Hugh MacDiarmid, and some subjective thoughts on Scottish literature.

Probably on account of being from Scotland, I have a slightly prickly (thistly?) relationship with Scottish literature. If anyone who wasn’t Scottish was to criticise it, I would leap to its defence, but on my own terms I can occasionally find it difficult to get along with. Too much of marginal quality gets elevated to the canon, and much that is weak or undistinguished is swaddled in paranoid superlatives as if to protect it from the harsh winds of outside criticism. At its best though it can be excellent, truly world class, and Scottish writers have had a disproportionately massive influence on world literature. Even if you’ve never turned a page of their work, or have no intention of doing so, Walter Scott, Tobias Smollett, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, and Arthur Conan Doyle (for example) are names to be reckoned with. It is almost impossible to calculate their importance in literary history.

For years, I was guilty of dismissing most classic and contemporary Scottish writing. It seemed trapped inside an increasingly shallow pit of self-obsession, and as any psychologist can tell you, self-obsession is a sign of paranoia. To base a literary culture on the narrow focus of nationalism and national identity felt both boring and repellent. I can’t remember what it was that triggered my own re-evaluation, and a guilty realisation that I had dismissed swathes of excellent writers and excellent books, but since then I’ve become a great admirer of people like Willa and Edwin Muir, George Mackay Brown, Robert Alan Jamieson and John Aberdein. At their best, Scottish writers tend to make it into print from odd paths and strange byways, and it can make their books thrillingly idiosyncratic, and make Scottish literature certainly more political than much contemporary English or American literature.

Emblematic of the best and the worst of Scot Lit, its internationalism and suffocating parochialism, its modernist drive and its sentimental conservatism, is Christopher Murray Grieve, aka Hugh MacDiarmid. Much of his work is straightforwardly terrible. Much of it is great. Like Scott, Stevenson, et al that I mentioned above, his influence on contemporary Scottish literature is inestimable. Although there’s much to deride in his politics – he managed to be both pro-Nazi and a communist, and it would be to grossly underestimate the strength of his feeling to say that he was a staunch nationalist – MacDiarmid’s irascible, contradictory persona show him up as a classic polemicist. Chris Grieve was by all accounts a charming, soft-spoken man; Hugh MacDiarmid was a rogue, and there are far too few of them in the contemporary republic of letters. This clip below is from a short documentary film about HM, by Margaret Tait, first broadcast in 1964. I love it, from the sonorous tones of HM’s voice, to the glimpse it gives of a vanished, though still recognisable, Edinburgh of smoky pubs and dingy streets.


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