Hamish Maclaren (Douglas Hamish Van Lenepp Maclaren) was born in Tain, Ross-shire, on 7 March 1901. He was the fourth of five children and was educated at Osborne and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. In 1939 he married Jean Dunn Tringham and they had one child, Lucilla Jean, who was born the following year.
In 1917 he joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman (or Ensign). His first voyage was to Archangel, during the Russian Revolution, when he was liberally introduced to Vodka by grateful Anti-Bolshevists. In 1918, as the shortest midshipman to hand, he was sent as a deliberate snub to accept the surrender of the Commanding Officer of a German warship. In the post-war years he served in the Mediterranean and trained as a gunnery officer, which presumably accounted for his aversion to loud noises. In 1922 the Navy sent him to the University of Cambridge, before posting him to HMS Hawkins on the China station. In September 1923, he landed in Yokohama with a working party to clear up the debris after the major earthquake. He also served on a river patrol boat, protecting British commercial interests.
During this time he began contributing to various literary magazines and in 1924 he transferred to the Naval Reserve to become a full time writer and literary editor, later being promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. He signed on as mate of a tramp-steamer and sailed the length of the Yangtse and around the China coast. Whilst returning to England, as mate on another tramp-steamer, he was shipwrecked off Cape Horn when the propeller fell off the ship. The variety and breadth of his experiences is reflected in his poetry and writings.
From 1928 onwards he lived at Cobstone Windmill, at Ibstone in Buckinghamshire, which he leased from Merton College, Oxford. Whilst there, he wrote The Private Opinions of a British Bluejacket (1929), written phonetically as the diary of a semi-illiterate seaman. During this time he also penned many of the poems which were to appear in Sailor with Banjo, which he described as “a narrative poem interspersed with lyrics”. It was first published in 1929 by Victor Gollancz and then in 1930 by Macmillan in the USA, with extra lyrics. From 1925, he contributed to and edited, the ‘Way of the World’ column in the Morning Post (now incorporated in the Daily Telegraph) and in 1926 he began to contribute regularly to The Spectator. From 1928 to 1936 he was The Spectator‘s poetry editor.
In 1936 Peter Davies published Cockalorum, a semi-autobiographical collection of tales, and Maclaren began collecting material for a third book, but the manuscript was destroyed in a storm whilst he was living in the Windmill. He contributed to a number of literary periodicals and was a member of the Contributors’ Club to The Review of Reviews, which in June 1934, made him the subject of a caricature competition.
In September 1939, at the outbreak of WWII, he rejoined the Royal Navy, with the wartime rank of Commander, and in November was recruited to the Press Bureau in London for naval intelligence work. In 1945 he was injured by a German V-bomb which landed near him in Whitehall and, although he largely recovered, it prevented him resuming his literary career. During the 1950s, he was the representative in Scotland for the Laurence Book Company Ltd. and the Trans-Atlantic Book Service Ltd and was later a publishers’ commission agent. He was badly affected by his wife’s unexpected death in 1966.
His first known published poem is ‘The Lake Garden’ in The Morning Post of 28th July, 1925. It is set near Loch Awe in Scotland and is the work of an already accomplished poet:
They lie untended:
Only the dark water shows,
When day’s ended
How they outshine the rose
When the lilies, the water-lilies,
Break forth in their snows.
They float still and lonely,
Never a gardener draws near:
The pines, only,
Stand sentinel about the darkened mere,
When the lilies, the water-lilies,
Flower year after year.
His last known published poem was ‘To Idleness’ in The Observer, on 13 August, 1939:
Under the trees — the very words can make
Cool peace, a haven for my busy heart.
Blow, summer wind, that makes the boughs to shake,
And shivering, whispering foliage play your part.
Conjure up silence through your murmuring voices;
Stillness in sun, at which my heart rejoices.
Spread your low branches in a leafy shade.
Summon the butterflies and serious bees,
That by their tiny stir my heart be made
More conscious of its respite and its ease.
Under the trees, and lulled by wind and sun,
Fain would I dream till all my days are done.
The last two lines of this poem appear on his gravestone in Swaffham Bulbeck churchyard, Cambridgeshire.
Hamish Maclaren’s poetry has been published in newspapers and periodicals and in numerous anthologies, but he was reclusive and highly self-critical and a large number of his poems were never submitted for publication. Some of these poems were retrieved from his waste basket by his friend and fellow poet, John Gawsworth, who collected them in a scrapbook. Other poems and writings, from newspapers, periodicals and anthologies, have been researched and collected by his daughter, Lucilla Maclaren Spillane. One hundred and twenty-six poems have been collected, including those in Sailor with Banjo.
He was included in Who’s Who in Literature: the Literary Yearbook 1933, and in Rosalie Murphy and James Vinson’s 1970 Contemporary Poets of the English Language. The poem ‘Island Rose’ was included in Maurice Lindsay’s influential Modern Scottish poetry: an anthology of the Scottish Renaissance, 1925-1945 , reappearing in later editions, and then in Leslie Duncan and Maurice Lindsay’s The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry, (EUP, 2005). Under the sponsorship of Victor Bonham Carter he received stipends from the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors.
He spent his final years near Cambridge and died aged 86, on 25 July 1987, in Kidderminster, England.
Lucilla Maclaren Spillane, September 2010
Read the poems
From the Library Catalogue