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. He disproved this with his volumes Sangschaw and Penny Wheep, where he devised a literary Scots which came to be known as Lallans. Lallans owed something to certain lonely predecessors such as Charles Doughty and incorporated attitudes to language that place MacDiarmid with Joyce and with the other innovators and renovators of the modern movement. It was both an attempt to say in his own words and ways what a Scotsman might feel, and a poetic diction in which the rhythms of the modern vernacular were fed with a vocabulary of “queer words” drawn from the past: the dictionary of Cockburn’s contemporary Dr. Jamieson was its chief source.

Lallans was highly artificial: the spoken Scots of his own time was, as MacDiarmid put it, “aggrandized” by the presence of these queer words, just as Pope’s verse was made majestic by the poeticisms that denoted a classical decorum. MacDiarmid’s, of course, was a very different decorum, marked by surprise and surmise on the reader’s part. Lallans was an exercise of pride; it worked because it was impossible; it involved a self-inflicted attempt to bring forgotten words to life, to coax up Lazarus from the depths of the dictionary. I think MacDiarmid was aware that, here as elsewhere in Scotland, a miracle was needed: at the outset of his career he liked to write about resurrections.

The queer words made mischief and mystery. They also lent dignity and distance. They separated the Scottish reader from England by forcing an immersion in the archives of his own separate language. They were a means of pouring contempt on what was familiar: on the mass public with its Burns Suppers and its football, and on the coziness of the “pseudo-pastoral” Kailyaird school and their successors. These queer words can be said to have broken that window in Thrums. Lallans rescued the reader from the Kailyaird: Pope’s grand words had rescued the reader from a comparable meanness. It was both colloquial and arcane. It was both ancient and modern, with its recourse to the past and its simultaneous concern with what was new and progressive. It was both an instrument of nationalism and an engine of the international avant-garde.


Read in the Forties, these early poems of MacDiarmid seemed to show a Scotland that wasn’t just a poor part of England. They were also rather less “obscure” and “complex” than even their defenders were inclined to regard them: they didn’t appear to a school-boy to need any more glossing than Shakespeare did. In one respect they were in fact quite familiar. They were ancient in a way that the mere use of obsolete words couldn’t account for. These were pre-industrial themes, Christian themes.

MacDiarmid recognized that Scotland is a collection not of bonny banks and braes but of banks and factories: it is a fairly heavily industrialized country, and one of the first to become so—most of its factories look as hoary and antique as any Border abbey. His poems have had to bear in mind the existence of—though they do not address—a proletariat. Yet he himself is a countryman, and has spent most of his life in the country, sometimes in remote districts. The charismatic poetsage, this small leonine man with the orator’s head and the quiet fireside voice—Scotland’s Mao, all poems and no power—spends his cotter’s Saturday nights, and the rest of the week as well, in a wee hoose up a bank and brae in Lanarkshire. The hearth is hung with his trophies, oils and icons of him done by artists from all over Europe and, I’m sure, from Cuba; shelves of little magazines and manifestoes complete the scene.

He has rather the same worldly eye, a leader’s eye, as Lord Reith had—as if corrupted by rectitude and severity. Reith, that other Scottish chieftain who founded and bossed the BBC, resembled Grieve in more than name. Yet Grieve is likable as few leaders, and very few impotent or ruined potentates, ever are, and is far more genial than some of his opinions would suggest.

Among the polemics and reproofs which bulk large in MacDiarmid’s Selected Essays there is a singularly unreproving piece written in 1931 which describes his boyhood in the Border town of Langholm and which speaks nostalgically of the pleasures of wading “through knee-deep meadow-sweet.” This is not a note struck either in his early lyrics or in his later poems of musing and anathema. Yet these lyrics inhabit a kind of Langholm, a village or farm geography:

As I gaed doon the hedgeback
Five blue eggs I saw,
It was as gin you’d looked at me
Wi’ five een for twa.

The title of that poem is “Trompe l’Oeil,” which points to interests beyond the village. These poems have a kind of psychological inwardness which could only have come originally from the cities. (It may be that there is no country writing: only writing about the country which is done, in some sense, from the city.) But they are the poems of someone who knows and accepts village life, who does not pretend or play tricks—unless there is a reason—and who does not patronize. There is no nostalgia in them, no meadowsweet. MacDiarmid does not do as Robert Louis Stevenson did and use rural themes and words for ornamental reasons, twining round an imaginary cottage “a wheen auld gillyflowers an’ roses.” Some people behave as if there weren’t any villages or cottages any more, as if the country existed only to be driven through: yet you can drive on main roads from Dieppe to Lisbon and pass into a world of lively farms and market-places and never see more than a dozen factories.

MacDiarmid is writing here about a real world, and one that still survives. Now that poetry in Britain has largely retired from London to the provinces, it is worth acknowledging how rural he was at the outset, when resurrection rather than revolution was what mattered to him, and how rural he has remained even in his revolutionary verse, when Langholm, in effect, was composing its hymns to Lenin.

When Stevenson writes in Weir of Hermiston of a “skirling Jezebel” or a “clay-cauld corp,” what we are getting is something other than a pithiness of the vernacular. The queer words are there for color; and the element of archaism, of Ballad-robbing, is very different from MacDiarmid’s digging into dictionaries. MacDiarmid commends the poetry of Robert Fergusson, Lord Cockburn the prose of Noctes Ambrosianae, as sterling examples of written Scots produced after the point at which the writing of Scots fell into disfavor and became problematical. Compared with these, Stevenson’s Scots is not wholly authentic. And the point is that, for all the aggrandizements and avant-garde engineering, MacDiarmid’s is. His lyrics depend upon a true and purposeful spoken Scots which is seldom in the least picturesque: they have a colloquial force about them that he managed to keep when he turned later to writing in English.


His feeling for resurrections grew into a wish to redeem his country, and into a feeling for revolutions. His great poem of resurrection, the marvelous “Crowdieknowe,” dates from the time when he still made use of Christian and other traditional themes, yet it is also perhaps a glorification, literal and figurative, of the militant poor:

Oh to be at Crowdieknowe
When the last trumpet blaws
An’ see the deid come loupin’ owre The auld grey wa’s.

Muckle men wi’ tousled beards
I grat at as a bairn
‘ll scramble frae the croodit clay
Wi’ feck o’ swain’.

An’ glower at God an’a’ his gang
O’ angels i’ the lift Thae trashy bleezin’ French-like folk
Wha gar’d them shift!

Fain the weemun-folk’ll seek
To mak’ them haud their row
   Fegs, God’s no’ blate gin he stirs
The men o’ Crowdieknowe!

The poem seems to harbor childhood memories of harsh and disheveled, ogrelike Victorian peasants, God-fearing or God-baiting men. You couldn’t claim that it was altogether free from tricks and pretenses. In fact, there is an impersonation: some use is made of a rustic persona, which thinks of the Doomsday angels as “thae trashy bleezin’ French-like folk.” This from the author of a poem called “Trompe l’Oeil”! It is a good trick, though, and a brilliant stroke.

The poem contains or concerns a further trick, a trick which has long been played and is still played at Scotland’s expense, a trick whose presence in the poem is sufficient in itself to exclude nostalgia: the Scots are seen here as mutinous subjects and raging losers—allowed their futile brawling probity and grimness while being screwed and cheated by various foreign angels. “Crowdieknowe” could have been called “The Last Trompe,” and may be taken to refer to those scowling miners and skirling slum Jezebels who rapidly died of silicosis and TB, or to Queen Victoria’s expeditionary Jocks, swearing and sweating it out on the South African veld in their glamorous tartans.

A raging mood is also found in “The Sauchs,” another important lyric in a denser Scots, and in many of these early poems there is a meteorology of strong emotions: obstinacies, bewilderments, fits, and flights. In a number of the shorter ones this stormy weather thrusts MacDiarmid into space like some ur-astronaut: there is a proleptic eerieness, and cosmic glimpses like those sent back to earth from the moon shots. It is as if the men of Crowdieknowe had been rocketed out of the grave by their own godlike anger.

The lyrics have much to say about God’s mysterious ways. Some of them are devotional poems, like the astonishing ballad “I heard Christ sing,” in which the rural persona reappears in a context of greater sophistication:

I heard Christ sing quhile roond him danced
The twal’ disciples in a ring….

Gradually, MacDiarmid gives up praising God and becomes him instead—an apotheosis which affected his bilingualism, which meant that he stopped writing mostly in Scots and suffered himself to write mostly English. He knows, he ordains, he gloweringly condemns. He resembles the Almighty in Burns’s “Holy Willie’s Prayer”:

O Thou, wha in the Heavens dost dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven and ten to hell….

But he is rather more severe than the Calvinist God: as few as five people in 100,000, according to a later poem, are “reasonably civilized.” The rest are monstrous reprobates, according to this communist—“sub-men,” members of “the subhuman masses”:

The way that maist men think
And feel’s beneath contempt.

In the long poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle the poet’s ego has grown enormously and he would not be inclined to dance round a Christ who sings like a lintie. The conventions of drinking and drunkenness have amounted to a social system in their own right in Scotland for the past 300 years: here they are the basis for a poem, ordaining and ordering a series of soliloquies and hallucinations. In Scotland as in this, Scotland’s principal modern poem, her MacDiarmiad, drunkenness may enable you to take God’s place. Drunkenness justifies the country’s sinners. As in James Hogg’s novel The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, out of religion comes the sweetness of a phantasmagoric self-will.

In the Drunk Man the disciples are led a very different dance from the previous one. In Sangschaw and Penny Wheep there was no mention of nationalism: now the ring o’ roses round Christ is succeeded by a dance round the Scottish thistle, transformed at one stage of the poem into a barren fig that must somehow be made to bear fruit.

A miracle’s
Oor only chance.
Up, carles, up
And, let us dance!

The thistle figures in the poem as, among other things, Scotland and the poet’s bristling penis. MacDiarmid is Scotland, and God. All this must have appealed at the time to those highbrows who read poetry and wanted the country to be changed, and who thought that this required a miracle, and that a miracle requires a messiah. But in fact MacDiarmid had already performed one in another capacity—in his capacity as a poet. These two early volumes contained poetry of a kind never seen before. Hereditary themes were expressed in the impossibilities of a dead language, which might seem to stand for the state of Scotland. If such a poetry could be written, perhaps Scotland could be saved.

There are people, including the poet himself, who favor the later verse, his “semi-philosophical” vein, at the expense of the early lyrics. In MacDiarmid’s Selected Essays Edwin Muir is warmly cited as disparaging the lyrics; and he does so with a thoughtless reference to the songs of Campion. The editors of the Penguin Selected Poems are also keen to stress the virtues of the later work, and they leave out certain of the early poems that are undoubtedly among his best: “The Sauchs,” “I heard Christ sing,” “Cloudburst and Soaring Moon,” and “Parley of Beasts.” The devout MacDiarmid is placed well to the rear of the poet of social concern. Nevertheless, the editors have done a very conscientious job in assembling and glossing the texts they print.

The most sensitively edited volume of his poetry was the first I came across: Speaking for Scotland, a selection made by the poet together with Sadie Starrett and published in Baltimore in 1946. But the Macmillan Company Collected Poems of 1962 is extremely careless. The Swallow Press More Collected Poems consists of later poems omitted from the Macmillan edition for unspecified publishing reasons. The editing of MacDiarmid has in general been an unhappy business.

The Penguin selection carries poems written after the early work—“North of the Tweed,” “Water of Life,” “By Wauchopeside,” and “With the Herring Fishers,” for example—that no one could dislike: his water music, including the omitted poem of that name, is always excellent. It is striking that many of these are in Scots. I find it hard to sympathize with an unqualified preference for the semi-philosophical verse, most of which is in English. There are long stretches of unrelieved assertion, and many of the assertions I am unable to understand. Two of them contradict each other on a matter of importance. He writes:

   What maitters’t wha we kill
To lessen that foulest murder that deprives
Maist men o’real lives?

Afterward, in English, he relents:

   murder is foulest murder no matter
What individual or body for what end does the slaughter!

Much of this assertiveness is also present in the Drunk Man, that extraordinary brain wave of a poem, crowded with fine lyrics and superlative conversational effects. The American editor tries to make sense of it all, but he isn’t always successful, and he isn’t always able to admit it. MacDiarmid himself has explained that he was content not to make sense. In the year that the Drunk Man appeared, 1926, he stated: “All that claims to be art is of value in inverse ratio to its comprehensibility.” In 1960 he still had a taste for the incomprehensible, joking about how a miracle might happen and the Glasgow newsboys be heard to shout: “Special! Turkish Poet’s Abstruse New Song.” Perhaps the joke is partly on himself, however, as well as on Glasgow: you feel it might really not have occurred to him that there could be something odd about an abstruse song. His early obscurities were never exactly abstruse. Good God, a lot of them were even comprehensible.

Those who prefer the later poetry have had to come to terms with the fact that the two later poems which have been easily the most admired have turned out to be by someone else. The moving lyric “The Little White Rose” is by not Campion but Compton Mackenzie—it was improvised, Mackenzie told me, on a political platform. And “Perfect,” on a seagull’s skull, is a word-for-word rearrangement in verse form of a passage from a Welsh short story by Glyn Jones, with an opening line added, and a title.

These discoveries aren’t very surprising, in view of MacDiarmid’s habit of not always checking what he writes, of quoting and storing, of seeking confirmation in the words of others: for an iconoclast, he is a great citer of authorities. A professor had written previously that “Perfect” was the one true Imagist poem, and “an object-lesson in the meaningful use of vowel-music, consonance and alliteration.” When Glyn Jones staked his claim to the piece, the professor was sure that the rearrangement into lines of verse had contributed “a dimension of rhythmical subtlety” and other enrichments. “Whatever its source,” he said, “I take it that Mr. Glyn Jones would stop short of publishing the poem over his name.” You would think that Mr. Jones had already been guilty of some sort of excess. Well, that’s one way of admiring the later poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid.

The success of his first volumes projected him into the grueling role of the national poet of a nation from which he was in some respects seriously estranged, and which refused to do his bidding: the Scots have been unwilling to vote Communist, and Scottish Nationalism hasn’t prospered. There have been periodic “upsurges,” caused by a justified sense of neglect, but no signs of a Caledonian Bangla Desh. It isn’t easy to imagine a translation to Scotland of the “necessary murders” that are taking place in Ulster, where, as I write, the Scots Irish, having given a good deal of provocation, are being killed by the Irish Irish: a situation that can hardly be the heart’s desire of any variety of Scottish Nationalist.

In spite of his successes, MacDiarmid has lived an isolated life, and the audience for his verse has been an uncertain one. The country poet drew on the learning of the cities, of the European avant-garde, which put him at cross-purposes with any conceivable country readership. There was a public that wanted him to be a messiah, but not many of them, and not many of the masses with whom he was preoccupied politically had much time for advanced poetry, and he didn’t like the masses anyway. Those who applauded him, who were his most devoted readers, and who wanted him to be a major poet, tended to belong to “the Edinburgh bourgeoisie” and similar circles, which he despised. He suffered, too, from a lack of useful criticism: some of his critics have been very sycophantic and have given an unconditional approval to whatever might be thought abstruse and profound and cultural.

His incomprehensibilities came to seem like a way of signaling to a few fit readers, and a way of dealing with the paradoxes and contradictions of his “national socialist” politics, with the uncertainty of his audience, and with the other uncertainties of his role as a poet and public man. There are no more poignant lines in his verse than these from “Parley of Beasts,” which might appear to touch on or prefigure the difficulties in question:

But noo-a-days e’en wi’ ain’s sel
At hame it’s hard to feel.

The confusions in his later poetry may also reflect the confusions brought by the arrival in Scotland of an industrial society: these have never ceased, and the literature of the country has never succeeded in responding to them with confidence.

The life he has led has required courage, self-will, and a number of fantasies. There have been plenty of enemies. “I have had to get rid of all my friends,” he once wrote. Edwin Muir once described his generation of Scottish writers as “men of sorrow and acquainted with Grieve.” MacDiarmid’s own sorrow—so far as its public expressions go, with due allowance made for the surmise that these may include a bit of role-playing, a bit of impersonated anger on behalf of a “free Scotland”—has been a matter of lost causes, of suspicion, and of a consciousness of being sequestered in a philistine environment. In the Drunk Man, written in Montrose, he says:

And in the toon that I belang tae
—What tho’ts Montrose or Naza- reth?—
Helplessly the folk continue
To lead their livin’ death!

The Victorian doggerel-writer William McGonagall, “Poet and Tragedian” and advocate of Temperance, came from near Montrose, and he wrote a poem about it too:

In spite of all your foes,
I will venture to call thee Bonnie Montrose.

He too had his enemies: “I received the wet towel, full force, in the face.” This Heaven-taught village Shakespeare mistook his audience, which was essentially composed of enemies, and which laughed and sneered at his tragic flights (and facts) in the living death of Dundee.

MacDiarmid also has one or two elevated passages which are comic:

Or even as we know
Schweitzer and Cappelletti on the Cimbric language
Of the last descendants of the old Lombobards;
Tibetan influences on Tocharian;
Glottalised Continuants in Navaho, Nootka, and Kwakiutl,
A doctrinal dissertation on the Takelma language;
Studies in the language of the Kharosthi documents
Written in a variety of Indian Prakrit
Used as the administrative lan- guage
Of Shan-Shan or Koraina in the third century AD;
A practical introduction to Ruq’ah script;
And Pirandello’s treatise in Ger- man on the Sicilian dialect,
Laute und Lautentwicklung der
   Mundart von Girgenti.

This reads like something by that abstruse Turkish poet, and represents the full force of the autocrat’s and autodidact’s revenge on an unsatisfactory public. It certainly suggests, joking apart, that here too there has been a difficulty with the audience, and an enmity in it. In the end, the joke may prove to be not on him but on the audience itself. It could even be that those who sneered at McGonagall were sneering still in MacDiarmid’s Scotland: that they were a hereditary element, his most conspicuous public, and a reason why his achievement can cause pain and compassion as well as wonder.

This Issue

December 2, 1971