Tom Buchan

Tom Buchan (1931 - 1995)
Photograph of Tom Buchan by Gordon Wright
Tom Buchan © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission)

Biography

Summary

Tom Buchan was a poet and playwright of restless energy whose place in the third wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance was uneasy, and who though in the end bound to Scotland, throughout his life and work sought alternative paths and an alternative voice.

 

 

Full Biography

Thomas Buchanan Buchan was a poet, playwright/dramatist and novelist. Born in Glasgow, he was the son of a Protestant minister and it has been said that Buchan’s subsequent rebellious streak came about because of his repressive upbringing. Buchan was educated at Jordanhill College School, Balfron High School, Aberdeen High School and finally the University of Glasgow where he achieved an MA (Hons) in English literature in 1953. He was a freelance writer and playwright from 1971 onwards, supporting himself up until the early 1970s in various teaching roles. From 1953 to 1956 he was a teacher at Denny High School in Stirlingshire, then a lecturer in English at the University of Madras in India (1957-1958) and a Warden at Community House, Glasgow (1958-1959). The two latter jobs were found for Buchan via the Iona Community, of which he was a member for some years, but he later confessed his unease as serving ostensibly as a missionary in Madras. Thereafter he went back to teaching, at Denny again, and at Irvine Royal Academy from 1963 to 1965, and then as a senior lecturer in English and Drama at Clydebank Technical College (1967-1970). In the 1970s Buchan travelled with various touring repertories, was a director of the Dumbarton and Craigmillar Festivals and from 1973 to 1974 he served as the final editor of the Scottish arts magazine Scottish International. During his editorship the aesthetic and outlook of the magazine changed radically and moved away from being a scholarly and literary publication, to something much more on the pulse of youth and popular culture.

His steering of Scottish International away from its original aims and attitudes is indicative of his life-long unease at the state of Scottish culture and literature and his desire to avoid intellectual safeness, complacency or stagnation. The incongruity of his position in the third wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance is highlighted by his appearance, in 1972, in Oscar Marzaroli’s short documentary of Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘No Fellow Travellers’. Buchan can be seen on screen, drinking in Milne’s Bar in Edinburgh with other poets of his generation, all extolling MacDiarmid’s virtues as a poet. Yet, Buchan keeps quiet and distant, often loftily smoking on his pipe. However, Buchan provided the commentary for the documentary, and it is his rich, broadcasting voice that can be heard summarising MacDiarmid’s life, times and achievements. Furthermore, Buchan identified with a group of younger poets, led by the poet/artist Ian Hamilton Finlay as the ‘Dishonour’d Shade: non-Abbotsford’ poets. This group was set up in response to Norman MacCaig’s 1959 anthology Honour’d Shade, published on the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Burns. The anthology was at the time considered rather elitist, conservative and controversial and Buchan’s presence in the counter culture hints at his own identification as a maverick or outsider. The poet and critic Mario Relich, who contributed reviews and articles to Scottish International during Buchan’s editorship, has described him as a flamboyant mix of hippy and political radical who dressed in military camouflage clothing in order to stand out, and someone who identified far more readily with American counter-culture than with the Scottish literary nationalism of Hugh MacDiarmid and his followers.

While the task here is to draw attention to his poetry, it is worth noting that Buchan’s name or work is little discussed today. He is more likely to be remembered as a footnote in Billy Connolly’s biography: in 1972, he was the author and collaborator, with Connolly, of ‘The Great Northern Welly Boot Show’ which established Connolly’s name. Buchan’s brand of ‘Scottish agitprop’ drama was built upon and expanded in the 1970s by such playwrights as John McGrath. The late 1960s and early 1970s seem to have been the time of most intense literary activity for Buchan. Although he listed as his first publication something called Ikons in 1958, no copies are to be found on library catalogues. His first main publication in 1969 was the poetry collection Dolphins at Cochin, followed in 1971 with the novel Makes You Feel Great and three further poetry collections, Exorcism (1972), Poems 1969-1972 and Forwords (1977). In 1969 and 1970 he was given a Scottish Arts Council award. In addition to this, arguably sparse, output as a poet and novelist, he was a prolific playwright and left behind, on his death, much unpublished material including several novels.

Buchan had lived for many years on the Moray Firth, in and around Findhorn where he was associated with the Findhorn Foundation. Marianna Lines suggests that his rebellious and controversy-seeking bent meant that he did not get on easily with many of the more peace-loving and bourgeois ‘New Age’ members of the community. Buchan died in mysterious circumstances in a wooded area near Forres in 1995. He had spent his later years interested in mysticism, psychedelics and UFOs, which suggests a man keen to find new experiences and broaden his spiritual horizons, but also a man searching for a place to belong. This is also echoed in his itinerant lifestyle – while he spent some years in India, most of his moving was within Scotland. His work never really abandons Scotland either. He may have been critical or doubtful of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, but he spent his life trying to find alternative paths and an alternative voice. In his poem ‘Fighting Talk’ the speaker works ‘without hope or tenderness / for the revolution which is bound to come’ and resolves to continue to fight against mental repression of all kinds:

What clarity I am able to squeeze
from this contused
life is hard to hold. Am I holding?
Ambivalent and slightly high I lurch
forward into the same old motheaten mental wars
and talk write intrigue and fight.

Buchan continued such a mental and intellectual fight all of his life. His long pamphlet poem (published by his own Poni Press) Exorcism owes something to the ranting, incantatory style of American poets like Allen Ginsberg, but it is uniquely addressed to Scotland, its history, politics and its organised religions. Buchan tries to banish the cold god of Presbyterianism, turns his back on the Iona Community, condemns the teaching of religion in schools and pours scorn on Edward Heath. He finally urges the reader:

let us exorcise once and for all
the dead god of Scotland
a god without tears
                for a country without joy
                his cup has passed away
                the cycle has come full circle
                it is finished now

Then the poem catalogues all of the mental illnesses and neuroses attributable to having to live in such conditions and the means of escape, such as mind altering drugs, drink or suicide. The poem ends with a plea for multi-faith wholeness and understanding, and tells the reader that ‘there is enlightenment / but none who seek it’. Exorcism captures a sense of Buchan’s frustration, disillusionment and desire for deeper artistic and existential truth and belonging. It is a development from his short poem ‘Scotland the wee’ which appeared in his first collection Dolphins at Cochin. In this poem Buchan speaks of mental and spiritual confinement and its dangers: how Scotland for him has become the ‘crèche of the soul’ and a ‘one way street to the coup of the mind’. Yet still Buchan perseveres with Scotland and his approach is little different to that of MacDiarmid fifty years before him, who too wanted to shock Scotland out of its intellectual dwam.

Despite the great variety of themes in Buchan’s finest collection Dolphins at Cochin – which range from anti-war poems, pop culture poems, UFO poems and druid poems – there is a recurrent sense underlying them all of a desire to be free of some sort of baggage of the past but being tethered to it nonetheless. Look for example at his earliest published poem ‘Her Father’ which appeared in Lines Review 5 in 1954. The speaker seems to long for a secular and sexually liberated age in which to be with his lover, yet the ghosts of that tired old idea of Scottish duality keeps haunting him. The speaker is reminded of his lover’s drunk father: ‘your bluff father pondered on the saints / when he sailed down the High Street on booze’. Even when they nearly manage to shrug off social inhibitions, the speaker is reminded of the drunken father singing ‘beside his fire’. Similarly, in the title poem ‘Dolphins at Cochin’ the speaker enjoys simply watching some dolphins live and swim in total freedom, yet he is aware that mankind does not belong in this picture, that the onlooker and poet will attempt to contain the experience:

We watched them helplessly
from our primitive element
able only to think up cold metaphors
or to anthropomorphise.

But they wheeled – dolphins!
their liquid backs, their arched fins
moving steadily out from the shore
towards the hilarious ocean.

Many of the poems in the collection are concerned with the absurdities of human effort – of mountaineers dying for their cause, astronauts dying in ‘their tin grave’ and a lecturer who is so boring and irrelevant the ground yawns and swallows him up. Yet for all of Buchan’s mocking of follies, there are hints as to the way forward. In ‘Background Music’, rather like Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘Two Girls Singing’, we learn that the answer lies in doing what we love and being creative:

if the flute and harpsicord and you persist,

tyrants and categories are overthrown
and someone entering
would notice you and me and hear
the flute, the harpsicord, continuing […]

In ‘Camas Tuath’ a druidic standing stone continues standing for something that has passed – the stone has survived but its message has been obliterated. From humour to despair, all of the poems show a creative desire to psychically or spiritually re-orienteer his time and place and there is an ongoing tension between what is man-made (be that a dogma or thing) and organic, such as the plant in ‘To Philosophise’ ‘which will keep growing at one’s feet / and will be there’.

Perhaps Buchan’s strongest single poem is one of his last published works, which appeared in Cencrastus 17 in 1984 – ‘Poem for myself on my fiftieth birthday’. The poem ranges across Buchan’s life and goes from gallows-humour to introspection. It begins with a diagnosis of a problem, the desire to change or solve that problem, the tethering to the past that has already been mentioned, the pursuit of an unattainable ideal and then finally the resolution to live a life as true to yourself as is possible. Buchan seeks ‘a song, a poem, a breaking of the heart – / life-force or what have you’ but knows that ‘an arsenal of nuclear hardware’ lies stashed ‘half-a-mile away’. In the poem Buchan sees his work being forgotten, he looks around and sees that even the work of his living contemporaries is already ‘being archived’. He confesses that while he has seen and experienced much, this has not translated into knowledge and understanding and as he gets older all he wants is ‘an anonymous simpler life / and a new way of being’. It is hard to tell, since Buchan wrote little or no poetry after this point, if he achieved a new way of being, or in MacDiarmid’s words had ‘a life worth having’, but the poetry and evidence of his life certainly suggests so, or at least that he tried his best to achieve some form of happiness by going against the grain of his time.

Article written by Richie McCaffery, 2016.

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Dolphins at Cochin (London: Barrie & Rockliff/The Cresset Press, 1969)
Poems 1969-1972 (Edinburgh: The Poni Press, 1972)
Exorcism (Midnight Publications, 1972)
Forwords (Glasgow: Print Studio Press, 1977)