Norman MacCaig

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Norman MacCaig

Bust of MacCaig at Edinburgh Park
Bust of MacCaig at Edinburgh Park
BornNorman Alexander McCaig
(1910-11-14)14 November 1910
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died23 January 1996(1996-01-23) (aged 85)
OccupationPoet, teacher
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Literary movementNew Apocalyptics
Notable awards
Isabel Robina Munro
(m. 1940; died 1990)

Norman Alexander MacCaig DLitt FRSE FRSL ARSA OBE[1] (14 November 1910 – 23 January 1996) was a Scottish poet and teacher. His poetry, in modern English, is known for its humour, simplicity of language and great popularity.[2]


Norman Alexander MacCaig was born at 15 East London Street, Edinburgh, to Robert McCaig (1880–1950?), a chemist from Dumfriesshire, and Joan née MacLeod (1879–1959), from Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. He was their fourth child and only son. He attended the Royal High School and in 1928 went to the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1932 with a degree in classics.[3] He divided his time, for the rest of his life, between his native city and Assynt in the Scottish Highlands.

During the Second World War MacCaig registered as a conscientious objector, a move that many at the time criticised. Douglas Dunn has suggested that MacCaig's career later suffered as a result of his outspoken pacifism, although there is no evidence of this.[citation needed] For the early part of his working life, he was employed as a school teacher in primary schools. In 1967 he was appointed Fellow in Creative Writing at Edinburgh. He became a reader in poetry in 1970 at the University of Stirling. He spent his summer holidays in Achmelvich, and Inverkirkaig, near Lochinver.[4]

His first collection, Far Cry, was published in 1943. He continued to publish throughout his lifetime and was prolific in the amount that he produced. After his death a still larger collection of unpublished poems was found. MacCaig often gave public readings of his work in Edinburgh and elsewhere; these were extremely popular and for many people were the first introduction to the poet. His life is also noteworthy for the friendships he had with a number of other Scottish poets, such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Douglas Dunn. He described his own religious beliefs as "Zen Calvinism", a comment typical of his half-humorous, half-serious approach to life.


The cover of MacCaig's Selected Poems


MacCaig's first two books were deeply influenced by the New Apocalypse movement of the thirties and forties, one of a number of literary movements that were constantly coalescing, evolving and dissolving at that time. Later he was to all but disown these works, dismissing them as obscure and meaningless. His poetic rebirth took place with the publication of Riding Lights in 1955. It was a complete contrast to his earlier works, being strictly formal, metrical, rhyming and utterly lucid. The timing of the publication was such that he could have been associated with The Movement, a poetic grouping of poets at just that time. Indeed many of the forms and themes of his work fitted with the ideas of The Movement but he remained separate from that group, perhaps on account of his Scottishness—all of the Movement poets were English. One label that has been attached to MacCaig and one that he seemed to enjoy (as an admirer of John Donne) is Metaphysical.


In later years he relaxed some of the formality of his work, losing the rhymes and strict metricality but always strove to maintain the lucidity. He became a free verse poet with the publication of Surroundings in 1966. Seamus Heaney described his work as "an ongoing education in the marvellous possibilities of lyric poetry."[5] Ted Hughes wrote, "whenever I meet his poems, I'm always struck by their undated freshness, everything about them is alive, as new and essential, as ever."[6] Another poet, beside Donne, whom MacCaig claimed was a great influence on his work was Louis MacNeice.[citation needed] Although he never lost his sense of humour, much of his very late work, following the death of his wife in 1990, is more sombre in tone. The poems appear to be full of heartbreak but they never become pessimistic.

An example of this is his poem "Praise of a Man" which was quoted by Gordon Brown in the eulogy he gave at the funeral of Robin Cook in 2005:[7]

The beneficent lights dim
but don't vanish.
The razory edges
dull, but still cut.
He's gone:
but you can see
his tracks still, in the snow of the world.

A verse of MacCaig's poem Moorings is cited on the reverse side of the new 10-pound polymer banknote that was introduced by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2017.

In schools[edit]

MacCaig's poems are studied in Scottish schools at National 5 and Higher levels, the poems which are currently studied are:

  • Assisi
  • Visiting Hour
  • Basking Shark
  • Brooklyn Cop
  • Hotel Room, 12th Floor
  • Aunt Julia





  • Far Cry. London: Routledge, 1943.
  • The Inward Eye. London: Routledge, 1946.
  • Riding Lights. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.
  • The Sinai Sort. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.
  • A Common Grace. London: Chatto & Windus, 1960.
  • A Round of Applause. London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.
  • Contemporary Scottish Verse, 1959–1969 (Edinburgh: Calder & Boyards, 1970).
  • Measures. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965.
  • Surroundings. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.
  • Rings on a Tree. Chatto & Windus, 1968.
  • Visiting Hour. London: 1968.
  • A Man in My Position. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.
  • Selected Poems (1979).
  • The White Bird. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.
  • The World's Room. London: Chatto & Windus, 1974.
  • Tree of Strings. London: Chatto & Windus, 1977.
  • Old Maps and New. London: Chatto & Windus, 1978.
  • The Equal Skies. London: Chatto & Windus: Hogarth Press, 1980.
  • A World of Difference. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983.
  • Voice Over. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.
  • Collected Poems (revised and expanded edn, 1993).
  • Assisi. Italy
  • An Ordinary Day
  • Brooklyn Cop
  • Aunt Julia
  • Ewen McCaig, ed. (2005). The poems of Norman MacCaig. Polygon. ISBN 978-1-904598-26-8.



  1. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  2. ^ BBC Biography – Norman MacCaig Archived 29 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Learning Journeys, Writing Scotland. Retrieved on 9 November 2007.
  3. ^ a b Spear, Hilda D. (2007). "MacCaig [McCaig], Norman Alexander (1910–1996), poet". Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/60467. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  4. ^ Bold, Alan Norman (1 January 1989). Scotland: A Literary Guide. Routledge. ISBN 9780415007313 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ "Poems of Norman MacCaig, the :: Poetry :: Birlinn Ltd". Archived from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. ^ "Features |". Scotland.
  7. ^ Brown, Gordon (12 August 2005). "Gordon Brown's eulogy to Robin Cook". The Guardian. London.
  8. ^ "Poetry of Norman MacCaig" (PDF). Retrieved 23 September 2023.
  9. ^ Centre, International Biographical (14 June 2001). International Who's Who in Poetry and Poets' Encyclopaedia. International Biographical Centre. ISBN 9780948875595 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ "The Cholmondeley Awards for Poets past winners". The Society of Authors. The Society of Authors. Archived from the original on 5 August 2016. Retrieved 23 November 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]