Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) remains a controversial and influential figure. Born a postman’s son in Langholm Dumfriesshire, he trained to be a school teacher in Edinburgh, then worked on local newspapers in Scotland and South Wales before enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. War service took him to the Balkans and France and during this period he formulated ambitious literary and cultural plans. These centred on an attempt to revive the Scottish language in poetry as a means of asserting Scotland’s artistic independence from England and re-invigorating a literature suffering from sentimentality. His radical advocacy of Scots won support and provided the impetus for what became known as ‘The Scottish Renaissance’. In his early collections this championing of Scots took the form of short lyrics which synthesised diction from the dialects of different areas of Lowland Scotland. MacDiarmid drew on his own memory and used external sources such as J. Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language to create his own version of the Scots literary language otherwise known as Lallans. Though this has been hailed as a modernist technique, the effect on the page is less academic than one might imagine – there is a fresh energy to these poems, the dictionary words an extension of the rhythms and idioms of MacDiarmid’s own Langholm speech. MacDiarmid described Scots as “an inexhaustible quarry of subtle and significant sound” and believed only Scots was capable of capturing a distinctive Scottish sensibility. This had political as well as linguistic implications and MacDiarmid engaged passionately with the politics of the time – he was both a Scottish nationalist and member of the SNP and also a member of the Communist Party, a divided loyalty that got him into trouble with both. Turbulence was a feature of all aspects of MacDiarmid’s life – in 1931 he divorced, married Valda Trevlyn soon after and in 1933 moved to the remote Shetland island of Whalsay. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1935. Around this time the Scots of his early collections such as Sangschaw, Penny Wheep and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle gave way to more didactic work written in English which explored politics, philosophy, linguistics and science.

The debate over language is beautifully enacted in this recording of MacDiarmid talking to an audience at the University of Essex. The poem at issue is ‘The Watergaw’, the first lyric he wrote in Scots, which describes the moment of death, possibly of his father. In these twelve lines can be felt the cross-currents of MacDiarmid’s work – the linguistic innovation allied to traditional form; the archaic words which express a modern psychology; the homely imagery that captures a fleeting ambiguity. The effect is private and haunting as the glancing vision of the watergaw itself, the broken shaft of a rainbow. In this recording MacDiarmid paraphrases the poem in English before reading the original – the contrast is instructive, the music of the latter conveying an urgency and strangeness lost in the translation.

Poetry Archive visitors might also like to know that six CDs featuring Hugh MacDiarmid reading his own work are available for purchase. The recordings were made at Keele University from 1958-1978 and include a two-hour reading of his epic ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. If you are interested please contact Professor Richard Swigg:, 21 Keele Road, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, ST5 2JT. All proceeds from sales of the CDs go to Keele University.

Recording [from a reading at Edinburgh International Festival 1965] used by permission of the BBC.

Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid

The Watergaw - Hugh MacDiarmid

Books by Hugh MacDiarmid