Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Poems
More Collected Poems
Scots, or Scotch, the speech of Scotland’s country people and proletariat, has often been declared dying, but is still alive. I spoke it when I was a boy in the Forties, believing it would soon be gone. Writing in his Journal a hundred years earlier, in 1844, Lord Cockburn thought the same thing:
Scotch is pretty deeply engrained into the people, but among the gentry it is receding shockingly. Among families spending £700 or even £500 a year, it seems to me that there is a majority of the modern children to whom, in his Scotch poems, Burns is already a sealed book. I could name dozens of families, born, living, and educated in Edinburgh, which could not produce a single son or daughter capable of understanding even “The Mouse” or “The Daisy.” English has made no encroachment upon me; yet, though I speak more Scotch than English throughout the day, and read Burns aloud, and recommend him, I cannot get even my own children to do more than pick up a queer word of him here and there. Scotch has ceased to be the vernacular language of the upper classes, and this change will go on increasing with the increasing intercourse which rolls the language of the greater people over our surface. Railways and steamers, carrying the southern into every recess, will leave no asylum for our native classical tongue. I see no other remedy except to treat it as a dead language.
If Scotch is lost, warned Cockburn, then “we lose ourselves. Instead of being what we are, we become a poor part of England.”
Hugh MacDiarmid has treated Scots as a living language, and was determined that Scotland should not be a poor part, or any part, of England. He dreamt of a time when the Lowlands and Gaelic-speaking areas would be the one place, detached from England: the truth is that they are two places, and that Gaelic Irredentism, where it exists among artists and writers, should steer them in a different direction—toward union with Ireland. Hugh MacDiarmid is a nom de guerre—his real name is Christopher Grieve. He is now seventy-nine. He has been a communist, one who rejoined the Party, after a fallingout, at the time of the Russian invasion of Hungary, and he has also been a Scottish Nationalist and England-baiter. Between the world wars he took an interest in ideas of a fascistic character (such as Hitler’s Blutsgefühl—the principle that “like mates with like,” the principle of apartheid). Like Pound, he was attracted to Major Douglas’s doctrine of Social Credit, with its phobia about usury. So it would appear that he has been the sort of communist who isn’t shy about expressing views that are incompatible with communism.
When MacDiarmid began to publish poems in the Twenties, the fear that Scots might not survive was attended by a second fear that, even if it did, it could no longer support a literature worth the name …