Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

While Burns became a Dumfriesshire man by adoption, his twentieth-century counterpart in terms of literary stature, Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), belongs to the county by both birth and upbringing.

By the end of his full and prodigiously productive life the man who was born Christopher Murray Grieve at Arkinholm Terrace in Langholm was ranked alongside T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and W B Yeats as one of the great European poets of the modernist era. Though he was estranged for most of his adult life from the Muckle Toon (he refused to be honoured with the freedom of the burgh - see below), his thinking and writing continued to be influenced by what he called 'the texture of my spirit' as it had been formed during an idyllic boyhood exploring the valleys of the Esk, the Ewes and the Wauchope.

The rich blend of the rural and the industrial that is so characteristic of the Langholm area was well represented in MacDiarmid's inheritance. His father was a postman, his paternal grandfather a weaver and later a power-loom tuner. Many of his relatives worked in the woollen mills. His mother was of country stock, the daughter of a farm labourer and mole-catcher. Being only eight miles from the border with England, Langholm offered the young MacDiarmid 'the manifold and multiform grandeur and delight of Scotland in miniature - as if quickened and thrown into relief by the proximity of England' (in later years he would list only one recreation in his Who's Who entry: 'anglophobia'). In 'Kinsfolk' he summed up his border background:

Reivers to weavers and to me. Weird way!
Yet in the last analysis I've sprung
Frae battles, mair than ballads, and it seems
The thrawn auld water has at last upswung
Through me, and's mountin' like the vera devil
To its richt level!

The Grieve family, including younger brother Andrew, moved from Arkinholm Terrace (via a spell at 5 Henry Street) to accommodation in Parliament Square, right next to the Library Buildings whose ground-floor housed the post office where his father worked. This location was to have what he described as a 'determining' effect on his literary development. Crucially, his mother was employed as caretaker of the library upstairs. Thanks to the proximity of this resource 'Christie', as his mother liked to call him (or sometimes 'Kirsty'), became a precociously omnivorous reader:

I had constant access to it, and used to fill a big washing-basket with books and bring it downstairs as often as I wanted to. My parents never interfered with or supervised my reading in any way, nor were they ever in the least inclined to deprecate my 'wasting all my time reading'. There were upwards of twelve thousand books in the library (though it was strangely deficient in Scottish books).I certainly read almost every one of them.I have never met anyone who has read anything like as much as I have, though I have known most of our great bookmen.

MacDiarmid was also fortunate during his Langholm schooldays in having a couple of mentors who recognised his potential and reinforced his literary ambitions. One was his kirk minister, Rev T S Cairncross, who gave him access to his own substantial library. More importantly, Cairncross was a poet and wrote about Langholm:

Here casts the angler
Half-hid in shadow; his eyes
Veiled in rapt contemplation,
Where raider and reiver darted and harried.
Those mild terrible eyes
Came down from Flodden

'I thought that was great stuff when I was a boy of twelve to fourteen,' MacDiarmid wrote in his autobiography, 'not recognising then that what really attracted me to Cairncross's work was his technical experimentation'. In years to come MacDiarmid would publish some of the minister's poems. They later fell out, MacDiarmid claiming that Cairncross was jealous of his own success, that it 'chagrined him sorely'. Ideologically their paths diverged, Cairncross being allegedly 'of fastidious upper-class temper, while my work from the beginning was Socialistic and anti-Christian, so that any association with it was likely to compromise his chances of ministerial promotion and the degree of D.D.' [ouch!]

The other seminal friendship was with a Langholm Academy teacher called Francis George Scott who in 1923, having made his name as a composer, discovered that the up-and-coming poet 'Hugh MacDiarmid' was in fact his former pupil. They met up again and Scott set more than twenty of MacDiarmid's poems to music.

After Langholm Academy MacDiarmid moved to Edinburgh to be trained as a schoolmaster but the necessary motivation was lacking and when his father died in 1911 'I took immediate advantage of the fact to abandon my plans for becoming a teacher'. Thereafter, during the long struggle to establish himself as a man of letters, he scraped a precarious living from various forms of hack journalism in both Scotland and England, experiencing several periods of unemployment and of extreme poverty.

His early poems were in English. But the intensity of his nationalism led him during the 1920s into 'the experimental exploitation of the unexplored possibilities of vernacular expression'. For this, his linguistic bedrock was Dumfriesshire Scots, to which he added vocabulary from regional variants throughout Scotland and from his mining of Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary. The result was a synthesised modern literary Scots that came to be known as Lallans. It was while taking this change of direction that 'Grieve' was supplanted by 'MacDiarmid'. His poems in Lallans influenced a younger generation of Scots poets and the movement as a whole was termed the Scottish Renaissance.

Two collections of shorter Scots poems - Sangschaw and Penny Wheep - were followed, in 1926, by a long and comic (but nonetheless serious) monologue called A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (dedicated to Francis George Scott), a wide-ranging work of philosophical and nationalist speculation that is now considered to be his masterpiece. Even amid all the meditations upon universal themes of identity and destiny, the town of his birth is never entirely forgotten:

Drums in the Walligate, pipes in the air,
Come and hear the cryin' o' the Fair.
A' as it used to be, when I was a loon
On Common-Ridin' Day in the Muckle Toon.

By this time MacDiarmid had made his name - but he was destitute, 'with no money behind me at all, broken down in health, unable to secure remunerative employment of any kind, and wholly concentrated on projects in poetry and other literary fields which could bring me no monetary return whatsoever':

It isna fair to my wife and weans
It isna fair to mysel',
To persist in poverty-stricken courses
And never ring Fortune's bell.
Thoosands o' writers wi' nae mair brains
In their heids than I've in my pinkie
Are rowin' in wealth while I toil in the dole -
Hoo's that accoontit for, thinkee?

Oh, it's easy, easy accoontit for, fegs.
I canna gie the folk hokum.
I can poke 'em and shock 'em and mock 'em,
But the a'e thing needfu' is hokum!
It pits a' thing else on its legs.
Losh! They'd ha' put me a brass plate up
In Langholm Academy,
And asked me to tak' the chair
At mony a London Scots spree.
They'd ha' gien me my portrait in oils
By Henry Kerr, and the LL.D.,
And my wife and weans 'ud been as weel aff
As gin I'd been a dominie,

If I'd only had hokum, hokum,
Juist a wee thing common hokum!

He had woes other than financial: his marriage was collapsing and his estranged wife was preventing him from seeing their children. In a desperate effort to pay the bills, he took up work as a public relations officer in Liverpool. During this period of turbulence in his life he repeatedly returned in his verse to the scenes of his Langholm childhood:

My wife and bairns, is't tinin' them that thraws
Me back on my first cause?

While accepting that his estrangement from the folk he had been brought up with was 'mair than Heaven is frae Hell', the town itself and the surrounding countryside are remembered fondly:

Gin scenic beauty had been a' I sook
I never need ha' left the Muckle Toon.
I saw it there as weel as ony man
(As I'll sune prove); and sin syne I've gane roon'
Hauf o' the warld wi' faculties undulled
And no' seen't equalled.

But scenic beauty's never maittered much
To me afore, sin poetry isna made
O' onything that's seen, toucht, smelt, or heard,
And no' till lately ha'e the hame scenes played
A pairt in my creative thocht I've yet
To faddom, and permit.

Langholm's rivers are recalled with particular relish. He said once that he 'spent most of my early boyhood in the river, actually, physically, building islands in the river and cooking eels that we speared.' Water was an important source of imagery, MacDiarmid's way of linking the local and the universal:

I was sae used to waters as a loon
That I'm amphibious still. A perfect maze
O' waters is aboot the Muckle Toon,
Apairt frae't often seemin' through the weather
That sea and sky swap places a'thegither.
['Water of Life']

And 'twixt the pavvy o' the Wauchope,
And the paspey o' the Ewes,
And the pavane o' Esk itself',
It's no' for me to choose.
['Water Music']

And the chorus of 'Water Music':

Wheesht, wheesht, Joyce, and let me hear
Nae Anna Livy's lilt,
But Wauchope, Esk, and Ewes again
Each wi' its ain rhythms till't.

To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930), another big work on the scale of A Drunk Man, was given an alternative title. It was The Curly Snake, a reference to a symbolic serpent but also the name of a path in the Langholm area.

MacDiarmid's political convictions hardened during this period and he found himself imaginatively addressing the mill workers of Langholm:

You are a cousin of mine
Here in the mill.
It's queer that born in the Langholm
It's no' until
Juist noo I can see what it means
To work in the mill like my freen's.

Then, after invoking Lenin, the man of letters starts, a touch patronisingly, to hector the man of the loom:

Are you equal to life as to the loom?
Turnin' oot shoddy or what?
Claith better than man? D'ye live to the full,
Your poo'ers a' deliverly taught?
Or scamp a'thing else? Border claith's famous.
Shall things o' mair consequence shame us?

In 1931 he met Valda Trevlyn, a Cornish nationalist who would later become his second wife. Together, in 1933, they went to live on the tiny Shetland island of Whalsay, where they furnished their cottage from orange boxes and ate seagulls' eggs. The fact that Whalsay was 'dry' helped him to deal with a drink problem. But the harshness of their new life and the strain of trying to earn from his writing triggered a further deterioration in his health that culminated in a total nervous collapse. He spent seven weeks in a Perth psychiatric hospital.

It was during his time in Shetland that he wrote his autobiography Lucky Poet, in which he describes his early experiences of Langholm as a poetic 'secret reservoir'. Life there had been

.raw, vigorous, bawdy, and simply bursting with life and gusto. And the true test of my own work - since that is what I have sought to do - is the measure in which it has recaptured something of the unquenchable humour, biting satire, profound wisdom cloaked in bantering gaiety, and the wealth of mad humour, with not a trace of whimsy, in the general leaping, light-hearted, reckless assault upon all the conventions of dull respectability.

He returned to Whalsay but the outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their island life. By now he was too old for the kind of active service he had undertaken during the First World War. Instead he was trained as a fitter in a Glasgow munitions factory, where there was compulsory overtime every Sunday. After two years he secured a transfer to slightly less onerous duties as a deckhand with the Merchant Navy. Thus was a great man's talent deployed.

After the war alleviation of MacDiarmid's financial position came from two sources. The government awarded him a Civil List pension, while a land-owning benefactor gave him and Valda a lifetime's rent-free use of Brownsbank Cottage near Biggar in Lanarkshire. Though his later poetry - written largely in flat, abstract English - left most readers baffled or just bored, his literary reputation was already secure and his old age was enlivened by the pleasures of being a globe-trotting celebrity. In 1962 his Collected Poems (a misnomer: it was far from complete) was published on both sides of the Atlantic. A more comprehensive two-volume version came out in 1978. Brownsbank Cottage is now a kind of literary shrine, and a trust administers an associated writer's fellowship.

Throughout his career MacDiarmid's polemical tendencies had led him into the political field. He was both a Nationalist and a Communist, and argumentatively so. The Nationalists disliked his Communism, while the Communists distrusted his Nationalism. As a result he fell out with both. In the 1964 general election he stood in the constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire against the then Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He went to court to try (unsuccessfully) to have the PM's victory declared void on the grounds that the broadcasters had denied him (MacDiarmid) a fair share of airtime.

Although he hardly ever returned to his home town in person, this literary giant remained, despite the ambivalence of his feelings, a staunch Langholmite. But he was happier with the place than with the people. In 'At My Father's Grave' he describes how 'We look upon each ither noo like hills/ Across a valley', and in 'Charisma and My Relatives' the gulf between the poet and his kinsfolk seems unbridgable:

No' here the beloved group; I've gane sae faur
(Like Christ) yon't faither, mither, brither, kin
I micht as weel try dogs or cats as seek
In sic relationships again to fin'
The epopteia I maun hae - and feel
(Frae elsewhere) owre me steal.

Of course for someone who compares himself to Christ and uses vocabulary like 'epopteia', it is small wonder that the gulf was so great. But there were no reservations about his love for the natural beauty of the Langholm area:

.with a bountifulness so inexhaustible that it has supplied all my subsequent poetry with a tremendous wealth of sensuous satisfaction, a teeming gratitude of reminiscence.My earliest impressions are of an almost tropical luxuriance of Nature - of great forests, of honey-scented heather hills, and moorlands infinitely rich in little-appreciated beauties of flowering, of animal and insect life, of strange and subtle relationships of water and light.

In an essay called 'My Native Place' he expressed regret that the London-based children of his first marriage were denied the stimulation of his own boyhood roamings:

The delights of sledging on the Lamb Hill or Murtholm Brae; of gathering 'hines' in the Langfall; of going through the fields of Baggara hedged in honeysuckle and wild roses, through knee-deep meadowsweet to the 'Scrog-nit' wood and gathering the nuts or crab-apples there; of blaeberrying on Warblaw or the Castle Hill; of 'dookin' or 'guddlin' or making islands in the Esk or Ewes or Wauchope and lighting stick fires on them and cooking potatoes in tin is not for myself that I crave any renewed experience of its delights, but for my children, whose city-sted lives seem to me attenuated and glamourless in comparison.

Soon after the celebrations for his 70th birthday the question of whether Langholm had done enough to venerate its most famous living son was ventilated in the press. The Sunday Express, however, ran a story claiming that he was disliked too much in the town to be offered its freedom. In January 1963 MacDiarmid demonstrated characteristic contempt for small-town attitudes in a letter to the Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser:

I am a little tired now of public honours and in no way anxious for more.I can readily dispense in what remains of my lifetime with any further public eulogising - especially on the part of people whom I have no reason to suppose know my work and are in any way qualified to judge it. The assumption seems to be that I would be flattered if the Freedom were offered to me. No doubt I would be for various reasons, but I would certainly have cause to regret that those who had it in their power to decide the matter were men of stuffy 'respectability', ignorant of literary values, small-minded, and full of petty prejudices.What Langholm (at least in its present official representatives) thinks of my character and career is not in the least likely to be of the slightest consequence in the long run.

Later the same year MacDiarmid finally killed off any possibility of a Langholm honour with a pungent little epistle to the Town Clerk following a report that a committee had decided to take no action in the meantime but might raise the matter again at a later date:

I write because it would be a pity if the time of these gentlemen were wasted in further fruitless discussion. Please inform your Council that if at any future time they should offer me the Freedom I will refuse it, and will also refuse any other public recognition offered to me by Langholm.

It is interesting to note that in the above-quoted letter to the local newspaper MacDiarmid, having stated that 'I love Langholm and am always glad to return to it', revealed that 'I have thought of buying a house there and settling down in the evening of my days, and may yet do so'. He cannot resist a final swipe, however: 'Whether I do so or not will in no way depend either upon the praise or dispraise I may encounter in the Muckle Toon.' MacDiarmid never did buy a house there but he did finally return home in death, at the age of 86. His biographer Alan Bold concluded:

Before he died MacDiarmid saw the proofs of his Collected Poems and pronounced himself content with his achievement. Though he suffered physical distress in his last few days he had attained a measure of serenity through the knowledge that he had fulfilled his own potential.

He was buried in Langholm cemetery on 13 September 1978. Literary luminaries came from all airts to mourn. The poet Norman MacCaig said: 'He would walk into my life as if it were a town and he a torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets of my mind and some of the nasty little things that were burrowing into the corners.' The former Town Clerk with whom he had corresponded and the man who had been Provost at the time stayed away from the funeral. MacDiarmid joked that his gravestone should say 'a disgrace to the community'. In fact the inscription comes from oft-quoted lines of his own:

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 steel-and-bronze sculpture by Jake Harvey, in the form of an open book, commemorates him on a hillside overlooking the town. MacDiarmid may have turned his back on it physically but spiritually the Muckle Toon followed him wherever he went:

I had the fortune to live as a boy
In a world a' columbe and colour-de-roy
As gin I'd had Mars for the land o' my birth
Instead o' the earth.

Nae maitter hoo faur I've travelled sinsyne
The cast o' Dumfriesshire's aye in me like wine;
And my sangs are gleids o' the candent spirit
Its sons inherit.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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