Hugh MacDiarmid

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The Lion with the pen - Old Scotsman cartoon

Hugh MacDiarmid (11th of August 1892 Langholm, Dumfriesshire - 9th September, 1978 at Chalmers Hospital, Edinburgh), was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve, a Scottish author, poet, nationalist, communist and one-time Shetland resident.


Early life

Grieve studied at Langholm Academy and Broughton in Edinburgh, and worked from 1911 as a journalist, before enlisting in 1915 in the British Army Medical Corps.

Grieve moved to Montrose after the war where he again worked as a journalist, and started a political career as councillor for Ferryden. His first book appeared in 1923. Annals of the Five Senses is a varied collection of short prose writings and poems in English, published under the name C.M. Grieve, and is notable for the range and variety of style, but it wasn't till the publication of Sangschaw in 1925 that the M'Diarmid brand was born. This collection of poetry was noteworthy for the Scots language lyrical poetry it contained, which achieved a remarkable blend of the old Scots tongue with a very Modern sensibility. The book was a great critical success, and was soon followed by another similar volume, Penny Wheep (1926).

Writing career

His first masterpiece A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle was published in 1926, a book-length long poem which considers the state of Scotland from many viewpoints, all of which purport to be the musings of a drunk man on his difficult route home. The same year he published a collection of his essays and theoretical works which had appeared in the Scottish Educational Journal and Contemporary Scottish Studies. His main project at this time was the so-called Scottish Renaissance, as he attempted to survey Scottish culture and stimulate it from its perceived torpor. In 1928 he was one of the founders of the Scottish National Party but his membership lasted for a few years only, before he was ejected due to his embracing of the Communist Party. He was later barred from the Communist Party for being a nationalist.

At the end of the 1920s, Grieve moved with his family to London, to take up a post as editor of a radio arts programme, offered to him through the advocacy of Compton Mackenzie. In 1931, when MacDiarmid published his First Hymn to Lenin, he again found himself at the centre of a furore, though in retrospect this work can be seen as the first of the political poetry so common in the 1930s. The failure of the promised post and the break-up of his marriage to Peggy Skinner, his muse, saw Grieve in dire straits, and he was rescued by Scottish friends who believed he was drinking himself to death. It was then he moved to Shetland...

cover of 'MacDiarmid in Shetland'
Grieve in front of Brownsbank cottage, near Biggar, South Lanarkshire; taken on his 80th birthday

Shetland connection

With help from his firm friend Helen Cruickshank, MacDiarmid, with his second wife Valda Trevlyn, withdrew from the metropolitan scene in 1933 and settled in Whalsay.

Sodom (properly Sudheim) Cottage, his former home on Whalsay, today serves as a camping böd known as The Grieve House Böd. His residence there is examined in the book MacDiarmid in Shetland, edited by Laurence I. Graham and Brian Smith, published by Shetland Library in 1992, the centenary of his birth.

The years in Whalsay were difficult for the Grieves, and scathing pronouncements on Shetland and his neighbours won him few friends. Yet their son Michael recalled Whalsay as a childhood paradise, despite the fact that Grieve senior suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent south to Perth to recuperate. In the late thirties the arrival of the obliging young Grant Taylor to be MacDiarmid's amanuensis made things easier.

Here he worked on three major pieces: Scottish Scene (together with Lewis Grassic Gibbon), At the Sign of the Thistle (another collection of essays) and Stony Limits a collection of poems which includes his 'Shetland Lyrics' and one of his greatest poems, On A Raised Beach, inspired by a boat trip to the isle of West Linga.

MacDiarmid's left wing politics did not endear him to the Shetland Establishment, particularly Sergeant R. Bruce. Bruce complained of MacDiarmid's attempts to create a political organisation on Whalsay, and said,

"This man and his wife [Valda Trevlyn] are dangerous to the state, and should be prevented from tampering with the loyalty of young men called to the colours."<ref name=Bruce>McGinty, Stephen, MacDiarmid was Soviet secret agent (or so MI5 reckoned), The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 05 September 2005 </ref>

Bruce sent two plainclothes policemen to Whalsay and according to The Scotsman:

"They were told that he was "in no way dangerous" but that his wife had made outspoken comments such as: "I would like to cut the Queen's throat." This, however, was dismissed as a "foolish remark"."<ref name=Bruce/>

Later life

The family left Shetland after the outbreak of World War II, during which Grieve worked in a munitions factory in Glasgow. In 1951 they moved to a cottage near Biggar which was to become their permanent base. From here, the great poet made regular trips to Milne's Bar on Hanover Street, Edinburgh, the so called "Poets' Pub" of Eric Linklater's novel.

MacDiarmid was one of the most important Scottish writers of the 20th century, and had a strong influence on his younger writers, many of whom became the second wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, using the Scots tongue for their poetry. And among the Milne's Bar crowd was a young Shetland poet, William J. Tait.


MacDiarmid was extremely scathing of what he saw as the Kailyard influence on Scottish writing, and felt that Broad Scots (and Shetlandic) should be used for serious purposes, rather than just humour, "light" work, and schmaltzy poetry.

MacDiarmid was also a major impetus in early 20th century Scottish nationalism, and can therefore be seen as a pioneer in the campaign for Scottish devolution. He also supported Shetland's self-determination on the Faroese model.

See also



External links

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