Douglas Cuthbert Colquhoun Young has been broadly referred to as both a polymath and polyglot, but more specifically his wide-ranging and varied career saw him do many things. He was a poet, writer, translator, dramatist, scholar, academic and Hellenist (Professor of Latin and Greek), Scottish nationalist, chairman of the Scottish National Party in the early 1940s, president of Scottish PEN, major member of the second wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, broadcaster, critic and there are doubtless many other appellations that could be applied to him. Many of those who penned an obituary for Young after his sudden death from a heart attack wrote about the challenge of summarising his achievements and capturing his essence in words – for David Murison, Young ‘defied description’.
He was big in every sense of the word – physically, emotionally and intellectually. He was a ‘kenspeckle’ (well-known) person in many circles. He had an enormous black beard most of his life and stood at 6 foot 7 inches tall. He was described by the bed-bound poet William Soutar as looking like ‘a BBC announcer who had partially metamorphosed into an aerial’. His near contemporary, the poet Tom Scott, remarked that perhaps Young’s talents were so multifarious that he could never quite settle on one field in which to really distinguish himself. Nowadays Young is best remembered either for his Classics scholarship (on Theognis and Aeschylus) or for one small poem in Scots, entitled ‘Last Lauch’:
The Minister said it wad dee,
the cypress buss I plantit.
But the buss grew til a tree,
Hit’s growan stark and heich,
derk and straucht and sinister,
kirkyairdie-like and dreich.
But whaur’s the Minister?
Young was born in Tayport on 5th June 1913 (his beloved town where he was to retain a house – ‘Makarsbield’ – until his death). The son of a mercantile clerk, Young spent his childhood between Bengal and Fife and his second language was Urdu. After Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, he graduated with a degree in Classics from the University of St. Andrews and pursued post-graduate study at New College, Oxford. Thereafter he was appointed assistant to the Professor of Greek at King’s College, Aberdeen (1938-1941) and was a Lecturer in Latin at University College Dundee from 1947 to 1953 and in Greek at the University of St. Andrews from 1953 to 1968. After this point he first was offered a Professorship in Classics at McMaster University, Ontario (1968-1970) and then became Professor of Greek at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked from 1970 to 1973 when he died suddenly of a heart attack while reading Homer’s Odyssey at his desk. At the time of his death he had been working as the chairman of a committee for the production of a Greek thesaurus – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.
Young has been described as both an ‘émigré Scot’ and an exile. While he clearly enjoyed his time in Canada and America, it could be said that he was drawn towards these countries because of his failure (despite repeated attempts) to find a Professorship in Classics at a Scottish university. This could be partially explained by the controversy that over-shadowed his life in the 1940s, when he refused to be conscripted into military service and registered as a conscientious objector during World War Two. Young refused conscription in order to pursue his argument for self-government for Scotland. His contention centred on the idea that the Act of Union 1707 had been broken so many times since its creation that it was constitutionally invalid for an English government to conscript Scottish people for overseas military service. To back up his stand, he published a raft of political pamphlets through the Scottish Secretariat where he expounded his views on self-government, Scottish nationalism and his manifestoes.
He served two terms in Saughton Prison for his beliefs (for refusal of both military and industrial conscription) and during this time secured a publisher for Sorley MacLean’s most famous Gaelic poem sequence Dain do Eimhir (William MacLellan, 1943), which he also helped to translate into English and Scots. Young was actively involved in Gaelic language and culture throughout his life. Also during this time, he was elected as the chairman of the Scottish National Party, and in 1944 and 1945 contested the Kirkcaldy seat for the SNP where his manifesto pledged to help people to better enjoy the ‘life and wealth of Scotland’. Young’s friend Hugh Seton-Watson said that his political career was all about wanting the best for his ‘fellow countrymen’ but that it ‘only prejudiced his personal advancement’. This could be the reason why Young felt professionally constrained or rejected in Scotland and became an exile in his later years. After 1950, he largely withdrew from politics, although in 1967 he was one of the founding members of the strongly Scottish nationalist 1320 Club. In 1943 Young married fashion artist Helena Auchterlonie (Hella Young – 1910-1999) who later became a celebrated painter, silversmith and watercolourist. The couple had two daughters, Clara (who co-edited with David Murison the memorial volume for Young, A Clear Voice) and Yana.
As a poet, Young was only really active – in terms of writing and publishing – during the 1940s, when he published two collections with William MacLellan. His first, Auntran Blads (1943), was hailed by Hugh MacDiarmid as ‘a significant book’, and it contains many of his translations of work by Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay from the Gaelic into Scots. His translation of Campbell Hay’s ‘Grunnd na Mara’ shows Hay’s kinship with Young’s own ideas of self-government for Scotland at the time. The poem is all about the voices of the bereaved speaking of the war dead, and it ends with the bitter couplet (in Young’s Scots): ‘Sair the price maun be dounpitten / by the island-fowk for the greatness o Britain’.
Other original lyrical poems by Young, such as ‘For Alasdair’, are more personal and poignant while retaining a polemical bite. Such poems show that he was not blind to what was happening around him while he was in prison. ‘For Alasdair’ is an elegy for a promising student of Young’s who died in the war. Young, imagining standing on a riverbank in Scotland sees in the brown, fast-flowing river water the turbidity of the times and thinks of his late student:
Hauldan the Germans awa frae the Suez Canal,
ye dee’d. Suld this be Scotland’s pride, or shame?
Siccar it is, your gallant kindly saul
maun lea thon land and tak the laigh road hame.
The spate rins drumlie and broun,
whummlan aathing doun.
Hugh MacDiarmid, who initially praised Young’s poetry, later wrote that he thought his work was ‘wit-writing rather than poetry’ and MacDiarmid was not alone in saying so. Young’s second and final collection, A Braird o Thristles (1947), does contain more comical pieces, as well as fine elegies for William Soutar, amongst others. Both collections are bravura displays of the sheer range of Young’s translations. There are poems by MacLean, Campbell Hay, Burns, Pushkin, Sappho, Valery, Dante and Catullus to mention only a few. On top of this, Young did not simply translate into Scots, he also translated s poems into Greek and Latin. However, the selection of original poems accompanying this article shows the emotional depth and range of his work and how much of it was influenced by the war and its aftermath. See, for instance, ‘After Lunch, Ekali’.
After the 1940s, Young concentrated on his academic and scholarly work in Classics as well as writing a very entertaining account, Chasing an Ancient Greek, of his journey across war-torn Europe in search of Theognis’ manuscripts. The prose is both erudite and light and we are often made aware of Young’s shock at the scale of ‘bomb damage’ to the cities he loved and his yearning for post-war reconstruction. The book shows that while he was fascinated by ancient cultures, he spent his life working and campaigning for his vision of a better future for Scotland. All of his subsequent literary work, largely in prose with the exception of rendering two plays of Aristophanes into Scots – The Puddocks 1957/1958 (The Frogs) and The Burdies 1959 (The Birds), shows a dedication to, and a single-minded focus on, the Scots language and Scotland. It has taken until 2016, over four decades since Young’s death, for his poetic achievement in translations and original work to be cemented with Naething Dauntit: The Collected Poems of Douglas Young (Humming Earth, edited by Emma Dymock).
Article written by Richie McCaffery, 2016