Hugh MacDiarmid ~ Poet and Political Activist

Hugh MacDiarmid ~ poet and political activist (Scottish nationalist and communist) – was born Christopher Murray Grieve, in the Scottish Borders town of Langholm in 1892. His father was a postman and the family lived above the town library, so, from childhood, Grieve (or MacDiarmid as he became known from the early 1920s) had unrestricted access to books. This encouraged an interest in reading and in language that would remain with him throughout his life. Abandoning an early plan to teach, MacDiarmid started out as a journalist, working in Scotland and in Wales before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps on the outbreak of the First World War. Through this he served in Salonica, Greece and France before developing cerebral malaria in 1918 and returning to Scotland. He continued to work as a journalist and, in the 1920s, lived in Montrose where he became Chief Reporter on the local paper as well as serving as a Justice of the Peace and a member of the county council. However, whilst journalism provided him with a living, MacDiarmid was increasingly interested by developments in contemporary poetry and literature in Scotland (as well as in Europe and Russia) and began to publish a poetry anthology entitled Northern Numbers as well as a literary magazine, Scottish Chapbook, which had as its motto ‘Not traditions – Precedents!’’ MacDiarmid was also writing poetry and his first collection, Sangshaw, was published in 1925 with his major work, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, appearing the following year. Like many Scottish writers of the early twentieth century, MacDiarmid was fiercely political, and a strong believer in socialism. He felt deeply that Scottish life and culture was ill-served by its political position and, in 1928, was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland – today’s SNP. In later years his political stance shifted towards communism, and, in 1964, he stood as Communist Party candidate against the then Prime Minister, Sir Alex Douglas-Home. MacDiarmid spent much of the 1930s cut off from mainland cultural developments on the Shetland island of Whalsay, but he continued to write ground-breaking and stylistically innovative poetry, as well as extensive journalism in which he explained his vision for a Scottish renaissance that was both cultural and political. Central to this vision was his belief that the Scottish psyche could not be adequately expressed in the English language alone, and that to develop and write in a synthetic Scots was the only way to achieve a coherent national voice. This was complimented in the 1930s and 1940s when he emphasised the significance of the Gaelic language in Scottish literature and life. His later poetry engages a plurality of voices, languages and forms of expression.In his later years, MacDiarmid’s outlook became increasingly internationalist and the slow but steady growth of his literary reputation allowed him to travel abroad, including visits to the USSR and China. Although he is now recognised as the principle force of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, financial success eluded him for most of his life and his last 27 years were spent living with his second wife Valda at Brownsbank, a cottage (with little in the way of comfort) near Biggar. MacDiarmid died in 1978 and the cottage is now run as a museum and writers’ centre.

He was a frequent visitor to Perth often coming to see William Soutar. He stood as a Communist Party candidate in Kinross & West Perthshire, 1964. The National Library of Scotland holds the political correspondence of Hugh MacDiarmid: c5,000 letters, 1929-78.