Hugh MacDiarmid

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Hugh MacDiarmid
A bust of MacDiarmid sculpted in 1927
A bust of MacDiarmid sculpted in 1927
BornChristopher Murray Grieve
11 August 1892 (1892-08-11)
Langholm, Dumfriesshire, Scotland
Died9 September 1978(1978-09-09) (aged 86)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Literary movementScottish Renaissance
Notable worksA Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle

Christopher Murray Grieve (11 August 1892 – 9 September 1978), best known by his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid (/məkˈdɜːrmɪd/), was a Scottish poet, journalist, essayist and political figure. He is considered one of the principal forces behind the Scottish Renaissance and has had a lasting impact on Scottish culture and politics. He was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928 but left in 1933 due to his Marxist–Leninist views. He joined the Communist Party the following year only to be expelled in 1938 for his nationalist sympathies. He would subsequently stand as a parliamentary candidate for both the Scottish National Party (1945) and British Communist Party (1964).

Grieve's earliest work, including Annals of the Five Senses, was written in English, but he is best known for his use of "synthetic Scots", a literary version of the Scots language that he himself developed. From the early 1930s onwards MacDiarmid made greater use of English, sometimes a "synthetic English" that was supplemented by scientific and technical vocabularies.

The son of a postman, MacDiarmid was born in the Scottish border town of Langholm, Dumfriesshire. He was educated at Langholm Academy before becoming a teacher for a brief time at Broughton Higher Grade School in Edinburgh. He began his writing career as a journalist in Wales,[1][2][3] contributing to the socialist newspaper The Merthyr Pioneer run by Labour party founder Keir Hardie[2] before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the First World War.[3] He served in Salonica, Greece and France before developing cerebral malaria and subsequently returning to Scotland in 1918. MacDiarmid's time in the army was influential in his political and artistic development.

After the war he continued to work as a journalist, living in Montrose where he became editor and reporter of the Montrose Review[4] as well as a justice of the peace and a member of the county council. In 1923 his first book, Annals of the Five Senses, was published at his own expense, followed by Sangschaw in 1925, and Penny Wheep. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, published in 1926, is generally regarded as MacDiarmid's most famous and influential work.[4]

Moving to the Shetland island of Whalsay in 1933 with his son Michael and second wife, Valda Trevlyn, MacDiarmid continued to write essays and poetry despite being cut off from mainland cultural developments for much of the 1930s.[3] He died at his cottage Brownsbank, near Biggar, in 1978 at the age of 86.[5]

Throughout his life MacDiarmid was a supporter of both communism and Scottish nationalism, views that often put him at odds with his contemporaries. He was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland,[3] forerunner to the modern Scottish National Party. He stood as a candidate for the Scottish National Party in 1945 and 1950, and for the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1964.[4] In 1949, MacDiarmid's opinions led George Orwell to include his name in a list of "those who should not be trusted"[6] to MI5. Today, MacDiarmid's work is credited with inspiring a new generation of writers. Fellow poet Edwin Morgan said of him: "Eccentric and often maddening genius he may be, but MacDiarmid has produced many works which, in the only test possible, go on haunting the mind and memory and casting Coleridgean seeds of insight and surprise."[1]


Early life[edit]

Grieve was born in Langholm in 1892.[7] His father was a postman; his family lived above the town library, giving MacDiarmid access to books from an early age. Grieve attended Langholm Academy and, from 1908, Broughton Junior Student Centre in Edinburgh, where he studied under George Ogilvie who introduced him to the magazine The New Age. He left the school on 27 January 1911, following the theft of some books and postage stamps; his father died eight days later, on 3 February 1911.

Following Grieve's departure from Broughton, Ogilvie arranged for Grieve to be employed as a journalist with the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch. Grieve was to lose this job later in 1911, but on 20 July of that year he had his first article, "The Young Astrology" published in The New Age. In October 1911, Grieve moved to Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, Wales[8] where he worked as a newspaper reporter; by 1913 he had returned to Scotland and was working for the Clydebank and Renfrew Press in Clydebank, near Glasgow. It was here that Grieve first encountered the work of John Maclean, Neil Malcolm Maclean, and James Maxton.

First World War[edit]

In July 1915 Grieve left the town of Forfar in eastern Scotland and travelled to the Hillsborough barracks in Sheffield. He went on to serve 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.

Return to Scotland[edit]

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]

Time in England[edit]

From 1929 to 1930 MacDiarmid lived in London, and worked for Compton Mackenzie's magazine, Vox. MacDiarmid lived in Liverpool from 1930 to 1931, before returning to London; he left again in 1932, and lived in the village of Thakeham in West Sussex until he returned to Scotland in 1932.

Whalsay, Shetland[edit]

MacDiarmid lived in Sodom[9] on the island of Whalsay, Shetland, from 1933 until 1942. He often asked the local fishermen to take him out in their boats and once asked them to leave him on an uninhabited island for a night and pick him up again in the morning. Local legend has it that he asked about Whalsay words and some of the Whalsay folk made up fantastical words that did not exist. The dialect is strong on the island and any strange words would have probably sounded quite plausible. "The often tormented genius wrote much of his finest poetry (including 'On a Raised Beach') and, via the Whalsay post office, conducted furious correspondence with the leading writers and thinkers of his generation."[10] The croft house that was his Whalsay home was made into a camping böd, the Grieves House böd, run by Shetland Amenity Trust. But it is sadly in a state of disrepair and "closed for maintenance" as of 2022.[11]

Return to the Scottish Mainland[edit]

In 1942 MacDiarmid was directed to war work and moved to Glasgow, where he lived until 1949. Between 1949 and 1951 he lived in a cottage on the grounds of Dungavel House, Lanarkshire, before moving to his final home: "Brownsbank", a cottage in Candymill, near Biggar in the Scottish Borders. He died, aged 86, in Edinburgh.[12]


Poster for Hugh MacDiarmid exhibition held at the National Library of Scotland in honour of his 75th birthday in 1967.

In 1928, MacDiarmid helped found the National Party of Scotland,[13] but was expelled during the 1930s.[14]

MacDiarmid was at times a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but he was expelled twice. John Baglow reports that "his comrades never really knew what to make of him."[15] Indeed, he was expelled from the Communist Party for being a Scottish Nationalist, and from the National Party of Scotland for being a Communist.[16] As a follower of the Scottish revolutionary socialist John Maclean, he saw no contradiction between international socialism and the nationalist vision of a Scottish workers' republic, but this ensured a fraught relationship with organised political parties.[17]

From 1931, whilst he was in London, until 1943, after he left the Shetland island of Whalsay, MacDiarmid was under surveillance by British military intelligence.[18] In 1949, George Orwell included MacDiarmid in his list for British Intelligence of fellow Leftist writers whom he suspected of sympathies for Joseph Stalin or direct links with the intelligence services of the USSR.

MacDiarmid stood in the Glasgow Kelvingrove constituency in the 1945 and 1950 general elections. He stood against the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home in Kinross and Western Perthshire at the 1964 election, taking only 127 votes.

In 2010 letters were discovered showing that MacDiarmid believed the Nazi invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion) 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."[19] 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."[20] In response, 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."[20]


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

Much of the work that MacDiarmid published in the 1920s was written in what he termed "Synthetic Scots": a version of the Scots language that "synthesised" multiple local dialects, which MacDiarmid constructed from dictionaries and other sources.

From the 1930s onwards 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 John Jamieson's dialect dictionary for his poems in 'synthetic Scots', so he used Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary for poems such as 'On a Raised Beach'.[21] Other poems, including 'On a Raised Beach' and 'Etika Preobrazhennavo Erosa' used extensive passages of prose.[22][23] This practice, particularly in the poem 'Perfect', led to accusations of plagiarism[24] 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'.[25]

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.

Personal life[edit]

He had a daughter, Christine, and a son, Walter, by his first wife Peggy Skinner. He had a son, James Michael Trevlyn, known as Michael, by his second wife Valda Trevlyn (1906-1989); Michael was a conscientious objector to post-World War II National Service and became vice chair of the Scottish National Party.

Places of interest[edit]

MacDiarmid grew up in the Scottish town of Langholm in Dumfriesshire. 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.[26]

MacDiarmid lived in Montrose for a time where he worked for the local newspaper the Montrose Review.[27]

MacDiarmid also lived on the isle of Whalsay in Shetland, in Sodom (Sudheim). The house is now one of Shetland's 'Camping Bods', offering basic, bothy-style accommodation to visitors.

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.[28]

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.

Portrait in National Portrait Gallery primary collection and film portrait[edit]

Hugh MacDiarmid sat for sculptor Alan Thornhill and a bronze was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.[29] The terracotta original is held in the collection of the artist.[30] The correspondence file relating to the MacDiarmid bust is held in the archive[31] of the Henry Moore Foundation's Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

Filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait made a film Hugh MacDiarmid, A Portrait (1964) [32] when the poet was seventy-one which novelist Ali Smith describes as ‘a model of versatility, a meld of voice and image each illuminating the other’. The poems heard read by MacDiarmid are ‘You Know Not Who I Am’, ‘Somersault’, ‘Krang’ and some lines from ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’.  Writing of MacDiarmid and Tait,[33] academic Sarah Neely notes ‘MacDiarmid was also a champion of Tait’s work as a film-maker and poet; he published a few of her poems and also organised a screening of her films at the Dunedin Society’.[34]


  1. ^ a b "Hugh MacDiarmid | Poetry | Scottish Poetry Library". Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  2. ^ a b MacDiarmid, Hugh (1 January 1970). Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520016187.
  3. ^ a b c d "Writing Scotland - Hugh MacDiarmid - BBC Two". BBC. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "Grieve, Christopher Murray (Hugh MacDiarmid) genealogy Scotland - ScotlandsPeople". Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  5. ^ "Hugh MacDiarmid: Overview". Retrieved 24 August 2019.
  6. ^ Smith, David; arts; correspondent, media (26 October 2003). "Orwell's red-list goes on display". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  7. ^ Bold, Alan. "MacDiarmid". London: Paladin, 1190. p 35.
  8. ^ Wright, Gordon. "MacDiarmid: An Illustrated Biography", Edinburgh. ISBN 0903065177. Gordon Wright Publishing, 1977. p 28.
  9. ^ "Sudheim (Sodom)". The Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  10. ^ Amenity Trust, Shetland. "Whalsay leaflet" (PDF). SAT Whalsay. Shetland Amenity Trust. Retrieved 27 May 2022.
  11. ^ Böds, Grieves. "Whalsay böd". Grieves böd. Shetland Amenity Trust. Retrieved 27 May 2022.
  12. ^ Bold, Alan. "MacDiarmid". London: Paladin, 1190. p 493.
  13. ^ "Hugh MacDiarmid | Poet". Scottish Poetry Library. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  14. ^ "Hugh MacDiarmid". Edinburgh City of Literature. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  15. ^ John Baglow (1987). Hugh MacDiarmid: The Poetry of Self. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 115.
  16. ^ McAfee, Annalena (25 January 2017). "Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 June 2021.
  17. ^ "About Hugh MacDiarmid". The University of Edinburgh.
  18. ^ Scott Lyall, '"The Man is a Menace": MacDiarmid and Military Intelligence', in Scottish Studies Review 8.1, Spring 2007, pp. 37-52.
  19. ^ "Nationalists quoting Hugh MacDiarmid should read his thoughts on the Nazis – Brian Wilson". The Scotsman. 6 July 2019.
  20. ^ a b The Sunday Times 4 April 2010 "Hugh MacDiarmid: I’d prefer Nazi rule"
  21. ^ M. H. Whitworth, 'Hugh MacDiarmid and Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary,’ Notes and Queries, 55 (2008), 78-80.
  22. ^ M. H. Whitworth, 'Three Prose Sources for Hugh MacDiarmid’s "On a Raised Beach",’ Notes and Queries, 54 (2007), 175-77
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Hugh Gordon Porteus, letter, TLS (4 February 1965), 87
  25. ^ Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 643. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  26. ^ "MacDiarmid Memorial Unveiled". The Glasgow Herald. 12 August 1985. p. 5.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ "Brownsbank cottage - Biggar Museum". Archived from the original on 15 October 2012.
  29. ^ "National Portrait Gallery - Portrait - NPG 5230; Hugh MacDiarmid".
  30. ^ Terracotta head of Hugh MacDiarmid by Alan Thornhill Archived 19 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "Henry Moore Foundation". Archived from the original on 12 January 2009. Retrieved 10 August 2009. HMI Archive
  32. ^ "Full record for 'HUGH MACDIARMID: A Portrait' (6220) - Moving Image Archive catalogue". Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  33. ^ Subjects and sequences : a Margaret Tait reader. Margaret Tait, Peter Todd, Benjamin Cook. London: LUX. 2004. p. 17. ISBN 0-9548569-0-2. OCLC 62119997.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  34. ^ Neely, Sarah (2017). Between categories : the films of Margaret Tait: portraits, poetry, sound and place. Oxford. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-78707-316-6. OCLC 982451544.



  • Sangschaw (1925)
  • Penny Wheep (1926)
  • A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926)
  • The Lucky Bag (1927)
  • To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930)
  • First Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems (1931)
  • Second Hymn to Lenin (1932)
  • Scots Unbound and Other Poems (1932)
  • Stony Limits and Other Poems (1934)
  • The Birlinn of Clanranald (1935)
  • Second Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems (1935)
  • Speaking for Scotland: Selected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (1946)
  • Poems of the East-West Synthesis (1946)
  • A Kist of Whistles (1947)
  • In Memoriam James Joyce (1955)
  • Three Hymns to Lenin (1957)
  • The Battle Continues (1958)
  • The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961)
  • Collected Poems (1962)
  • Poems to Paintings by William Johnstone 1933 (1963)
  • A Lap of Honour (1967)
  • Early Lyrics (1968)
  • A Clyack-Sheaf (1969)
  • More Collected Poems (1970)
  • Selected Poems (1971)
  • The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology: Poems in Scots and English (1972)
  • Dìreadh (1974)
  • The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid Volume 1 & 2 (1978)


  • Bold, Alan. The Letter of Hugh MacDiarmid
  • Kerrigan, Catherine. The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters
  • Wilson, Susan R. The Correspondence Between Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean

Also see:

  • Manson, John. Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (C. M. Grieve)
  • Junor, Beth. Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid)

Anthologies edited by MacDiarmid[edit]

  • The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940)


  • Annals of the Five Senses (1923)
  • A Plea for Scottish Fascism (1923)
  • A Program for Scottish Fascism (1923)
  • Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926-)
  • Scottish Scene (1934) (collaboration with Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
  • Scottish Eccentrics (1938)
  • The Islands of Scotland (1939)
  • Lucky Poet (1943)
  • The Company I've Kept (1966)
  • The Uncanny Scot (1968)[1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Perrie, Walter (1980), Nietzche and the Drunk Man, in Cencrastus No. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 9 – 12, ISSN 0264-0856
  • Baglow, John (1987). Hugh MacDiarmid: The Poetry of Self McGill-Queen's Press, ISBN 9780773505711
  • Bold, Alan (1983). MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal, Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN 9780710208811
  • Bold, Alan (1988). MacDiarmid A Critical Biography, John Murray, ISBN 9780870237140
  • Buthlay, Kenneth (1982), Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve), Scottish Academic Press, ISBN 9780707303079
  • Glen, Duncan (1964). Hugh Macdiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) and the Scottish Renaissance , Chambers, Edinburgh et al., ASIN B0000CME6P
  • Herbert, W. N. (1992). To Circumjack MacDiarmid: The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid. Oxford: Clarendon, ISBN 9780198112662
  • Hubbard, Tom (1992), Hugh MacDiarmid: The Integrative Vision, in Hendry, Joy (ed.), Chapman No. 69-70, Autumn 1992, ISBN 0-906772-50-8
  • Lyall, Scott (2006). Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 9780748623341
  • Lyall, Scott and Margery Palmer McCulloch (eds) (2011). The Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 9780748641895
  • Purdie, Bob (2012). Hugh MacDiarmid, Black, Green, Red and Tartan, Welsh Academic Press, ISBN 9781860570582
  • Riach, Alan (1991). Hugh MacDiarmid’s Epic Poetry, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 9780748602575
  • Ross, Raymond J. (1983), Hugh MacDiarmid and John MacLean, in Hearn, Sheila G. (ed.), Cencrastus No. 11, New Year 1983, pp. 33 – 36, ISSN 0264-0856
  • Wright, Gordon (1977). MacDiarmid: An Illustrated Biography, Gordon Wright Publishing, ISBN 9780903065177

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Scott, Allexander (17 October 1968). "Some MacDiarmid flytings". The Glasgow Herald. Retrieved 28 October 2017.