Hugh MacDiarmid

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Hugh MacDiarmid
A bust of MacDiarmid in South Gyle, Edinburgh
Born Christopher Murray Grieve
11 August 1892
Langholm, Scotland
Died 9 September 1978(1978-09-09) (aged 86)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Occupation Poet
Literary movement Scottish Renaissance

Christopher Murray Grieve, known by his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid (11 August 1892 – 9 September 1978) was a Scottish poet.

He was instrumental in creating a Scottish version of modernism and was a leading light in the Scottish Renaissance of the 20th century. Unusually for a first generation modernist, he was a communist. Much of MacDiarmid's political life, however, was spent advancing the cause of Scottish nationalism. He wrote both in English and in literary Scots (often referred to as Lallans).

Early life and writings[edit]

MacDiarmid was born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892, in the Scottish Border town of Langholm.[1] His father was a postman; his family lived above the town library, giving MacDiarmid access to books from an early age. After leaving school in 1910, he worked as a journalist for five years, before serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonica, Greece and France during the First World War. After the war, he married and returned to journalism.

MacDiarmid's first book, Annals of the Five Senses, was a mixture of prose and poetry written in English, and was published in 1923 while MacDiarmid was living in Montrose. At about this time MacDiarmid turned to Scots for a series of books, culminating in what is probably his best known work, the book-length A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. This poem is widely regarded as one of the most important long poems in 20th-century Scottish literature. After that, he published several books containing poems in both English and Scots.[citation needed]

Politics and later career[edit]

In 1928, MacDiarmid helped found the National Party of Scotland. He was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. During the 1930s, he was expelled from the former for being a communist and from the latter for being a nationalist.

In 1929-1930 Sorabji, composer, dedicated his Opus clavicembalisticum to him.

From 1931, whilst he was in London, until 1943, after he had left the Shetland island of Whalsay for conscripted war work in Glasgow, MacDiarmid was watched by the British Intelligence Services.[2] In 1949, George Orwell compiled a list of suspected communist sympathisers for British intelligence. He included MacDiarmid in this list. In 1956, MacDiarmid rejoined the Communist Party.[citation needed]

As Grieve, he stood as the Scottish National Party candidate in the Glasgow Kelvingrove constituency in the 1945 and 1950 general elections. He also stood against the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home in Kinross and Western Perthshire for the Communist Party at the 1964 election, taking only 127 votes. MacDiarmid listed Anglophobia among his hobbies in his Who's Who entry. He died, aged 86, in Edinburgh.[3]

In 2010, letters were discovered showing that he believed a Nazi invasion of Britain would benefit Scotland. In a letter sent from Whalsay, Shetland, in April 1941, he wrote: “On balance I regard the Axis powers, tho’ more violently evil for the time being, less dangerous than our own government in the long run and indistinguishable in purpose." A year earlier, in June 1940, he wrote: “Although the Germans are appalling enough, they cannot win, but the British and French bourgeoisie can and they are a far greater enemy. If the Germans win they could not hold their gain for long, but if the French and British win it will be infinitely more difficult to get rid of them.” Marc Horne in the Daily Telegraph commented: "MacDiarmid flirted with fascism in his early thirties, when he believed it was a doctrine of the left. In two articles written in 1923, Plea for a Scottish Fascism and Programme for a Scottish Fascism, he appeared to support Mussolini’s regime. By the 1930s however, following Mussolini’s lurch to the right, his position had changed and he castigated Neville Chamberlain over his appeasement of Hitler’s expansionism."[4] Deirdre Grieve, MacDiarmid’s daughter-in-law and literary executor, noted: “I think he entertained almost every ideal it was possible to entertain at one point or another."[4]

Later writings[edit]

Plaque on a building near Gladstone Court Museum, Biggar, South Lanarkshire which was opened by MacDiarmid in 1968. The inscription reads "Let the lesson be - to be yersel's and to mak' that worth bein'"
MacDiarmid Memorial near Langholm

As his interest in science and linguistics increased, MacDiarmid found himself turning more and more to English as a means of expression so that most of his later poetry is written in that language. His ambition was to live up to Rilke's dictum that 'the poet must know everything' and to write a poetry that contained all knowledge. As a result, many of the poems in Stony Limits (1934) and later volumes are a kind of found poetry reusing text from a range of sources. Just as he had used Jameson's dialect dictionary for his poems in 'synthetic Scots', so he used Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary for poems such as 'On a Raised Beach'.[5] Other poems, including 'On a Raised Beach' and 'Etika Preobrazhennavo Erosa' used extensive passages of prose.[6][7] This practice, particularly in the poem 'Perfect', led to accusations of plagiarism[8] from supporters of the Welsh poet Glyn Jones, to which MacDiarmid's response was 'The greater the plagiarism the greater the work of art.' The great achievement of this late poetry is to attempt on an epic scale to capture the idea of a world without God in which all the facts the poetry deals with are scientifically verifiable. In his critical work Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt notes that Hugh MacDiarmid 'had redrawn the map of Scottish poetry and affected the whole configuration of English literature'.[9]

MacDiarmid wrote a number of non-fiction prose works, including Scottish Eccentrics and his autobiography Lucky Poet. He also did a number of translations from Scottish Gaelic, including Duncan Ban MacIntyre's Praise of Ben Dorain, which were well received by native speakers including Sorley MacLean.

Places of interest[edit]

MacDiarmid grew up in the Scottish town of Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway. The town is home to a monument in his honour made of cast iron which takes the form of a large open book depicting images from his writings.[10]

MacDiarmid lived in Montrose for a time where he worked for the local newspaper the Montrose Review.[11]

MacDiarmid also lived on the isle of Whalsay in Shetland, in Sodom (Sudheim).

Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar, South Lanarkshire, the home of MacDiarmid and his wife Valda from 1952 until their deaths, has been restored by the Biggar Museum Trust.[12]

Hugh MacDiarmid is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum, The Saltire Society and The Scottish Poetry Library.

Personal life[edit]

He had a daughter, Christine, and a son, Walter, by his first wife Peggy Skinner. He had a son, Michael, by his second wife Valda Trevlyn.

Portrait in National Portrait Gallery primary collection[edit]

Hugh MacDiarmid sat for sculptor Alan Thornhill and a bronze was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.[13] The terracotta original is held in the collection of the artist.[14] The correspondence file relating to the MacDiarmid bust is held in the archive[15] of the Henry Moore Foundation's Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.


  1. ^ Bold, Alan. "MacDiarmid". London: Paladin, 1190. p 35.
  2. ^ Scott Lyall, '"The Man is a Menace": MacDiarmid and Military Intelligence', in Scottish Studies Review 8.1, Spring 2007, pp. 37-52.
  3. ^ Bold, Alan. "MacDiarmid". London: Paladin, 1190. p 493.
  4. ^ a b The Sunday Times 4 April 2010 "Hugh MacDiarmid: I’d prefer Nazi rule"
  5. ^ M. H. Whitworth, ‘Hugh MacDiarmid and Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary,’ Notes and Queries, 55 (2008), 78-80.
  6. ^ M. H. Whitworth, ‘Three Prose Sources for Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach,”’ Notes and Queries, 54 (2007), 175-77
  7. ^ M. H. Whitworth, ‘Forms of Culture in Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Etika Preobrazhennavo Erosa,”’ International Journal of Scottish Literature, no.5 (Autumn/Winter 2009). www.ijsl.
  8. ^ Hugh Gordon Porteus, letter, TLS (4 Feb. 1965), 87
  9. ^ Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 643. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.
  10. ^ "MacDiarmid Memorial Unveiled". The Glasgow Herald. 12/08/1985. p. 5.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. ^ Scott Lyall, '"Genius in a Provincial Town": MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics in Montrose', in Scottish Studies Review 5.2, Autumn 2004, pp. 41-55.
  12. ^
  13. ^ bronze head of MacDiarmid in NPG Collection by Alan Thornhill
  14. ^ Terracotta head of Hugh MacDiarmid by Alan Thornhill
  15. ^ HMI Archive



Further reading[edit]

  • Duncan Glen (1964) Hugh Macdiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) and the Scottish Renaissance , Chambers, Edinburgh et al.
  • Michael Grieve and Alexander Scott (1972) The Hugh Macdiarmid Anthology: Poems in Scots and English, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  • Gordon Wright (1977) MacDiarmid: An Illustrated Biography, Gordon Wright Publishing
  • Alan Bold (1983) MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal, Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Alan Bold (1984) Letters, Hamish Hamilton
  • John Baglow (1987) Hugh MacDiarmid: The Poetry of Self (criticism), McGill-Queen’s Press
  • Alan Bold (1988) MacDiarmid A Critical Biography, John Murray
  • An Anthology from X (Oxford University Press 1988). X ran from 1959-62. Edited by the poet David Wright & the painter Patrick Swift. Contributors included MacDiarmid, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, et al.
  • Alan Riach (1991) Hugh MacDiarmid’s Epic Poetry, Edinburgh University Press
  • Scott Lyall (2006) Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic, Edinburgh University Press
  • Scott Lyall (2007) "'The Man is a Menace": MacDiarmid and Military Intelligence', Scottish Studies Review 8.1, pp. 37–52.
  • Beth Junor (2007) Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) Word Power
  • Scott Lyall and Margery Palmer McCulloch (eds) (2011) The Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid, Edinburgh University Press
  • John Manson (Editor), with an Introduction by Alan Riach (2011) Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid, Kennedy & Boyd [1]
  • Scott Lyall (2012) 'Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance', in Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, Cambridge University Press
  • Bob Purdie (2012) Hugh MacDiarmid, Black, Green, Red and Tartan Welsh Academic Press

External links[edit]