the end of his life, I asked with the fury of youth, ‘When?’ MacDiarmid raised his eyebrows. Chris, he said I should call him. That wasn’t quite right. And ‘Dr Grieve’ was too formal. I think I remember that I called him Christopher. ‘You’ve called for all these things, and argued, written so much, so passionately, Scotland’s independence, socialism, a better place to live in, the well-being of people, all these things, when do you think it might happen?’

He smiled and nursed his pipe, puffed, and said, ‘Alan, when you get to my age, the urgency is less important.’ As in these lines, from ‘On a Raised Beach’:

                            Nothing has stirred
Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago
But one bird. The widest open door is the least liable to intrusion,
Ubiquitous as the sunlight, unfrequented as the sun.
The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be,
That every one of them has had its gates wide open far longer
Than all birds put together, let alone humanity,
Though through them no man can see,
No man nor anything more recently born than themselves
And that is everything else on the Earth.
I too lying here have dismissed all else.
Bread from stones is my sole and desperate dearth,
From stones, which are to the Earth as to the sunlight
Is the naked sun which is for no man’s sight.
I would scorn to cry to any easier audience
Or, having cried, to lack patience to await the response.
I am no more indifferent or ill-disposed to life than death is;
I would fain accept it all completely as the soil does;
Already I feel all that can perish perishing in me
As so much has perished and all will yet perish in these stones.
I must begin with these stones as the world began.

…..

We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.


It’s difficult to get a good training in discrimination these days. It’s difficult to trust in quality when the priority is the market and selling. Great works of art give you more the more deeply you become acquainted with them, while the market is there to sell you things. Most of the things sold are non-returnable, non-refundable, poor quality and built for fast decay. They may have a superficial attraction, but that’s not going to lead you to any depth of humanity at all. What MacDiarmid keeps giving is a depth of understanding, an imperative to go out into the world and explore it, and the priority of the patience needed to appreciate it. That is his provenance, one hundred years since. There is also, though, the unpredicted humour that opens the wealth that poetry and all the arts deliver, as MacDiarmid describes it in ‘The Ross-shire Hills’:

What are the hills of Ross-shire like?
Listen. I’ll tell you. Over the snow one day
I went out with my gun. A hare popped up
On a hill-top not very far away.

I shot it at once. It came rolling down
And round it as it came a snowball grew,
Which, when I kicked it open, held not one
But seventeen hares. Believe me or not. It’s true.


Brownsbank, the cottage near Biggar in which MacDiarmid, or Christopher Grieve, and Valda, lived from 1951 until their deaths in 1978 and 1989 respectively, is a registered charitable trust and in need of maintenance and repair. Visit the website at:  http://www.macdiarmidsbrownsbank.org.uk/

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Alan Riach

Alan Riach is a Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University and was President of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2006–10. He has published extensively on Hugh MacDiarmid, and on the poetry of modern Scotland more generally. He is the author of six books of poems, most recently The Winter Book (Luath, 2017).

More articles by Alan Riach


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