Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892 - 1978)
Photograph of Hugh MacDiarmid by Gordon Wright
Hugh MacDiarmid © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission)



Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) was Scotland’s most influential and controversial writer in the 20th century. He urged and enabled the regeneration of all aspects of Scotland’s literature and culture through his poetry, polemical writing and political activity. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) is generally regarded as Scotland’s masterpiece of Modernism.

Full Biography

Hugh MacDiarmid was born as Christopher Murray Grieve on 11 August 1892 in Langholm, a small town just north of the Scottish border with England. His father was the local postman, his mother's people lived in neighbouring towns and villages. As a boy he roamed the nearby hills and forests and read all the books in the public library housed above the family home.

He was going to be a teacher but decided on journalism instead, went to South Wales and reported on the riots and resistances of the coal miners, writing for the socialist newspaper run by Keir Hardie, the Scottish leader and foundation-figure for the Labour Party. 'It's like living on top of a volcano here,' he wrote home. When the First World War began, he signed up but his political consciousness was developing fast. He was thinking about what was happening through the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916: a Celtic nation violently asserting independence from the British Imperial centre. He was thinking about the Russian Revolution in 1917: a socialist ideal, a Communist revolution, an act of defiance towards the class system, social hierarchy, economic discrimination.

Later, he joined the Communist Party, believing in the ideal of international socialism, and he was a founder-member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, believing in the cultural difference and value of Scotland, as opposed to the British imperial ethos. During the 1930s he was rejected by the nationalists for being too communist, and by the communists for being too nationalist. In typical fashion, he rejoined the Communist Party in 1956 as many left it.

Nation, for MacDiarmid, meant a cultural identity made up of different component parts, not motivated by competition but rather by collaborative curiosity. When he began to explore it seriously, he found that his national cultural identity included different languages: Gaelic, Scots and English; different geographical terrains: borderlands, industrial cities, fertile heartlands, stretching Highland moors and mountains, island archipelagos, landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes: this could not be accommodated within a single British state. So he had a vision. What was required, after he was demobilized and returned to Scotland, was a strategy.

He went to the north-east seaside town of Montrose, became a journalist on the local newspaper, a socialist Justice of the Peace. He began writing in English, eerie poems and deliberately crafted short stories, many set in Salonika and France, where he had been a Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps and recovered from cerebral malaria. He started writing in Scots, using words and phrases he knew from boyhood and acquired from reading in dictionaries and works of Scottish literature from earlier eras. The poems of Sangschaw (1925), Penny Wheep (1926) and A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle (1926) were shocking, adult, wry, rebarbative, difficult, piercingly sweet, unsentimental and brutal. They established a new dispensation for Scottish literature, and modernist lusts: for the body and the sexually explicit cognate with Joyce and Lawrence; for the local and demotic, cognate with William Carlos Williams; for the difficult, cognate with Eliot; for the vatic and austere, cognate with Yeats and Pound; for the intellectually demanding, cognate with Stevens and Valéry; but uniquely in the Scottish context, reclaiming a literary history that had fallen into neglect and obfuscation. Forget about Burns, he advised, go back to Dunbar and Henryson, recover and reclaim a national tradition that goes back through millennia.

His vision was deepening. What of the strategy and tactics? His newspaper job was a breadwinner but also taught him tactics. He wrote the poems, but also articles, essays, polemical and analytical cultural, literary and political journalism, publishing in general newspapers and specialised periodicals throughout Scotland, in London (especially in the highbrow New Age, alongside Pound and other luminaries of modernity) and occasionally in America. He edited anthologies of poetry, Northern Numbers, three collections representing the old guard alongside the hard-headed younger generation, with the third book publishing poems by ten men and ten women: positive discrimination indeed. He edited his own periodicals and magazines: The Scottish Chapbook, The Scottish Nation, others, and contributed to many more. The strategy was to get the ideas out into circulation as widely as possible, to stir things up, not to let the dead hand of the establishment reassert its authority.

Two essays demonstrate the interconnectedness of these interests: 'A Theory of Scots Letters' (1923) which MacDiarmid published himself in three successive issues of his journal The Scottish Chapbook and 'English Ascendancy in British Literature' (1931) which T.S. Eliot published in The Criterion. In the first, MacDiarmid proposed that the language we call Scots possessed a validity in speech and a unique value in literature in its capacity to draw on the experience of its users in Scotland across generations and geographies, and in its potential in literary modernism. In the second, he compared the status of the literatures written in different languages in the British Isles with the dominance of English-language literature: Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, English (in its distinctive forms in different regions and nations), all possessed unique qualities suppressed by the dominance of English-language literature.

Edwin Muir, MacDiarmid’s erstwhile ally and fellow-fighter in the 1920s, published a book called Scott and Scotland (1936), in which he argued that the only way forward for Scottish writers was to write exclusively in English. Muir was following Eliot's directive that one nation required one language and one literature to be written in it. MacDiarmid's opposition was to argue the value of plurality, the specifics of multiple strands of history, the coherence that might be found in the diversity of Scotland. MacDiarmid proceeded to edit The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940), a breakthrough volume including translations from work in Gaelic, French and Latin, as well as poems in Scots and English.

The literary arguments intertwined with crises in MacDiarmid’s personal life. His first wife, Peggy Skinner, left him for a coal merchant. He met his second wife, Valda Trevlyn, and with their young son Michael, went to Shetland in 1933. Here, physical and mental breakdown followed a period of intense isolation, introspection and psychological anxiety. Astonishingly, his greatest poems of the 1930s delivered a way through the crises. 'Lament for the Great Music' reconnects with deeper traditions, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe and all that signifies for a multi-layered, complex, tragic, defiant, strengthening, persistent national character. 'On a Raised Beach' begins with the poet utterly alone but it ends with the understanding that life is an act of participation in a way the lonely observer could not comprehend.

The book-length poems that constitute his later work, In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961) largely come from this period, too, though they were being worked on right through to their publication. These poems attempt to accommodate many languages and art-forms by referring to human creativity in all its aspects, as far as he could discover, through his own experience, through talking with others, through correspondence, through his reading of books and reviews of books in magazines. He pillaged and transformed his thefts into verse, amassing page upon page of information about subjects you would never encounter anywhere else between the same covers, turning from Finnish dialect to Fred Astaire, from Shakespeare to Tarzan.

MacDiarmid's great emphasis in his later poetry and political understanding is that form in art also involves movement. It can never be static. MacDiarmid knew this, but he also learned it, deeply, in his years at the centre of cultural activity in Scotland in the 1920s, then in the years of exile, collapse and recovery in the 1930s, and it is at the core of all his later work. He continued to dominate the Scottish literary world even as he aged. Edwin Morgan, in his tribute on MacDiarmid’s 75th birthday, said: ‘Eccentric and often maddening genius he may be, but MacDiarmid has produced many works which, in the only test possible, go on haunting the mind and memory and casting Coleridgean seeds of insight and surprise.’

Alan Riach


Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Annals of the Five Senses (Montrose: C.M. Grieve, 1923)
Sangschaw (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1925)
Penny Wheep (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1926)
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1926)
The Lucky Bag (Edinburgh: Porpoise Press, 1927)
To Circumjack Cencrastus, or, The Curly Snake ((Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1930)
First Hymn to Lenin and other poems (London: Unicorn Press, 1931)
Scots Unbound and other poems (Stirling: E. Mackay, 1932)
Stony Limits and other poems (London: Gollancz, 1934)
Selected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1934)
Second Hymn to Lenin and other poems (London: Stanley Nott, 1935)
Direadh ([Dunfermline: J.B. Mackie & Co.], 1938)
R. Crombie Saunders, ed., Selected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1944)
Poems of the East-West Synthesis ([Glasgow: Caledonian Press, 1946])
A Kist of Whistles: new poems (Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1947)
In Memoriam James Joyce: from a vision of world language (Glasgow: W. MacLellan, 1955)
Stony Limits; and, Scots Unbound and Other Poems (Edinburgh: Castle Wynd, 1956)
The Battle Continues (Edinburgh: Castle Wynd, 1957)
Three Hymns to Lenin (Edinburgh: Castle Wynd, 1957)
Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962)
On a Raised Beach: a poem (Preston: Harris Press, 1967)
A Lap of Honour (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967)
Early Lyrics by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by J. K. Annand (Preston: Akros, 1968)
A Clyack-Sheaf (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1969)
More Collected Poems (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1970)
Selected Poems, edited by David Craig and John Manson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970)
The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology: poems in Scots and English, edited by Michael Grieve and Alexander Scott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)
Complete Poems, 2 vols, edited by Michael Grieve and W.R. Aitken (London: Martin Brian & O’Keeffe, 1978; Manchester: Carcanet, 1993-94)
The Socialist Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by T.S. Law and Thurso Berwick (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978)
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle: an annotated edition, edited by Kenneth Buthlay (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987)
Selected Poetry, edited by Alan Riach and Michael Grieve (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992)
The Revolutionary Art of the Future: rediscovered poems, edited by John Manson, Dorian Grieve and Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003)

as editor

Northern Numbers, 3 series (1920-1923)
Living Scottish Poets (1931)
The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1940)
Scottish Chapbook (1922-1923)
The Voice of Scotland: a quarterly magazine of Scottish arts and affairs (1938-1958)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Lucky Poet: a self-study in literature and political ideas, being the autobiography of Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1943)

K.D. Duval and Sydney Goodsir Smith (eds), Hugh MacDiarmid: a festschrift (Edinburgh: K.D. Duval, 1962)

Kenneth Buthlay, Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964)

Duncan Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) and the Scottish Renaissance (Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1964)

Duncan Glen (ed.), Hugh MacDiarmid: a critical survey (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972)

Edwin Morgan, Hugh MacDiarmid (Harlow: Longman Group Ltd., 1976)

Gordon Wright, MacDiarmid: an illustrated biography of Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) (Edinburgh: Gordon Wright Publishing, 1977)

Ann Edwards Boutelle, Thistle and Rose: a study of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry (Loanhead: Macdonald Publishers, 1980)

P.H. Scott and A.C. Davis, The Age of MacDiarmid: essays on Hugh MacDiarmid and his influence on contemporary Scotland (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1980)

Catherine Kerrigan, Whaur Extremes Meet: the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid 1920-1934 (Edinburgh: James Thin, The Mercat Press, 1983)

Nancy K. Gish, Hugh MacDiarmid: the man and his work (London: Macmillan Press, 1984)

Peter McCarey, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russians (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987)

Alan Bold, MacDiarmid: Christopher Murray Grieve: a critical biography (London: John Murray, 1988)

Alan Riach, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Epic Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)

Nancy Gish (ed.), Hugh MacDiarmid: man and poet (Maine: National Poetry Foundation; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992)

Robert Crawford, ‘MacDiarmid and his makers’ in Identifying poets: self and territory in twentieth-century poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)

Alan Riach, The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Glasgow: ASLS, 1999) (Scotnotes, no. 15)

Alexander Mackay, ‘MacDiarmid and Russia revisited’ in Gerard Carruthers, David Goldie and Alastair Renfrew (eds), Beyond Scotland: new contexts for twentieth-century Scottish literature (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004)

Christopher Whyte, ‘The 1950s’ in Modern Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)

Scott Lyall, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry and Politics of Place: imagining a Scottish republic (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

Roderick Watson, ‘Poets and novelists of the literary renaissance: Christopher Murray Grieve, ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ (1892-1978)’ in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Margery Palmer McCulloch, (several chapters) in Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959: literature, national identity and cultural exchange (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Susan R. Wilson (ed.), The Correspondence Between Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean: an annotated edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

Scott Lyall and Margery Palmer McCulloch (eds), The Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011)

Sascha Bru; Aniela Korzeniowska; John Manson [three essays] Scottish Literary Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring/Summer  2011)

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