Of poetry and politics: MacDiarmid's vision of Scotland

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THESE lines, from Hugh MacDiarmid's epic poem of 1926, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, appear on the poet's tombstone in the cemetery of Langholm, the small Borders town where he was born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892. They describe a poetic persona, the drunk man, who, as an extremist and an elitist, is unconcerned with the couthy opinions of the majority of folk – an image that the iconoclastic MacDiarmid, as spiky as any thistle, keenly cultivated.

MacDiarmid described himself as the greatest of modern Scottish poets, to be ranked alongside Robert Burns and William Dunbar. Yet he challenged the adulation given to Burns, reckoning that this held back the development of new writers in Scotland. With his collections Sangschaw and Penny Wheep he wrote poetry that reinvigorated the language of Braid Scots, or Lallans (Lowlands), that Burns had used to such great effect but which had fallen into disrepute through its misuse by Kailyard (literally, cabbage-patch) poets.

MacDiarmid despised these Kailyard writers, most notably the novelist and playwright JM Barrie, whose sentimental depictions of small-town life he thought had little connection with the realities of modern Scotland and present-day experience. In Contemporary Scottish Studies MacDiarmid sought to establish a new cultural reality in Scotland, one that replaced what he regarded as outmoded figures such as Barrie, author of the massively popular Peter Pan, with writers whom he promoted as part of the Scottish renaissance. Through this, MacDiarmid envisaged cultural life in Scotland being established once more on a specifically Scottish footing – what he called "the axis of our own mentality" – yet firmly in the vanguard of international developments.

MacDiarmid's Scots poems brought Scotland to the forefront of modern concerns, whether in relation to Albert Einstein's scientific Theories of Relativity or the avant-garde culture of the Modernist movement. In a poem such as The Bonnie Broukit Bairn, for instance, the Earth seems to spin in a godless universe, a space brilliantly filled by MacDiarmid with a uniquely Scots atmosphere:

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin',

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

His vision of a new Scotland was no less ambitiously universal than his poetry. MacDiarmid was central to the foundation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, predecessor of the modern Scottish National Party. Influenced by the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, MacDiarmid wanted to see Scotland freed from the United Kingdom and London-based government. In barracks in England at the time of the Rising during the First World War, MacDiarmid said later that if he could have left the British Army and joined the Irish rebels he would have done so. But he also wished to see Scotland freed from capitalist control and had been interested in Communism since the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

MacDiarmid wrote Hymns to Lenin in the 1930s during the Depression, but he was keenly aware of Lenin when he lectured to the Montrose branch of the Independent Labour Party on the Russian's significance back in 1920. He was thrown out of the National Party of Scotland for his beliefs, but when he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934, whilst living in the tiny island of Whalsay in Shetland, he would later be stripped of his Communist membership for being a Scottish Nationalist. MacDiarmid's politics were so controversial that the British state, in the form of MI5, even investigated him during the Second World War.

However complicated and, on the surface, contradictory MacDiarmid's politics may have been, his influence on contemporary Scotland remains a powerful one. That Scotland now has the cultural confidence to teach its own literature in schools and universities is some acknowledgement of MacDiarmid's desire for full Scottish self-expression and, however much he may have despaired of the current devolved Parliament with its limited powers, his has been the loudest voice for Scottish self-determination in the modern era.

Although he died in 1978, his voice deserves to continue being heard.

Dr Scott Lyall is the author of Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic, the only book on MacDiarmid currently in print, published in August 2006 by and available through Edinburgh University Press and Columbia University Press. He was educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, before going on to become a Research Fellow in the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. His research interests include Scottish and Irish literature, modernism and nationalism studies.

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