Christopher Murray Grieve a.k.a. the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, was born on the 11th of August, 1892.
Christopher Murray Grieve is better known to most folks as Hugh MacDiarmid, which was of course, his alter ego and pseudonym. By either name, he was the most important and significant Scottish poet of the 20th Century, and is rightly regarded as one of the giants of Scottish literature. Grieve was the driving force behind the renaissance of Scottish literature, which took shape during the 1920s when he adopted the pen name of Hugh MacDiarmid. If any single individual deserves the credit for that renaissance, it would be MacDiarmid. He described his writing career as “volcanic activity” and its impact has been likened to a “herculean task”, that of “rescuing Scots poetry from the kailyard of mediocrity.” His self imposed, radical duty was to revive the Scottish language in poetry as a means of asserting Scotland's artistic independence and re-invigorating its literature. He was to become the “poetic voice of the nation.”
MacDiarmid was also a passionate advocate of Scottish culture, but as his biographer, Alan Bold Grieve, wrote, “[he was a] nationalist with a poor opinion of the nation he lived in.” He also resurrected the Scots vernacular in poetry, which he saw as a vital part of Scottish culture, to the extent of creating his own literary language known as ‘Lallans’ (for ‘Lowland Scots’). The monologual, stream of consciousness poem, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, is arguably his finest, most ambitious and critical work, reflecting the over-sentimental Scottish culture that ‘MacDairmid’ set out to tear down. Grieve was as passionate about politics as MacDiarmid was about literature and was a founder member of the National Party of Scotland. He also joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, but was thrown out of both Parties during the 1930s. However, he rejoined the Communist Party in 1956 and stood as a candidate in 1964. He was a prolific writer of both poetry and prose; always controversial, and his influence can still be felt in today's Scottish writing.
Christopher Murray Grieve was born in Langholm, Dumfriesshire, on the 11th of August, 1892. He was educated at Langholm Academy, where one of his teachers was the composer, Francis George Scott, who would later set many of Hugh MacDiarmid's lyrics to music. Grieve then trained to be a school teacher, before becoming a pupil teacher at Broughton Higher Grade School in Edinburgh. It was at that time that his literary abilities were first recognised, by George Ogilvie, who surely influenced Grieve. He ceased to be a teacher and turned to journalism, working on local newspapers in Scotland and South Wales before enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps, in 1915. During the First World War, he served in the Balkans and France. After the War, he returned to Scotland and resumed his career as a journalist, working as Editor and Reporter for the Montrose Review.
With that background, he turned his writer’s skills to what was to become his vocation – an understatement if ever there was. In Montrose, Grieve edited and published three issues of ‘Northern Numbers’, which were representative collections of contemporary Scottish poetry. He edited further anthologies of Scottish writing, including ‘The Scottish Chapbook’. In 1922, the first edition of that publication featured his poetry and it was also that issue in which the name Hugh MacDiarmid first appeared. Later in 1922, in ‘The Dunfermline Press’ of the 30th of September, a certain C. M. Grieve presented a poem by an anonymous friend. The author of ‘The Watergaw’ was later identified as ‘Hugh M’Diarmid’ (MacDiarmid abbreviated). Thereafter, he became a regular contributor of poetry. His first book, ‘Annals of the Five Senses’, was published in 1923 and three years later, he cast his masterfully epic poem, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, upon an unsuspecting Scottish public.
Here’s an extract from a Scottish poem about a drunk:
I seek in this lucidity,
To pierce the veils that darklin fa’
She was ane was ta’en frae me
Noo hear the pipes a pibroch bla’
Ha’e I dark secrets; nane to hide
If glass is gi’en to me to haud
An’ whiskey’s there, ye maun imbibe
An’ no gang spierin’ “Whar’s the flood?”
Just a wee bit tribute; ye ken fit like.
Christopher Murray Grieve died on the 9th of September, 1978, and was buried in his hometown of Langholm. The cottage where he lived at Brownsbank, near Biggar, is now run as a museum and writers’ centre, and is preserved, fully furnished, just as he left it. He widnae hae been sae happy at that as it was precisely the kind of misguided sentiment he detested and railed against in his writing. He once famously condemned the ‘cult’ of Robert Burns for avidly preserving the man’s furniture, whilst totally ignoring his message – and there they are preserving his own furnishings; ye maun laugh. A more fitting tribute is his memorial in Langholm and the nearby cairn, upon which is inscribed these facts: “Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) was a man of Langholm, a champion of Scotland, a fervent internationalist and one of the great poets of the world.”
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.