MacDiarmid at 100

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of MacDiarmid’s first appearance in print the Scottish Revival Network organised a one day conference featuring papers relating to MacDiarmid and his work.

The conference will took place in two sessions. You can watch recordings of both sessions and of each individual paper on our YouTube channel.

Session 1: ‘Readings and Revisions’

Chaired by Jim Benstead (Edinburgh Napier University)

‘Chitterin’ lichts: Non-dictionary Textual Sources in Sangschaw and Penny Wheep, with particular reference to “The Watergaw”’ – Patrick Crotty (University of Aberdeen)

Commentary on MacDiarmid’s Scots lyrics of the 1920s has concentrated on the most easily identifiable of their many sources – the Scots lexicon. The poems however draw life also from a wide range of other textual material, both written and spoken, and are not infrequently to be understood as critical or exploratory responses to the verbal formulations that serve as their starting points. After a brief survey of the diverse modes of intertextuality in Sangschaw and Penny Wheep, my paper discusses the sources of ‘The Watergaw’, and argues that one of these is more important to its meaning than Sir James Wilson’s Lowland Scotch as Spoken in the Lower Strathearn District of Perthshire (1915), from which it (famously) borrows its distinctive lexis. The new reading I offer lends retrospective support to MacDiarmid’s own impatience with biographical interpretations of his inaugural Scots lyric.

‘to “meddle wi’ the thistle”: The Scottish Chapbook, Modernism, and Renaissance’ – Scott Lyall (Edinburgh Napier University)

The first number of The Scottish Chapbook was published in August 1922 and the journal ran until November/December 1923. The most important of MacDiarmid’s several journal projects, it is significant in several ways. Edited by C. M. Grieve, the first edition of the Chapbook contained the first publication attributed to Hugh M’Diarmid: ‘Nisbet: An Interlude in Post-War Glasgow’; Grieve’s editorials announced and conceptualised the Scottish literary renaissance; and the journal’s first appearance in 1922, along with Grieve’s radical aims for Scottish literature, mark it as an important Scottish contribution to Modernism. This paper will offer a reassessment of The Scottish Chapbook in light of Grieve’s editorial aims for the journal in The Chapbook Programme and his objectives as outlined in his editorial Causeries for the revival of Scottish life and letters, as well as assessing to what extent the other contributors matched Grieve’s aim with the Chapbook to shake up Scottish literature in modernist vein, or ‘to “meddle wi’ the thistle”’.

‘MacDiarmid the Spaceman’ – Michael Whitworth (University of Oxford)

This paper will consider MacDiarmid’s references to the moon, the stars, outer space, and the wider physical cosmos in his poetry from 1922-26, with Sangschaw as the main focus. Poems of particular interest will be: “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn”; “Au Clair de la Lune” (II, and III especially); “In the Hedge-Back”; “The Eemis Stane”; “O Jesu Parvule”; “The Innumerable Christ”; “God Takes a Rest”; and “The Empty Vessel” from Penny Wheep. (I’m not yet sure whether I’ll extend to A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle).

I will be asking what purposes these references serve, and whether they draw on contemporary astronomy, particularly the curved spacetime of Einstein that was widely publicised and popularised from November 1919 onwards. A valuable point of comparison may be Thomas Hardy’s similar invocations of the moon in poems such as “A Cathedral Façade at Midnight” and “A Spot”; one way of understanding the “cosmic” is that it counterpoints an interest in the local, whether linguistic or topographical.

‘The Ghost of John Nisbet: Hugh MacDiarmid’s first published work’ – Alan Riach (University of Glasgow)

It’s a short dramatic trialogue for three characters: Duthie, the man who asks questions, Nisbet, back from the dead, killed in 1915, and Young, an asinine pontificator. Their encounter engenders an opening of enquiries: revolutions in Ireland and Russia, sexual repression and proto-feminism, diversity and uniformity, body and soul and what belongs to Caesar (nothing) and leaving home behind. This paper offers a reading of ‘Nisbet: An Interlude in Post-War Glasgow’, MacDiarmid’s first appearance.

Session 2: ‘Concepts and Peripheries’

Chaired by Scott Lyall (Edinburgh Napier University)

‘In Search of CMG: The Peculiar First Person in Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry’ – Alexander Linklater (independent researcher)

In 1968, with his reputation in Scotland bordering on the mythological, Hugh MacDiarmid was asked whether knowledge of his life might help critics to explain his work. In characteristically lofty style, he dismissed the ‘biographical approach’ as a distraction. After all, he asked, ‘Where are they going to get the biographical facts from?’ Where indeed? Should MacDiarmid not himself have been the principal authority in this field? But he wasn’t joking. There would need to be, he continued, an ‘enormous process of correction’ to distinguish ‘sham facts’ from real ones. Despite publishing two volumes of autobiography, it’s as if his life were an unreliable archive that others would need to sift for the truth. And even then, he seemed sceptical that any light could be shed on his poetry from such a dubious source. His own assertions about whether individual poems referred to events in his life were typically self-contradictory. Depending on when he was asked, and who asked the question, his first great lyric in Scots might have been about the death of his father; or it absolutely was not about the death of his father; or the death of his father was merely an incidental component in a complex confection of allusions. Published in 1922, the inaugural modernist year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, ‘The Watergaw’ marked the equally auspicious moment that Christopher Murray Grieve first came to write under the name Hugh MacDiarmid. Thereafter, the relationship between pseudonym and biographical author would become one of the strangest in modern literature, rivalled for peculiarity only by the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa. In the 1940s and 1950s, during the composition of his final great work in English, In Memoriam James Joyce (which was, notably, not about the biographical Joyce), MacDiarmid’s so-called ‘citational’ techniques had become so indiscriminate that the first person of his poetry might even turn out to have been lifted from the words of another writer’s autobiography. When MacDiarmid refers to himself as ‘I’ or ‘me’, who does he think he is? Almost routinely throughout his writing life, he populated accounts of himself – in both poetry and prose – with ‘sham facts’. And it is in the discrepancies between these accounts and what was really happening, that we discover the poet at work, confabulating himself. Ironically, nothing so clearly illuminates the astonishing process by which MacDiarmid wrote, and by which he generated his fantastic visions, as the actual life of CMG. 

‘Archipelagic Distinctions: Plurality, Particularity and Decentralisation in Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Vision of World Language”’ – Fiona Paterson (University of Glasgow)

In 1924, MacDiarmid imagined Scotland as ‘an island off the coast of Europe’; in 1933, he moved to Whalsay, in Shetland; in 1939 he published The Islands of Scotland, a modernist travelogue of the Scottish archipelago. Islands came to be recognised as sites of distinct cultural preservation and coherent identities, as reflected in the intimacy between their peoples, languages and natural environments. Meanwhile, the spaces between the islands – the seas, oceans, and coastlines – were perceived as points of transmission and transition, enabling movement, interaction and the affirmation of hybrid and coexisting cultures. Most importantly, these archipelagic networks were global.

Informed by his travel around the islands of Scotland and his inhabitation on Shetland, a period of isolation which piqued enquiry into ‘the connection between solitude and universality’, it is evident that MacDiarmid was increasingly informed by an archipelagic way of seeing the world, a vision in which boundaries could be traversed, knowledge shared, language creolised and authority decentralised. This paper suggests the helpfulness of such a framework in the analysis of MacDiarmid’s later ‘Vision of World Language’, proposed by In Memoriam James Joyce. It explores the applicability of island-like distinctiveness to individual world languages and considers the significance of such linguistic islands within the emergence of multilingual postcolonial literatures, In Memoriam emulating the archipelagic nature of a new world system. In adopting this approach, the paper hopes that a clearer sense of MacDiarmid’s priorities – plurality, preservation, a sure sense of both local and global belonging – and the enduring value of his later, longer poetry – a vision for society, for culture and for the natural environment, a celebration of uniqueness and what it means to be human – might be suggested.

‘Provincializing MacDiarmid’ – Alex Thomson (University of Edinburgh)

This paper will offer a contemporary reassessment of MacDiarmid’s poetics and politics against the background of recent scholarship on the history of decolonisation and the legacies of empire in Europe, and in the context of ongoing calls for political and epistemological decolonisation within cultural institutions of the global North. MacDiarmid is a significant test case for decolonisation in Scottish studies given the widespread adoption of ‘weak’ postcolonial perspectives in critical accounts of his work, and his complex and contested influence within literary and cultural debate. Where earlier critics saw contradiction or inconsistency, more recently postcolonial perspectives have been used to reconcile different aspects of MacDiarmid’s political and aesthetic projects: the shifting rhetoric of anti-imperialism and insistence on the value of peripheral nationalism; the ambivalent ‘provincialising’ critique of Scottish culture and commitment to modernist poetics; and a speculative vision of a new relationship between the local and the global: ‘the universal is the particular’. This paper will review the ‘postcolonial’ MacDiarmid, in order to complicate and challenge that model in light of decolonial approaches, and to unsettle assumptions about the anti-colonial implications of his work. ‘Provincialising MacDiarmid’ would mean reading his work against its own nationalism, challenging the privilege assigned to the nation as the mediating category between the local and the global, and paying attention to the reworking of the category of ‘world’ across his major works. To the extent that Scottish literary studies remains the inheritor of MacDiarmid’s cultural activism, the project of decolonisation – of provincialising Scotland – must reckon with this ambiguous inheritance.

‘“no farther from the ‘centre of things”: peripheral citation in In Memoriam James Joyce’ – Jim Benstead (Edinburgh Napier University)

This paper follows the work of critics who have considered the geographical peripheries MacDiarmid worked from, such as Montrose and Whalsay. It extends this idea to the formal peripherality that can be identified in the source materials that MacDiarmid incorporates within In Memoriam James Joyce. I argue for an approach to reading In Memoriam that interprets the ways in which the text transforms and incorporates its source material alongside an interpretation of the published text itself. I then apply this approach to excerpts from the first two sections of In Memoriam, showing how the text evokes the idea of geographical periphery (including through an instance of self-citation from MacDiarmid’s short 1939 poem ‘In the Shetland Islands’), but then pivots to ideas of textual peripherality which are reflected in the incorporation of paratextual material present in MacDiarmid’s sources, including advertising copy and footnotes.