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.’