As an enjoyable weekend break, I’m at the StAnza festival’s 15th outing and was enjoying St Andrews’ lively atmosphere in term time, delving into various entertainments and thinking I was well clear of politics and motivations to blog. Then I came across (and I say—to my shame—for the first time) Hugh MacDiarmid’s concise, graceful and (for him at least) understated poem, Scotland:
It requires great love of it deeply to read
The configuration of a land,
Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings,
Of great meanings in slight symbols,
Hear at last the great voice that speaks softly,
See the swell and fall upon the flank
Of a statue carved out in a whole country’s marble,
Be like Spring, like a hand in a window
Moving New and Old things carefully to and fro,
Moving a fraction of flower here,
Placing an inch of air there,
And without breaking anything.
So I have gathered unto myself
All the loose ends of Scotland,
And by naming them and accepting them,
Loving them and identifying myself with them,
Attempt to express the whole.
For those interested, this is available on an A3 poster from the Scottish Poetry Library which makes a fine decoration for any underpopulated pinboard or wall. I am moved by the above because—unlike some other works and even some contemporary nationalists—it does not beat me over the head with its message.
Born in Langholm as Christopher Grieve in 1892, he was a postman’s son. He trained to be a teacher in Edinburgh, then worked on local newspapers before enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. War service took him to the Balkans and France and during this period he formulated his ambitious literary and cultural plans (as well as his pen name).
These centred on an attempt to revive the Scottish language in poetry as a means of asserting Scotland’s artistic independence from England and re-invigorating a literature suffering from sentimentality. His radical advocacy of Scots won support for and provided a major impetus to what became known as ‘The Scottish Renaissance’ which involved fellow poets like Robert Garioch and Norman MacCaig and included designers like Charles Rennie Macintosh and the Scottish Colourist painters.
In his early collections this championing of Scots took the form of short lyrics which synthesised diction from the dialects of different areas of Lowland Scotland to create his own version of the Scots literary language otherwise known as Lallans. Though this has been hailed as a modernist technique, the effect on the page is less academic than this sounds—there is a fresh energy to these poems.
MacDiarmid described Scots as “an inexhaustible quarry of subtle and significant sound” and believed only Scots was capable of capturing a distinctive Scottish sensibility. This had political as well as linguistic implications and MacDiarmid engaged passionately with the politics of the time—he was a member of both the SNP and the Communist Party, a divided loyalty that got him into trouble with both.
For all his faults, it was he who proved great literature could still be crafted from the Scots dialect; he catalysed pride in a distinctively Scots culture that was in danger of being swamped. Poets like Morgan, Lochhead and Burnside owe him a debt and, without him, it is debatable whether plays like The Cheviot & the Stag or Black Watch, or even films like Local Hero and Trainspotting would even exist.