DCSIMG

Celebrating the centenary of Norman MacCaig's birth, Aly Bain recalls a fiery friendship that spanned the generations and reflects on a fitting homage to his talents

My first encounter with Norman MacCaig wasn't too friendly. It must have been about 1971 or 1972. I was having a party at the flat I used to have up by the Meadows in Edinburgh. We were having quite a night of it. There were a lot of people there: actors, musicians, singers, writers, all crammed into my wee living room. Norman came along with a mutual friend, the singer Dolina McLennan.

• MacCaig in Assynt, where he spent his long summer holidays, and where he would fish and walk for miles

I was playing a tune on my fiddle. Norman didn't like what I was playing and said so. He could be like that. There were times when he would drag my bow from the fiddle and tell me that the tune I was playing was rubbish. I had heard of him previously but this was the first time I had ever met him. My first thoughts were: "Who is this guy?"

I met him again shortly afterwards at a party at Dolina's house, on Thirlestane Road. That was a great house for parties. I was there with the Shetland guitarist Willie Johnson. Norman was there and we fell into a horrendous argument about emotions. He said that if he wrote anything emotional he tore it up and threw it in the bucket. I had a big argument with him about that. Towards the end of the night I was playing this slow air and I noticed he was quite moved so I pounced and said: "There, you are emotional."

In the end, of course, he was very emotional. He just didn't want to admit it. After that we became really good friends. I think we both realised we liked arguing with one another. I would say that Norman, in his later years, was my best friend. We spent many nights together in his flat in Leamington Terrace. I would go up and bring food around. He always had a bottle in. Macallan and Laphroaig, those were his two favourites.

We would have a few drams and he would want me to play so I would get him to recite. He was a fantastic reader and listening to him reading his own poetry was special. We had many nights doing that, just the two of us. His poetry and my fiddle music were one of the foundations of our friendship. Norman loved fiddle music. He was a bit of a fiddler himself but, no matter how often I asked, he would never play for me, even if he had had a few drinks.

Edinburgh was a great place to be in the late Sixties and early Seventies. There was a big cultural scene going on with lots of writers, poets and actors of my generation who were just starting out, and then there was Norman's generation who were still there. He was born in 1910 so would have been in his sixties but the age gap made no difference. We would all be working together on the same shows or going to the same parties afterwards.

You could be doing a show and Billy Connolly, Norman and Robert Garioch might all be on the same bill. At the party afterwards, you might find Gerry Rafferty, Sorley MacLean, John McGrath, Alex Norton, Billy Paterson and Barbara Dickson there. We were all living in each other's pockets and sleeping on each other's floors. Coming from Shetland, I thought this was normal in Edinburgh.

I love Edinburgh and I don't think there is any doubt that Norman did too. It's a beautiful city and it's where he was born and brought up. It was his home but I think that Assynt was his spiritual home. He worked as a primary school teacher at Craiglockhart but would spend his long summer holidays in Assynt.

He had this other life up there with a different circle of friends. He loved fishing and would walk 20 miles a day to cast a line in the lochans. AK McLeod was his great friend up there and he loved him as a human being. I think they created a lot of mischief together. Norman went to Assynt and found freedom. In Edinburgh, he found his intellectual freedom and had his nights at Milne's bar with Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley and George Mackay Brown.

There was the Assynt Norman and the Edinburgh Norman. They were two very different people. His mother came from Scalpay and he always said that his romantic, Gaelic side came from his mother. His father was from Dumfries and a completely different sort of man. Assynt is where he saw his mother's side of everything. It's where he would have liked to have come from.

• MacCaig with Aly Bain at the Traverse in 1992

We talked a lot about the Highlands; the characters who lived there and the kind of lives they led. Assynt is where he collected all his ideas and stored them up for the long winters here in Edinburgh. He didn't write much up there. When he came back down, all these Assynt memories would come back and he would have to write about them. In a way, it was when the two Normans came together, Assynt Norman and the Edinburgh Norman, that made him such a great poet.

He would see things up there, they would cook in his head and then, when he was down here, two fags later, it would be a poem. As quick as that. I would ask him about the act of writing poetry but the only answer you would ever get is that it would "just dribble out in two fags" and it's been dribbling out all his life. Dribbling is his word.

What is sometimes overlooked is that he was a family man. He loved his family. His wife, Isobel, was quiet, very gentle. She looked after Norman and played a huge part in what he achieved. She would cast an eye over what he had written and, with her approval, he would feel better. She was always very much in the background but always there. They had a very good marriage.

When she died in 1990, Norman was tremendously upset for a long time. He didn't write anything for two or three years. He just dried up. I played at her funeral. He wanted to celebrate her life and he didn't want me to play anything slow at the funeral so I didn't. Norman and I went on to the pub and had too much to drink and it turned out to be a night of music. He really missed her and was never quite the same afterwards.

Although he found it hard to get around later in life, his mind stayed razor sharp. His tongue had always been sharp. I don't know if I really would have liked Norman to be my teacher at school. I think he found it really hard to suffer fools. He had fierce eyes and if he fixed you with them and wasn't too happy then you knew it. If Norman didn't like you then the best place you could be was far away from him. He could cut you dead. He wasn't like that with me or his close friends but if you were in the pub and there was some idiot there then they would get it in the neck.

We got on because I would fight with him. Norman didn't like people who would take it and then retreat. If you put up a battle then he respected you for that. I never backed down to Norman even if I was wrong. In 1992, we did a show at the Traverse. I interviewed him and played some tunes. He read some of his poems. It was called The Pen and the Fiddle and without doubt the bravest thing I ever did in my life was walking on that stage with him. You had no idea what was coming and he was quick.

The first question I asked him was: "When did you start learning the fiddle?" He looked around at me and I knew that something was coming. He said: "Thursday morning, nine thirty. It was raining. Any more stupid questions?"

This was in front of 200 or 300 people. I leant over and said in his ear: "Elaborate, you bastard." He would like you for that. If I'd said nothing, he would have continued. After that it was a great night but there is no doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword in Norman's case.

He introduced himself as a teacher rather than a poet but I think he felt his teaching career was held back because he had been a conscientious objector during the war. He felt it was a black mark against him and it was, I'm sure. Being a conscientious objector during the war would have been very difficult. Norman wasn't a coward. He was very brave. Nobody who was a coward would become a conscientious objector. He just didn't want to kill people.

• MacCaig with Scottish Brewers chairman Alistair Mowat at Milne's Bar, Edinburgh, in 1985

In the late Sixties he was appointed Fellow in Creative Writing at Edinburgh and then in 1970 he became a reader in poetry at the University of Stirling. I think that when he went to Stirling he was reborn. They looked after him. At Stirling, he found the respect he was worthy of, although he didn't think much of these staid academics. He liked scholars but he didn't like academics.

He got the recognition he deserved when he got his OBE in 1979 and his Queen's Award for Poetry in 1976. It was a big thing for Norman to be recognised like that. When I was offered my MBE, I phoned him up and asked what he thought of it and whether or not I should take it. Hamish Henderson had turned his down. Norman said to take it because it is not just for you, it is also for the friends and family who helped you over the years. It is recognition for them as well. It was a wise thing to say so I did take it.

After Isobel died, I think he felt more vulnerable, although he never talked about his own mortality. He still loved to talk and have a dram in his flat though. I always remember Norman would stand at the top of the stairs as I would leave. I'd be wobbling down the stairs and he would have drunk twice as much as me but he would still come to the door on his Zimmer. He would stand there with an impy smile on his face and just say: "Ta-Ta. Ta-Ta."

I really wish he was still around because I miss him a lot. For a long time, I would go to the phone and pick it up, then realise he wasn't there. I was in Germany on tour when he died. I got the call and the family wanted me to play at his funeral, which was the next day. I couldn't get home and was very upset about that. They played some of my music but I would have loved to have been there to play him out. I know that he would have liked that too.

We used to talk a lot about fly fishing and hill walks. We compared stories and flies and lochs and weather and frost and clouds. He wrote poems about them and I played fiddle tunes about them. However, I never went fishing with him. This BBC Scotland film is my homage to him going fishing. Billy Connolly, the novelist Andrew Greig and I all knew Norman. We all met up at that gig at the Traverse.

For the film, the three of us go up to Assynt to fish in what Norman called the Loch at the Green Corrie. We struggled through these mountains for four hours in a blizzard. Norman must have been sitting up there chuckling to himself.

It was a good way to remember Norman but I'm lucky to have other ways to remember him. For my 40th birthday he wrote me a poem. I have a handwritten copy of it framed on my wall. It's called Shetland Reel and it means a great deal to me.

In return, I am going to write him a tune but I can't write it until it's perfect in my head. Imagine if I wrote him a tune he didn't like? He'd kill me.

• Billy Connolly and Aly Bain: Fishing for Poetry: A Celebration of Norman MacCaig, is on BBC2 Scotland, Monday 8 November, 9pm, and on BBC Four on 18 November, 9pm

• BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors (Sunday 7 November, 11.05am) has Mark Stephen presenting a tribute that explores the landscape of Assynt through the poetry of Norman MacCaig

• Culture Caf on Tuesday 9 November at 1.15pm will have a centenary special, featuring Norman MacCaig in conversation with Aly Bain recorded in 1993, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh

NB different sources have his wife as Isobel and Isabel

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 7, 2010

 
 
 

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