Series exploring the lives of Scottish writers. Andrew Marr looks into the life of poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who reinvented Scots as a language for serious writing.
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The Union between Scotland and England is 307 years old.
And for most of those years, the best of Scotland's writers,
poets, novelists, and journalists have struggled to understand
the Union and even at times have tried to change its nature.
However, that Union may be about to end.
On September the 18th, Scotland votes on the independence referendum.
Now, the polls have gone up and down and wafted all over the place,
but hundreds of thousands of Scots have kept their views
firmly to themselves, and therefore, it is at least possible
that on that date, Scotland will vote "Yes".
A few times lately, when he's been particularly hepped up,
Alex Salmond has reached into the rattle bag of Scottish poetry
to find words equal to the occasion.
And he has pulled out, not Robert Burns, but somebody else entirely.
Now let me leave you with a quote from Hugh MacDiarmid.
"We have faith in Scotland's hidden powers -
"the present's theirs, but the past and the future is ours."
Now, I know that Hugh MacDiarmid isn't exactly a household name -
though I've always loved his poetry. I studied it at university,
which is the kind of strange thing students do.
I soon discovered that Hugh MacDiarmid was just a pen name.
The man was really called Christopher Murray Grieve.
I read and adored his great epic poem,
A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle,
and it soon became clear he devoted his entire life
to the causes of communism and Scottish Independence.
England still thinks it is a world influence and a world mission
and so on. Let's get rid of England somehow or other.
Could it possibly be that Hugh MacDiarmid -
a man who hated the English, flirted with fascism,
and greatly admired Joseph Stalin,
could have anything to do with modern Scottish nationalism?
It's sleepy now, the Border town of Langholm,
birthplace of Scotland's most bothersome poet -
but it wasn't when he was born here,
to the local postman and his wife, in 1892.
Weaving was the town's daily bread.
The people in the Border towns when I was a boy were very radical,
and they all shared this frontier feeling of difference
from the English and in fact, animosity to them.
The old Border tradition of raids and reivers and so on,
and I seized on these things very early.
The Grieve family lived in rooms below the town library,
and the young Christopher Murray Grieve read everything it contained.
He joined the Independent Labour Party when he was just 16.
He worked as a journalist for local newspapers
and in 1915, he went to war.
The Scots were a fighting people - they made up a tenth
of the British population, and a fifth of British casualties.
After the Armistice of 1918, the survivors trickled slowly back
to Scotland by ones and twos.
And tens and thousands demobilised.
Grieve had spent the war on the bitter sideshow
of the Eastern Front, the war in Greece and Turkey
with the Ottoman Empire.
And while he was there, he'd slowly built up a head of steam.
A simmering resentment of the condescending, patronising attitudes
of the English officer class.
The Welsh soldiers, the Irish and the Scots, he'd later say,
had a natural comradeship which the English officers
could not understand, never mind share.
Grieve had resented the English well before the war,
but during it, his loathing of the officer classes
curdled into a loathing of the English generally,
and their assumption that the Union was theirs, as of right, to lead,
and Scotland, some kind of diddly afterthought.
Grieve hated them.
Hating was the first of his talents and the worst of his vices.
When he got back to Britain in 1919,
everything he wanted for Scotland was happening across the Irish Sea.
Ireland was fighting for her independence,
and there was a lesson that Grieve could learn from the Irish conflict.
By 1919, the guns were drawn, and the grenades were flying.
But he was very well aware that Ireland's independence battles
had begun with her writers.
As the 19th century ended,
William Butler Yeats and JM Synge had explored, and restored,
Ireland's sense of herself -
her Celtic history, her God-bothered present.
Younger writers like Sean O'Casey went further -
political change was what they wanted, violently if necessary.
Chris Grieve wanted exactly that for Scotland.
And like O'Casey, he wanted communism, too.
He wanted a Scottish Communist Republic, and to get there,
he needed a new kind of Scottish writing
sharpened and refashioned as a weapon.
He wanted a Scottish literary renaissance.
And that renaissance would begin here - in a little market town,
a bit south of Aberdeen. Montrose.
This is the sort of place you might have found him
in the early 1920s.
Taking an interest in the price of cattle, tups and tractors.
He was the only journalist working for the Montrose Review -
a little newspaper, full of farming news, church announcements,
deaths and births.
A married man needs a day job,
especially when he has a secret agenda -
the tearing apart of the United Kingdom.
And if you look closely, it becomes more interesting -
Grieve was a town councillor, a parish councillor, a JP,
pursuing surprisingly left-wing ends.
A bar-room Bolshevik, a parish-council communist.
In whatever spare time he could find, he thought, and he wrote
at the home he shared with his wife Peggy - a council house,
number 16, Links Avenue, Montrose.
There, he laid his plans for the Scottish Renaissance.
There was a great deal of work to do, because by the 1920s,
Scottish culture had come to mean something like this.
# I love a lassie, a bonnie Hieland lassie
# If you saw her, you would fancy her as well... #
Ever since the Union, Scottish literature had been in decline.
Once a year, Scots at home and abroad warmed their hands
at the immortal memory of Scotland's national Bard, Robert Burns.
But Burns had been the last gasp of great serious writing in Scots.
After Burns, Walter Scott had laid down the facts
in his fictions of Scottish history.
In Scott, the Scottish characters speak Scots -
the narrator, the man in charge, speaks English.
By the 1920s, the Scottish language had been demoted
to little more than comic local colour.
And the man who embodied this more than anything else,
a kind of three-dimensional living cliche of Scottishness,
was somebody that Chris Grieve detested.
Immensely popular in both England and Scotland, on stage and off,
kilted, sporraned, and bonneted,
Lauder played the stereotypical Scot.
Unionist to the core,
his stage banter bristled with hackneyed Scottish sayings.
"It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht, mercy me!
"Lang may yer lums reek!"
And the behaviour onstage was just as hackneyed.
Lauder spent a lot of time pretending to be drunk.
# Roaming in the gloaming with a lassie by my side... #
For Christopher Grieve, this was the Scot who had devoted his life
to making Scottishness itself a figure of fun.
I've always been an intellectual.
That may be disputed, but I don't think it's disputable.
I was opposed to certain ideas that were current at that time,
promulgated by the Burns... Club Of London.
And I knew what they wanted - they wanted
a continuation of the Harry Lauder Scottish comic sort of thing,
and I decided, in consonance with my own character,
to take a very different angle of approach.
Grieve was trying to reclaim two things from Harry Lauder,
from Walter Scott, and from the miserably reduced figure
of Robert Burns, the sanctified National Bard,
whose actual words no longer seemed to matter more than once a year.
He wanted to reclaim Scots itself as a language for serious writing,
and he wanted to reclaim the very idea of the Scotsman.
The kilt and tartan were obviously the wardrobe of the stereotype,
but on the other hand, you didn't see English people walking about in kilts.
And making things as Scottish as possible was what Grieve was up to.
And so he invented a poet.
A very Scottish poet - a poet who could not be, like Grieve himself,
a Lowlander, coming from a little town just eight or nine miles away from the English Border.
But a Highland poet, the kind of poet you might see in a kilt,
and sporran, and a lovat jacket.
A poet with a proper Highland name - Hugh MacDiarmid.
Grieve invented a new kind of Scots, as well.
He looked through a recent history of Lowland Scots dialect,
and a massive 19th century dictionary of the Scots language,
quarrying words out from every part of Scotland,
seeking, always, words as different as possible from the English.
And he called the result, with commendable honesty,
And for some time, Hugh MacDiarmid would write only in this new,
more colourful, richer, more pungent Scots,
and for several years he tried very hard to persuade his readers
that Chris Grieve and Hugh MacDiarmid were two completely separate people.
(Funny how you never see them together.)
So far, so funny - but comedy wasn't the point.
The first new Scots poem he wrote was The Watergaw -
"the rainbow" - a memory of his father's death.
A crazed look that had come across his father's face
in his last moments, blended with another memory -
a rainbow in midsummer, seen through a storm of wind and rain.
Ae weet forenicht I' the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing
A watergaw wi' its chitterin licht
Ayont the on-ding
An I thocht o' the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!
There was nae reek I' the laverock's hoose that nicht
an nane I' mine
But I hae thocht o' that foolish licht
Ever sin syne
An' I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.
The Watergaw is a wonderful little poem.
And yes, it could be translated into English,
but that required many more words and produced something
that didn't have the original's force and pungency and special magic.
And what that showed was that Scots was a tongue which could express
different ways of seeing, than thinking, than English
and was valuable in its own right.
This was the beginning of the Scottish literary renaissance.
Out of the ground, a long-buried tradition was starting to slither
and emerge into the daylight.
Hugh MacDiarmid's special friend, the one you never saw him with,
the one who looked exactly like him, edited magazines
which he printed at the presses of the Montrose Review just behind me -
by kind permission of the owner.
And in these magazines -
The Scottish Nation, The Scottish Chapbook -
you would find poems by Hugh MacDiarmid,
prose articles by Hugh MacDiarmid, editorials by Hugh MacDiarmid,
all on a very high-minded literary theme.
Reflections On Burns And Burns Suppers,
A Celebration Of Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary Of The Scottish Tongue,
and, perhaps, A Programme For Scottish Fascism!
It seems shocking now, but that's NOW.
As far as anyone could see in 1923,
Mussolini's antics in Italy were no more than a mix of patriotism,
socialism and theatricality.
We know how dark things would get. MacDiarmid simply didn't.
These were still very early days and there were huge numbers
of apologists for fascism, including Irish poets like Yeats,
and English writers like Percy Wyndham Lewis.
But to get a Scottish fascism going
would have required the creation of a Scottish fascist party,
and that was still absolutely on MacDiarmid's mind.
In 1924, two more writers - a husband and wife -
arrived in Montrose,
and they'd become willing recruits to MacDiarmid's paradise
of home-made nationalist propaganda.
Edwin Muir was a well-respected literary critic,
with poetic ambitions.
His wife, Willa, was a translator.
She had family here. They were a sort of literary double act.
To the Muirs, Montrose was a cultural desert,
apart from a small oasis at 16, Links Avenue.
And the friendship was instant.
The Muirs often visited the Grieves.
They never knew quite what to expect.
On one occasion, they found
Peggy outside the house, very distressed.
Hugh MacDiarmid had been to a meeting of Montrose farmers
and become very drunk indeed.
He'd then gone back and locked himself into the bathroom,
where he'd gone silent and wouldn't come out.
What had happened?
Was Scotland about to lose her great literary hero?
Now, Edwin Muir was not an athletic man.
He'd been turned down as "unfit for army service".
But he knew his patriotic duty
and he forced his way in through a tiny window,
into the bathroom, where he found
the great Hugh MacDiarmid,
lying, stark naked, in an empty bath.
The drunk man, asleep with his thistle.
Muir and MacDiarmid became a double act, as well.
Edwin Muir - specs, hair carefully combed -
was the straight man.
Hugh MacDiarmid, with hair like his ideas,
boiling off his skull in all directions,
was the revolutionary - the rebel poet.
Both of these men were really worried
that Scotland had not had her own serious mainstream
literature for more than 100 years.
They both thought that this had
psychologically devastated the nation.
And they both returned to the Irish example.
If literature was the nation,
and there was no modern literature, then their duty was clear.
They just had to roll up their sleeves and create one themselves.
And so they did, in Montrose,
birthplace of the Scottish Renaissance.
Muir's role was as a critic, supporting the publication of
MacDiarmid's first book in 1925 -
Sangschaw, or "Songshow", "song festival".
Muir used his critical connections to place a powerfully
positive review of Sangschaw not in a British cultural review,
but an American one.
International impact was essential to the cause.
And, in this review, Muir asserted
that not only was a reimagined and revitalised Scottish literature
in a reimagined Scots tongue possible,
it was already fact.
Sangschaw exploded in all directions.
Here again was the Watergaw,
celebrations of sexuality,
collisions of cosmology and religion,
the Planet Earth depicted as a "bonnie broukit bairn",
a "strapping, scruffy child".
Here was an infinity of Christs born on other, alien worlds.
Here was the Resurrection
in this graveyard, Crowdieknowe, near Langholm.
Oh, to be at Crowdieknowe
When the last trumpet blaws
An' see the deid come loupin' owre
The auld grey wa's.
Many of MacDiarmid's ancestors lay buried here and
he imagines them as less than pleased with God for waking them.
My uncles and other relatives, big, burly, bearded men, and so on,
and I imagined them rising from these crowded graves
in a little churchyard, and how they would behave,
because they were wild men.
Muckle men wi' tousled beards
I grat at as a bairn
'll scramble frae the croodit clay
Wi' feck o'swearin'.
An' glower at God an' a'
His gang o' angels I' the lift
Thae trashy bleezin' French-like folk
Wha gar'd them shift!
So, here it was. A whole volume of serious poetry in Scots.
MacDiarmid's poems and Muir's reviews generated
plenty of column inches, but sales weren't great.
In 1926, Sangschaw sold a total of...
MacDiarmid always said that that the raw numbers didn't matter.
But there were other bad signs, as well.
In fact, there was absolutely no sign that Scotland was noticing
MacDiarmid's urgent political message.
And, in May of 1926,
the country missed what he regarded as another wonderful opportunity.
At its height,
the General Strike of 1926 involved 1.75 million workers,
both north and south of the Border.
The establishment feared communist revolution.
Members of the public were asked to volunteer as blackleg labour
for essential industries.
In Montrose, MacDiarmid threw himself into the grassroots
organisation of the strike.
But the revolution failed to materialise.
The strike was over in just ten days.
MacDiarmid's bitter disappointment was at least part of the inspiration
for what would become his most famous work,
A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle.
The poem was set in his home town of Langholm.
There's an annual ceremony, called the Common Riding,
designed to enable the people to assert their rights to certain
ancient privileges they had on the moors and hills.
And the programme ends with dancing in the marketplace,
which I commemorate in this poem.
Drums in the Walligate, pipes in the air
Come and hear the cryin o the Fair
Aa as it used to be, when I was a loon
On Common-Ridin Day in the Muckle Toon.
Drums in the Walligate, pipes in the air
The wallopin thistle is ill to bear.
MacDiarmid's great poem is absolutely rooted
here in Langholm and the Scotland he knew.
But like any great work of modernism,
it deliberately breaks its own boundaries.
It breaks the borders of Langholm,
it breaks the borders of the Borders,
it breaks the borders of Scotland.
It embraces French poetry, the Russian poetry of Alexander Blok,
the thought of the great German philosopher Nietzsche,
the Russian Revolution, arguments about Christianity and sexuality.
It is a deliberately difficult poem.
It's difficult not just because it's in Scots, but because the words,
and the expressions, and the arguments are themselves
It requires serious, hard work. A lot of brain thought.
The question is not, is this difficult?
Does it need a dictionary?
Yes. You need a dictionary to read Shakespeare, too.
You need a dictionary to read lots of poets. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot.
They're all difficult.
The question is, is this a poem so great, so important
in its thought, so well expressed, that the difficulty is worth it?
And the answer is, "Absolutely, yes".
The poem's written from the viewpoint of a man
who's watched the thistle borne through Langholm,
watched the borders of the town being ridden, and then, finally,
drunkenly, laid down in the heather to think about a Scotland
that enrages him.
Scotland is compared, at one point, to a patch of dried semen.
The Scots are passive, ignorant, and deluded.
The only race in history who've Bidden in the same category
Frae stert to present o their story
And deem their ignorance their glory
The mair they differ, mair the same
The wheel can whummle aa but them
They caa their obstinacy 'Hame'
And, "Puir Auld Scotland" bleat wi pride
And wi their minds made up to bide
A thorn in aa the wide world's side.
O Scotland is THE barren fig
Up, carles, up And roond it jig
Auld Moses took A dry stick and
Instantly it Flooered in his hand
Pu' Scotland up, And wha can say
It winna bud And blossom tae
A miracle's Oor only chance
Up, carles, up And let us dance!
It's a scene that I think is happening all over the world.
Small minorities, language minorities,
cultural minorities, asserting themselves and rebasing,
or trying to rebase, their cultures on an indigenous basis.
And it is exactly the same thing in Scotland.
It was a political and cultural manifesto,
a poem to be brandished as well as read.
And it contained the absolute essence of MacDiarmid.
His personal mission statement.
I'll ha'e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it's the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt
That damns the vast majority o' men.
A Drunk Man was published in November, 1926.
Edwin Muir's review described it as, "The only poem of importance
"in Scots which has appeared since the death of Burns."
Other reviews were less positive.
And sales were dire.
Trying to turn the Scottish public into political nationalists
by means of poetry was proving less than possible.
MacDiarmid's mind turned to more obvious approaches.
The National Party of Scotland was formed on the 10th May, 1928.
The single issue that united its founders
was their wish for Scottish home rule, or, as we'd say, "devolution".
MacDiarmid, of course, wanted complete independence.
His fellow founders thought that was too much to ask,
but at least he'd got the party started.
The NPS set about fielding candidates in by-elections,
pushing their home rule agenda.
It would be an exaggeration to say that nobody voted for them.
But only a slight one.
MacDiarmid's literary renaissance, however, was gathering pace.
Other novelists and poets were joining the cause of Scottish
literature, and for both movements,
MacDiarmid provided a public face, offering aggressively
anti-English analysis of any issue.
But soon convinced that the National Party was too timid,
MacDiarmid set up an organisation called Clan Albain,
one of whose many plots involved the capture of Edinburgh Castle.
In an article in the Daily Record, MacDiarmid wrote that the clan's
aims were essentially fascist and claimed that most of
the members of the National Party, were members of the clan as well.
I know no national liberation movement that has been won
without a terrible struggle, without civil disobedience, violence,
war or civil war.
No great national movement was ever founded on caution.
I do not understand at all how, in regard to any principle,
it can be claimed that one can go too far.
Slowly but surely, he became the rotten egg on the party's face
and was expelled from it in 1933,
on the grounds of his communism. His life was falling apart.
Peggy had left him
and the long-suffering owner of the Montrose Review had sacked him.
MacDiarmid took it all on his prominent chin.
Always desperate for money, he accepted the offer of cheap
accommodation on the island of Whalsay in the Shetlands.
This was a retreat, a withdrawal.
But, for MacDiarmid, it was a new beginning as well.
Here he wrote a major new poem that explored what Shetland
had to offer his bruised soul.
Now, as he'd created a new Scots, he created a new English.
And, in the stones of Shetland's beaches
and the language of geological science, he found a kind of peace.
All is lithogenesis or lochia
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree
Stones blacker than any in Caaba
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform...
Yes, MacDiarmid's been eating dictionaries again.
In this case, mainly the Chambers 20th Century English Dictionary,
but he's doing it for a very specific purpose.
Every one of these words, once you know what they mean, make perfect
sense, and are perfectly chosen
for a very, very great work of poetry.
This is a man who believes that easy words produce easy thoughts,
familiar words, familiar thoughts.
If you really want to challenge people and make them think harder,
you have to smash the language up and remake it.
And that's what he's doing.
A lot of people say that after his Scots poetry, MacDiarmid went off.
The correct literary critical term for this opinion is "wrong".
Scott, is it reasonable,
is it fair to describe On A Raised Beach as a great poem?
I think it's one of the great poems of the 20th century.
I think it's one of the great poems of the modern poetic movement.
It's one of certainly the great poems of MacDiarmid's career.
He talks about God in this poem. It's a sermonic poem.
He behaves in this poem as if he's a preacher at the pulpit,
saying things like, "We must be humble."
And it's an argumentative, kind of finger-wagging poem,
in some ways, and he talks about God, but it's not really,
I don't think, a religious poem in that sense and,
certainly not a Christian poem in that sense.
I think, in some ways, On A Raised Beach is a great materialist poem
because the meaning that he finds is a meaning in the earth,
and a meaning in the stones rather than a meaning in a hereafter.
So let us beware of death; the stones will have
Their revenge; we have lost all approach to them
But soon we shall become as those we have betrayed
And they will seal us as fast in our graves
As our indifference and ignorance seals them
But let us not be afraid to die.
No heavier and colder and quieter then
No more motionless, do stones lie
In death than in life to all men.
I produced an enormous amount of stuff there.
I found the change of environment extremely stimulating.
And I liked the Shetland people immensely.
But it didn't solve the problem of ways and means.
I had no visible means of support.
With the consequence that we had a very lean time indeed.
So, here we have a modernist poet,
isolated on the island of Whalsay, surrounded by little more
than stones, and writing a poem about the ultimate realities.
-At the same time, he's being spied upon by MI5.
-He was indeed.
He was watched by the security services from 1931
when he was in London, he goes to Shetland to live in Whalsay in 1933.
He's continually watched throughout this time.
Meanwhile, he was trying to propagandise for communism
with mixed success, he said delicately, on Whalsay.
Certainly on Whalsay, he had mixed success.
There were a few meetings that he held in cottages in Whalsay.
I think some people turned up for the promise, really, of free beer.
But the security services did take this seriously.
He was called "a rabid nationalist" by the security services.
And, so, they took his politics seriously,
and they took his politics seriously in relation to his family, too.
His first wife was tracked for
many, many years after MacDiarmid and she split up.
But how good were MI5, really? Here's one thing they missed.
The Stone of Destiny was the ancient bit of rock
on which Scottish kings were crowned.
It was nicked by that famous robber, Edward I of England,
and taken back down to London.
And there was a Scottish nationalist plot
in the 1930s to steal it back and return it to Scotland.
MacDiarmid was central to this plot.
All his letters about it were sent by Royal Mail.
And, yet, somehow, MI5 missed the entire thing.
On 15th of January, 1934, Graham MacGibbon,
the Glasgow-based engineer,
wrote to MacDiarmid in an ecstasy of anticipation.
"I am delighted to hear that things are moving
"and can almost visualise the symbol being borne along Princes Street
"in the glare of thousands of torches. What a scene!
"Remember, we're with you to the bitter end, and absolutely at
"your command as far as our present state of economic slavery permits."
On or around the 23rd January,
an observant verger might have seen a man prowling around the chair
and observing the stone with more than usual curiosity,
trying to guess its weight, and looking around for exit routes.
He drew a map which he then passed to MacDiarmid.
And here it is. The clearest possible demonstration
of the essential nature of the plan to steal the Stone of Scone.
It was, at its very best, sketchy.
MacDiarmid was obsessed by the idea of obtaining
a fast car for the getaway.
Graham MacGibbon disagreed. What if it broke down?
There would need to be at least three fast cars,
travelling in convoy.
And MacGibbon was also against the notion of taking
the stone up north by train. Which is a pity, really.
Imagine the notion of a hairy poet sitting overnight on the Flying Scot
with the Stone of Destiny bouncing above him in the luggage rack.
Had he made that momentous journey,
MacDiarmid's plan was to hide the stone in a Scottish burn,
where its true and fateful nature would be invisible.
MacDiarmid arrived in London in March 1934,
and he went to see the Muirs in their rented Hampstead house.
According to Willa Muir,
he very, very confidentially mentioned his plan
"to liberate the stone" and amused them
by talking again and again about the need for a fast car,
and raising money for that.
Because he then very, very confidentially mentioned his plan
to virtually every Scot living in London, he did raise the money.
But then came the problem because MacDiarmid
was a gregarious and open-handed man, and in this very pub,
he bought a round for each customer several times.
The fast car money made only one short journey,
from those beer taps to the urinals round the corner.
And as for the poor old Stone of Destiny,
it remained in the hands of the wicked English.
MacDiarmid always denied that the money had been misspent.
But he certainly returned to Whalsay without the stone.
He was profoundly depressed. He had something like a nervous breakdown.
He was now expelled from the Communist Party
for his excessive nationalist sympathies.
He seemed to belong nowhere, to no viable political tendency at all,
and his old friend Edwin Muir, once his closest collaborator,
was about to stab him in the back.
For two years, Muir had been struggling
with a sort of loss of faith.
In 1933, he'd been visiting Scotland,
driving in Lanarkshire, south of Glasgow,
an area in which industry was entering the last stages of its decline.
Edwin Muir was a terrible driver.
He was nervous and hesitant, and he preferred to drive
with the hood down, which meant that he had a lot of trouble
with insects and rain,
two phenomena that never occur in Scotland.
Anyway, he wasn't much interested in the road ahead,
he was too busy looking around him
gathering evidence on the condition of Scotland for a book.
Scottish Journey sounds like a jolly guidebook.
It is in fact, in the entire history of Scotland,
the single most dispiriting work ever written about the country.
The houses looked empty and unemployed, like their tenants,
and the road along which the car stumbled was pitted and rent,
as if it had been recently under shell-fire.
Everything had the look of a Sunday which had lasted for many years,
during which the bells had forgotten to ring.
A disused, slovenly, everlasting Sunday.
What he saw gnawed away at Muir,
and so he carried on, crisscrossing the whole of Scotland.
He didn't do it in a oner - he would come back
whenever he had time and could find a car to borrow.
The whole process took him two years.
By 1935, he had finished his long, sporadic road trip.
Scottish Journey gathered together his impressions of what he'd seen.
The emptiness in Lanarkshire was everywhere in Scotland.
No sign of any national culture.
No universal Scottishness.
The Borders differed from the Highlands.
Edinburgh and Glasgow were unalike.
The journey had ended in a hotel on the Beauly Firth,
not far from the battlefield of Culloden,
and it was here that Edwin Muir finally faced the fact
he could no longer keep faith with MacDiarmid's nationalist dreams.
I went over in my mind what Scottish history
I could remember, hoping to find some faint sign that Scotland's annals
need not have led to the end of Scotland as a nation.
But I reflected that Wallace had been betrayed,
I remembered Culloden and the Highland clans delivered
helpless to Cumberland because of the intrigues of their chieftains.
The pageant of Scottish history played through Muir's mind
and it told him a story of internal strife, wavering commitments
and unresolved differences.
The people of the kingdom of Scotland had consistently
failed to keep faith with one other.
There had been glorious victories such as Bannockburn,
but even that had been followed by squalid deals and backsliding.
For Muir, the truth was horribly simple.
There was no Scotland, because she had betrayed herself long ago.
It is these things that make
the National Party of Scotland so unconvincing.
One can see that self-government for Scotland is a desirable ideal,
but like all Utopian ideals,
it takes no account of history, past or present.
Muir looked into Scottish history
and all he saw was a lost and distant medieval kingdom.
What Scotland needed now wasn't nationalism.
It was socialism.
In his next book,
Scott And Scotland: The Predicament Of The Scottish Writer,
Muir went further still.
This was a meditation on the legacy of Walter Scott,
and on Edinburgh, a powerless capital city, a blank.
Muir laid much of the blame for Edinburgh's irrelevance,
and the demotion of the Scottish tongue at Scott's door,
but the damage, he felt, was done.
Muir concluded that writing in Scots dialect was inescapably provincial.
But the introduction was even worse.
In it, and Muir must have known the implications of what he was writing,
he said that the problems of Scotland would never
be solved by writing poems in Scots.
After 11 years of friendship and close collaboration,
Muir was rejecting everything that MacDiarmid was and stood for.
He and MacDiarmid never spoke again.
MacDiarmid hated Muir's belief that Scotland was a dead thing,
that its ills were curable only by a kind of wet socialism,
north and south of the Border,
that would make the Border itself irrelevant.
But he couldn't avoid the fact of Scotland's apathy,
or the fact that Scots habitually sent large numbers
of Unionist Tory MPs down to Westminster.
He railed more fiercely than ever.
By the beginning of 1940, he was writing poems
in which he contemplated the bombing of London by German planes
and admitted, "He couldna care".
Letters in which he said the Nazis were less damaging
than the English bourgeoisie.
It's not really politics, is it? It's spittle.
In the aftermath of that second apocalypse, there was
a genuine consensus in British politics.
An agreement between both Labour and Conservative politicians
that there was a debt owed to soldiers that had lived and died,
to their families - indeed, to an entire class.
Labour created the welfare state,
but the Tories certainly didn't dismantle it.
Council houses, the Coal Board, the Gas Board, British Steel,
British Rail, the National Health Service,
state education, free milk, free teeth.
Here was the socialism, north and south of the Border,
that Muir had called for.
And in this climate, MacDiarmid's twin demands -
republican communism and Scottish nationalism - seemed ludicrous.
And there was a sort of rebirth of Britishness, too,
which began with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
She presided over a New Elizabethan age in which the nation's
gift to her was built at John Brown's shipyard in Clydebank.
The Royal Yacht Britannia.
And an idea of Britishness set sail with her,
in which Hugh MacDiarmid was picturesque, entertaining,
and irrelevant, in receipt of that final insult.
He was rewarded a special pension,
for services to literature, society and culture.
A civil list pension from the very same Westminster government
he was so determined to overthrow.
And he took it.
Even poets have to eat. But where did it leave him?
An Establishment trophy on the wall,
a spiky little pet, a rebel poet no longer?
Over to the Highlands to Perth.
No. The civil list pension was just another contradiction.
He remained a rebel poet happy to bite the hand that fed him.
In the general election of 1964,
MacDiarmid stood for the Communist Party
in the constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire
against the then-Prime Minister, the Conservative Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Sir Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home,
Christopher Murray Grieve, 127.
JEERING AND CHEERING
I, therefore, declare that Sir Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home...
MacDiarmid described his opponent
as "a yes-man of the Pentagon" and "a zombie".
He was still doing his job,
still the same communist nationalist troublemaker as ever,
and he carried on right into the 1970s,
when I first encountered his work at the age of 16.
I literally pulled a book off the shelf
and opened it in a library, and I was immediately transfixed.
I had never read anything remotely like this before.
And for all the offensive extremism of the politics,
and the difficulty of the Scots, there was something
about the language. It was speckled, it was hard-edged,
it was adamantine, it gripped.
MacDiarmid crawled up my nostrils and into my brain
and he has been sitting there, fizzing away, ever since.
MacDiarmid fizzed away on television too, reliably providing
cross-grained political opinions whenever required.
MacDiarmid, 86 this month,
lives here at Biggar in the Lanarkshire hills.
In his poetry, he tackles what he sees as a crucial matter,
the revival of Scots as a literary language.
How far did it succeed?
In all our universities, there are courses in Scottish literature.
That's all within the last 20 years.
It's a radical change, and it's bound to bear fruit
with subsequent generations.
The older ones, even the writers,
my own generation and so on,
we're brought up wholly on English literature.
-You're very pleased about the change.
-I'm very pleased about it
and I would like to see it go very much further.
How much further?
Well, English is a compulsory subject.
I don't see why it should be.
Why not French?
What do you think is the connection between political identity,
a sense of nationhood, and a country's cultural development?
They're inseverable from my point of view.
I can't see any break between them.
I certainly wouldn't be writing the kind of poetry I have written
if I weren't a Scottish nationalist and a communist.
Hugh MacDiarmid lived to a ripe old age,
with his National Health Service gnashers,
sustained by a diet of tea, biscuits, whisky and cigarettes,
with his beloved second wife Valda,
living in this tiny cottage in the Scottish Borders.
He died of cancer in 1978,
a hinge year in the story of modern Britain,
just after that great celebration of Britishness
which was the Queen's Silver Jubilee,
and just before the arrival in power of Margaret Thatcher,
and the death of the consensus politics
through which he'd lived so much of his life.
There are no Hugh MacDiarmid poems, therefore, about Thatcherism,
more's the pity.
The political world has changed almost out of recognition
since Hugh MacDiarmid's death.
A majority of English voters
seemed to turn away from the post-war consensus.
Industrial confrontation, unpopular wars abroad,
and a belief that it was no longer possible
to achieve a social democratic welfare state via Westminster
turned more and more Scots towards independence.
But if Alex Salmond was prepared to quote MacDiarmid,
the modern SNP's version of independence
was a million miles away from his communist and anti-English Utopia.
It was deliberately centre ground.
The angry old man would have been entirely contemptuous.
So, Hugh MacDiarmid left no legacy to modern Scotland?
Not true. But it was mainly a cultural legacy,
not a political one.
When he started, there were very few serious Scottish writers,
and hardly any who actually lived in Scotland.
And now, partly thanks to him, that is absolutely not true.
There was first the great Scottish Renaissance generation,
people like Robert Garioch, Norman MacCaig, Lewis Grassic Gibbon,
Sydney Goodsir Smith.
Great writers, all of them. Neil Gunn, the great novelist.
Then after that, more and more writers of all kinds
pouring out through Scotland. The list is almost too long to remember,
but I'm going to try. Kathleen Jamie,
Robert Crawford, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, Jackie Kay,
Andrew Greig, Alasdair Gray, Robin Jenkins, Don Paterson,
AL Kennedy, John Burnside, James Kelman, Janice Galloway,
James Robertson, James Meek, Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks,
Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Atkinson, Allan Massie,
and in a sense, they're all MacDiarmid's children,
because he taught the Scots to do it BIG,
do it NOW, and do it HERE.
He was a towering, towering figure,
and vitally important.
I think people now feel that they don't need to be validated elsewhere,
I think that was one of things he gave.
He took that position.
"I can do this and I can self-validate.
"I have the right to write in this language
"and be regarded as an international modernist poet."
I suppose, MacDiarmid gave people the sense
to make themselves central, just as he did himself.
I think there seems to have been a big difference
between the public MacDiarmid -
aggressive, embattled, provocative MacDiarmid -
-and the man, Chris Grieve.
-Because he changed his mind all the time.
-All the time.
-He didn't have an easy life.
MacDiarmid did not have an easy life.
He didn't make his life easy for himself, he never sought that out.
I think there's a sort of element of that
in very many of us Scots.
His thrawnness, we might kind of roll our eyes at it,
but we admire it deeply.
Most people don't understand poets.
They see them as rebels against the system
to which they themselves have automatically conformed.
Poets are a very small minority of people,
who for some obscure reason have failed to grow up.
Everyone living in Scotland today
has to wrestle with the same questions about security,
prosperity, identity, democracy.
In this series, they've seen that they are not alone and never have been.
In James Boswell, the great and lovable journalist,
we have seen the tension between the fruits the Union has to offer
and instinctive Scottish patriotism.
Sir Walter Scott was a Unionist and a Tory tormented by some
of the things the modern world had done to his beloved Scotland.
And Hugh MacDiarmid, the greatest modern Scottish poet,
was a ferocious believer in independence and Scottish identity,
but his extremism has made him almost a modern pariah.
MacDiarmid's monument, his memorial,
is near his birthplace, Langholm.
You get the feeling that they are proud of him.
"Slow down, here comes Langholm, birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid,"
say the signs as you drive into the town.
But they keep him at a certain distance, too.
The monument is hidden away in the treeless hills behind the town.
In 1970, the idea of giving MacDiarmid
the freedom of the borough was briefly mooted,
but they gave it to Neil Armstrong instead,
because the first man on the moon's distant ancestors came from round here.
The monument, to borrow one of the phrases of the man himself,
is "an antrin thing". You won't see anything else quite like it.
It's a rusting representation of an open book,
full of images from his poetry.
On worse days than this, the wind whistles through it.
It hums to itself.
I like it.
I think it's exactly right.
It's like the man himself.
Do you know, it would be the easiest thing in the world
to totally dismiss Hugh MacDiarmid. Very, very simple.
He had hateful opinions, he was horrible about the English,
he was naive about Marxism,
he was wrong when he was young about fascism,
and much else besides.
A dead easy call.
And that is presumably why so many people in the Yes Campaign
and the No Campaign would love never to hear the words
"Hugh MacDiarmid" ever again, never mind have them splashed
all over the BBC.
But here's the little problem that they've got, the tiny problem.
Scotland today is culturally - never mind politics, culturally -
a nest of singing birds, a garden of delights.
It is crammed with wonderful poets, novelists, writers of all kinds,
artists, sculptors, composers, musicians.
I think, culturally, Scotland is as self-confident
as anywhere else in Europe.
And that was certainly not the case when Hugh MacDiarmid got started.
Scotland is on fire.
Who set the blaze? He did!
Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner
To a fool who cries "Nothing but heather!"
Where in September another
Sitting there and resting and gazing around
Sees not only heather but blaeberries
With bright green leaves and leaves already turned scarlet
Hiding ripe blue berries, and amongst the sage-green leaves
Of the bog-myrtle the golden flowers of the tormentil shining
And nodding harebells vying in their colour
With the blue butterflies that poise themselves delicately upon them
And stunted rowans with harsh dry leaves of glorious colour
"Nothing but heather!"
How marvellously descriptive!
Andrew Marr looks into the life of Scotland's most bothersome poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid reinvented Scots as a language for serious writing, at various times called for a Scottish fascism, tried to create an independent Scottish communist utopia, and was under surveillance by MI5 for many years. During his life he was involved in plots to capture Edinburgh Castle and steal the Stone of Destiny, but he also found time for a literary life in which he would write the most powerful poetry in Scots since the days of Robert Burns and to start a Scottish renaissance that goes on to this day.