‘Hear my words carefully.
Some are spoken
not by me, but
by a man in my position.’
Norman MacCaig was born as Norman Alexander McCaig in Edinburgh on 14 November 1910. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh (MA with Honours in Classics, 1932). In 1940 he married Isabel Munro and they had two children. He won the Cholmondeley Medal in 1975 and in 1985 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He was made an OBE in 1979.
He made his living as a primary-school teacher. He was a lifelong pacifist and during World War II served a term in prison for his beliefs. There is a suggestion that this became a shadow over his subsequent career and that advancement was blocked because of it. He was one of the post-war Milne’s Bar crowd along with Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch and others including Hugh MacDiarmid, who became a close friend and with whom he had many an enjoyable flyting. He eventually left teaching and was appointed Edinburgh University’s first Writer in Residence in 1967. In 1970 he joined the English Department of Stirling University, becoming Reader in Poetry. He retired in 1978 and enjoyed a long period as a freelance poet. He died on 23 January 1996.
Almost alone among his contemporaries MacCaig wrote virtually nothing but poems, mostly lyric and mostly short but which cumulatively make up an impressive body of work. Whatever his own views on the matter might have been, he is now considered a major writer. ‘Each [poem] makes, incisively, its point. The affinity, as many have pointed out, is with Herbert and Holub and other great poets of post-war Eastern Europe’ (Angus Calder).
In his obituary notice for The Independent (25 January 1996), Calder remarked:
MacCaig was into his thirties before he published two books of poems. These belonged to the Neo-Apocalyptic School, rampant on the ‘Celtic Fringes’ in the 1940s. Later, he disavowed them to the extent that one fancied that only an innate respect for scholarship prevented him destroying the copies lodged in the National Library of Scotland. As that school went, they weren’t bad. He came into his own, though, in his forties, with Riding Lights, published in 1955. At this point he might be, and was, mistaken for a Scottish relative of the Movement.
His second collection in 1957 was well received; he published five more in the 1960s. He ‘talked about the Celtic feeling for form which he derived from Gaelic forebears’ (Calder). His poems are infused with a passion for clarity (possibly derived from his classical education) and, paradoxically, gained in this respect from his move away from formal verse in the 1960s to free verse.
Always suspicious of literary and political dogma (unlike his friend MacDiarmid) he remained true to the lyric impulse. Whether writing about people, animals and places either in his beloved Assynt in the west Highlands (his mother’s ancestral country) or the city of Edinburgh (where he lived all his life), he combined, in the words of Roderick Watson in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007), ‘precise observation with creative wit’. This is echoed by Brian Morton who wrote in the Scottish Review of Books (6:4, 2010) that MacCaig’s imagery is ‘unfailingly just and precise’ and that his subjects are ‘demandingly absolute and absolutely unsentimental’. Stewart Conn has called him our best ‘occasional’ poet.
In his later years, with the passing of friends and family, his poems became more elegiac – and often very moving – though he never lost his sharp eye. He was a man of (possibly deliberately cultivated) contradictions: he hated talking about himself; he described himself as a ‘Zen Calvinist’; he was dismissive of the writing process (‘a one or a two cigarette poem’); at readings he would rubbish the pathetic fallacy then proceed to read superb poems using that very device; he affected a MacNeice-like aloofness but could be kind as well as caustic. Roderick Watson again has an apt summing-up: he valued ‘clarity, compassion and a certain humane elegance of the mind above all else’.
Read the poems
Polygon – contact Birlinn
National Library of Scotland: Manuscripts and papers
University of Edinburgh: Norman MacCaig Papers (includes information about the poet, and details of holdings of papers and manuscripts)
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