Iain Crichton Smith was born on 1 January 1928 in Glasgow. Both his parents were originally from Lewis, and it was there, in the village of Bayble, that he and his brothers were raised by their mother, following their father’s death from TB when Iain was an infant. Christina Smith (née Cambell) was a devoutly religious woman and would be a dominant figure through much of Crichton Smith’s life. Her strict Presbyterianism (and its associations with Lewis) and the difficulties of his childhood – the family lived off his mother’s meagre widow’s pension, while she was terrified of her sons falling ill – provide a backdrop to much of his work.
Crichton Smith received a bursary to attend the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, and then gained a place at Aberdeen University, where he took a degree in English. Having trained as a teacher, he worked at Clydebank High School and – from 1955 to 1977 – at Oban High School. In both Clydebank and Oban he lived with his mother, until her death in 1969. In 1977, the year he retired from teaching, he married Donalda Logan, who had two sons from a previous marriage. The family settled in Taynuilt, near Oban, where Crichton Smith died on 15 October 1998.
Throughout his adult life, Crichton Smith was incredibly prolific. He wrote a huge number of poems (well over 900), short stories, novels and plays in English and Gaelic: twenty-seven collections of poems appeared during his life or posthumously, alongside fourteen novels and numerous critical articles. He is generally more respected in Gaelic for his prose, in English for his poetry. However, his achievement in both genres, in both languages, is remarkable and distinctive, with various features and concerns carried across genre and language borders.
Doubleness and opposition – between Gaelic and English, the red and the black, or, as in the title of a collection of poems, The Law and the Grace – recurs across Crichton Smith’s oeuvre, as structure, theme and object for scrutiny. This, along with a focus on the isolation of the individual and the difficulty of the individual’s relationship with community, draws heavily on his affinity with the work of Søren Kierkegaard.
However, there are also clear autobiographical elements in his ideas of doubleness, the sense of community as oppressive and restrictive, the motif of domineering religious old women, and the intellectual and emotional isolation that feature repeatedly in his work. Crichton Smith’s departures – first from Bayble and then from Lewis – served to introduce schisms between himself and the culture in which he grew up, schisms which formed the basis for much of his work, and at some level of personal cost. Ronald Black describes Crichton Smith as a ‘man who lived on the edge of madness’; Crichton Smith’s novel In the Middle of the Wood (1987) draws frankly on his personal experience of mental illness.
Alongside this darkness in his life, there was the obverse: a reading of Crichton Smith’s Murdo stories could reduce audiences to tears of laughter, and he was often a most genial and sociable presence. His poems also celebrate radiant moments, whether girls singing on a bus or the pattern of the natural world against man’s ancient monuments. As Angus Calder put it in his obituary, meeting Crichton Smith ‘one thought, not “great poet” (with an OBE and three honorary doctorates), but what a witty companion, completely unassuming, muttering briskly in the drily enigmatic accent of his native isle of Lewis, suspended somewhere between censure and send-up, kirk and comedy.’
In Crichton Smith’s poetry, language is always held up as an imperfect medium – a medium in which the writer tries, but repeatedly fails, to bridge the gap between the self and society. His sequence Deer on the High Hills is perhaps the most thorough exploration of the possibilities and inadequacies of language, characteristically fusing complex thought with simple expression:
Do colours cry? Does ‘black’ weep for the dead?
Is green bridal, and is red the flag
And elegant elegy of martial sleep?
The deer step out in isolated air.
The cloud is cloudy and the word is wordy.
Winter is wintry, lonely is your journey.