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Hugh MacDiarmid
& Scottish Cultural Renaissance

 

Poets' PubStrangely enough, in the midst of such poverty and hardship, the inter-war years are considered by many academics to be the source of a new Scottish cultural renaissance. It was, at least, a revival in literary terms, led by the poet CM Grieve, or Hugh MacDiarmid, as he was better known. MacDiarmid’s poetic mission was no less than the cultural reawakening of Scotland, which he considered to be, in its present state, a pathetic parody of an older Scotland dressed in tartan- a collection cultural dregs caused by indulgence in sentimental notions of Scottishness. In his attempts to encourage cultural confidence, MacDiarmid thought it necessary to free Scotland from the yoke of Anglicisation which had effectively quashed any new and original expressions of national character for hundreds of years. To achieve this he adopted the use of the Old Scots Tongue, or ‘Lallans’ as the new form came to be known, which was a synthetic idiom borrowing from many different varieties of the Scots language, spoken at different times in different parts of the country. Although he also wrote poetry in English, much of his best work is written in Scots, including A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, 1926: an epic critique of Scottish culture from the rambling, drunken perspective of the poet. The poem above all shows the vehemence of MacDiarmid's hatred of modern Scottish culture with all its fawning and twee pretensions in the face of social deprivation and intellectual barrenness. The drunken, yet eloquent, poetic abuse is hurled firmly in the direction of the Burns Supper coterie, with their empty celebrations of the Scottish Bard, their empty rhetoric, and their almost complete misunderstanding of the radicalism and egalitarianism which Burns advocated through his verse. MacDiarmid truly takes his place amongst the medieval Scottish 'Makars' when he enters this poetic mode, and would have been quite at home with their tradition of 'flyting' (a poetic slagging between two Makars).

MacDiarmid was a contradiction in terms as a man and a poet. He was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, but was expelled in 1933 for his extremist ideology. He was a committed communist, but was also thrown out of this party after four years- a struggle which is reflected in his Hymns to Lenin. In his poetics he was a modernist- which implies objectivity, impersonality, and ultimately elitism- but this categorisation doesn't fit either and is necessarily tempered by his overtly social and political consciousness. He found little or no conflict in being all these things.

MacDiarmid was a very powerful cultural spokesman who influenced Scottish culture hugely, yet the popular revival of high culture which he sought was perhaps a little unrealistic within a largely working class populace suffering a terrible economic depression. He remained a cantankerous enigma, and although undoubtedly a great poet, he was too elitist to inspire such cultural aspirations in the popular mindset. He often mourned the fact that his fellow countrymen seemed so obsessed with football (see his poem Glasgow, 1960), and that people associated Scottish culture with sentimental music-hall songs, glorifying some never-never-land past, Victorian ‘kaleyard’ Literature, and shortbread tartanry, topped with some hypocritical poetic celebrations on Burns Night.

Hugh MacDiarmidMacDiarmid was protesting against a subtle yet powerful form of cultural imperialism, and his struggle is reflected in other countries within the British Empire which also had their language and local culture appropriated and anglicised. His use of the Scots Tongue is a reclamation of not only a dying 'colloquial' language, but the reclamation of a way of life: a mode and rhythm of thought: a national consciousness. This is a literary manifesto which has been picked up by many Scots writers both during and after MacDiarmid's life, whether they agree with his nationalist aspirations or not. He purposefully set about the establishment of a Scottish Literary Renaissance, and in a way he was successful. These
other writers include Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir (who later became a famous critic of MacDiarmid), Neil Gunn, Fionn MacColla, William Soutar, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman MacCaig, as well as more modern writers like Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh- who may all cringe at MacDiarmid's politics, yet still continue in the tradition of cultural reclamation and the determined use of localised Scots languages. MacDiarmid may not have achieved his own stringent objectives to usher in the complete cultural transformation of Scotland, but he undoubtedly threw down the gauntlet to later artists to find a new and distinctive Scottish voice.


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