Neil MacCallum

Neil R MacCallum, poet and political activist

Born: 15 May, 1954, in Edinburgh Died: 9 November, 2002, Edinburgh, aged 48

NEIL MacCallum, who died under tragic circumstances earlier this month, was a political and cultural nationalist who followed through his committment both in local and national politics and in the field of Scots literature, as poet and editor.

Living all his life in Edinburgh, he was educated at the city’s Firrhill High School and Napier College, and worked in administration with Lothian Health Board from 1973 to 1987. He was a lifelong member of the Scottish National Party, and assistant national secretary for a year before serving as national secretary from 1981 to 1986, under the leadership of Gordon Wilson, during the fraught years following the 1979 referendum fiasco. He served on the party’s national executive committee alongside the likes of Winnie and Margaret Ewing, William Wolfe and Alex Salmond.

In the field of local politics, he was SNP councillor for Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes area from 1977 to 1980.

The leader of the SNP, John Swinney, who was assistant national secretary during MacCallum’s tenure, has expressed his dismay at the former secretary’s untimely death: "He was an ardent supporter of Scottish independence and a lifetime member of the SNP, involved at many levels of the party."

Gordon Wilson paid tribute to MacCallum’s "significant contribution" to the SNP: "He was national secretary at a time when the party was in stress. He had a very calm demeanour and was able to deal with the business efficiently and effectively."

Caught up in the Scottish cultural resurgence, as well as being in demand as a piper, MacCallum was a frequent attender at events such as the early Heretics gatherings in Edinburgh and he became increasingly interested in writing in Lowland Scots, in which he was widely published. As well as producing his own poetry, in books such as Out of Charity and Portrait of a Calvinist (1991), he edited and co-edited anthologies of Scots poetry and criticism, such as Mak It New (1995, with David Purves) and Sing Frae the Hert (1996), a volume of essays by the poet Alexander Scott. His last collection of poems, A Stern’s Licht, was due for publication around the time of his death, but this now seems in doubt.

MacCallum, who wrote as arts correspondent of the Scots Independent for some years, also edited Lallans, the journal of the Scots Language Society, between 1996 and 1999, was the society’s preses between 1993 and 1995 and served on the committee of the Scottish Poetry Library. Before Lallans, he had edited Scots Glasnost and latterly he founded the Merchants o’ Renoun, an Edinburgh-based group presenting Scottish poetry an drama.

His own poetry was translated into other languages, including Italian, Hungarian and Viennese-German dialect, while he himself produced many Scots translations of foreign-language poems, and his last poetry to be published within his lifetime was in a new anthology of translations from Swiss French.

"Magnanimity - that’s the word that sticks in my mind with Neil," said fellow Scots poet Tom Hubbard, currently editor of the Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation (BOSLIT) at the National Library of Scotland, who had worked with MacCallum in the past and was discussing co-editing a book with him at the time of his death. "You often get situations where people don’t go to events they’re not directly involved in, but Neil wasn’t like that; he’d go along to other people’s events. I mean, he had strong views, as you would expect from someone as politically involved, and he could express them cogently and sharply, but I never heard a malicious word cross his lips."

Nevertheless, MacCallum did not find life easy. He was increasingly beset by problems relating to depression and alcohol, and was known to go missing for periods, much to the concern of his friends and family. On the evening of 9 November, he was pulled unconscious from Edinburgh’s Union Canal. Witnesses said he had been staggering nearby beforehand. He was taken to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, suffering from hypothermia, but died later that night.

As one fellow Scots writer and activist said of him, "he was an honourable man who was committed to the cause of Scots as a means of artistic expression, but he had a really sair fecht at the end".

MacCallum is survived by his father and a brother.