Christopher Murray Grieve was a complex and thrawn man. Born in 1892, he came to maturity as a writer in a Scotland that was experiencing an identity crisis. Both the Empire and the Depression were at their height. More Scots than ever were out of work and Catholic Irish immigrants were popular scapegoats. Meanwhile emigration of native Scots to Canada, the USA and Australia was at its highest ever rate.
In 1935, Edwin Muir in his Scottish Journey lamented that:
'Scotland is being gradually emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character.'Grieve had already decided that he would be in the vanguard of a Scottish cultural fightback. Changing his name to Hugh MacDiarmid, he championed literature written in Scots (or as he called it, Lallans), that he synthesised for the page from various regional dialects for the first time. He was a founder member in 1928 of the National Party of Scotland (a forerunner of the SNP - that he inevitably fell out with as a 'bourgeois secretariat') and wrote in Lallans. He also wrote poetry in English:
Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?He was ever restless, boasting "I will aye be whaur extremes meet." Communism, fascism, and nationalism were all fanatically embraced at one time or another, his Who's Who entry listing Anglophobia as his hobby. I suspect he would have found a kindred spirit in the disputatious Alexander Selkirk. His output was prodigious, much of it worthless, but the best of it of the very highest standard. A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle was one of the best Anglophone (with apologies to MacDiarmid) poems of the 20th century.
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner
To a fool who cries "Nothing but heather!"
His memorial, in the hills above his natal town of Langholm, is an intriguing sculpture, rusted red and decorated with emblems from his life and writings. On the way back from the Lake District, I stopped to experience it.
The MacDiarmid Memorial:
Grieve died in 1978, with Scotland seemingly on the eve of devolution. In the end, this was to be delayed for 20 years. Next time you are in the Borders, stop off at his memorial and read some of his work.
The rose of all the world is not for me
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart.
The Little White Rose