Biography

Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh in 1910. Although he spent all his childhood and his later life in Scotland's capital, his mother's Highland past was a great influence on the young poet. MacCaig's mother was from Scalpay, Harris and the Gaelic heritage inherited on visits to his mother's family on the islands was to have an enduring effect on MacCaig.

MacCaig's formal education was firmly rooted in the Edinburgh soil: he attended the Royal High School and then Edinburgh University where he studied Classics. He then trained to be a teacher at Moray House in Edinburgh and spent a large part of his life as a primary school teacher. During the war MacCaig refused to fight because he did not want to kill people who he felt were just the same as him. He therefore spent time in various prisons and doing landwork because of his pacifist views. Having spent years educating young children, MacCaig then went on to teach university students when in 1967 he became the first Fellow in Creative Writing at Edinburgh University, and he later held a similar post while teaching at the University of Stirling.

MacCaig’s life and poetry was principally divided into two parts, represented by two locales. Although he takes his reader with him on visits to New York and Italy, the locality of the bulk of his poetry is divided between two Scottish locations. His home city of Edinburgh provided contrast with his holiday home of Assynt, a remote area in the North-West of Scotland where MacCaig spent much time, especially in the summer months. The landscape and people of Assynt provided inspiration for his poetry as well as bringing MacCaig close friendships and a love for the land.

Norman MacCaig’s poetry began as part of the New Apocalypse Movement, a surrealist mode of writing which he later disowned turning instead to more precise, often witty observations. He was great friends with Hugh MacDiarmid and other Scottish poets he met with in the bars of Edinburgh to debate, laugh and drink. Although he was never persuaded by his literary friends to write in Scots, he was respected by friends such as MacDiarmid as having made an important contribution to literature.

As he became older, MacCaig's fame spread and he received such honours as the O.B.E. and the Queen's Medal for Poetry, yet it was at home in Edinburgh and Assynt where he was probably most appreciated. This was evident at his 75th, 80th, and 85th birthday parties when the cream of the Scottish literati and musicians came together for readings and musical performances.

By the time of his death in January 1996, Norman MacCaig was known widely as the grand old man of Scottish poetry.

Works

'The double talk of the split tide', which MacCaig describes in his poem 'Clachtoll' is helpful when considering the two main locations which divide his poetry. Clachtoll, with its split rock dividing the ocean from the bay, is in Assynt in North-West Scotland. This sparsely populated, mountainous area where MacCaig spent most of his holidays, is the poetic subject of much of his work. Yet MacCaig was, according to his poetry, 'two men at once', and also used observations made in his native city of Edinburgh throughout his writing. 

MacCaig's Assynt poetry pays homage to the scenery, people and wildlife of the area. Poems such as 'Looking Down on Glen Canisp' and those dedicated to his friend A.K. MacLeod help the reader to understand his passion for Assynt, but the poem in which he most overtly examines his feelings towards the area is 'A Man in Assynt'.

Tending towards the playful, MacCaig is not normally a political poet but in 'A Man In Assynt', his longest work, the reader is given a sense of the injustice which the North-West has suffered. Asked by the BBC to write a poem on the area which had been the subject of much of his poetry, MacCaig exposed the oppression and depopulation of a land which for too long had been possessed by rich or distant landlords. Distaste for authority and the oppression it can cause are explored in the question which he takes as the premise of this poem: 'who owns this land?' Rather than claim the land for himself or those who live there, MacCaig questions the notion of owning a landscape and decides that the area is in fact 'masterless'. What irritates the speaker is the destruction that mastery has caused Assynt. 

From the depopulation of the clearances onwards, this area has seen a 'sad withdrawal', but while mourning the loss, MacCaig also anticipates a return to the area. In the closing lines, the movement of people becomes like a tide and it is anticipated that the ebb of people will return to the land and reclaim it as their own. This poem becomes particularly affirming when we consider the events of the 1990s when the Assynt Crofters formed an alliance which eventually bought back the land from Lord Vestey.

Although MacCaig tends to celebrate particular moments of observation in his poetry, a piece such as 'A Man In Assynt' shows that he is also aware of the past of the places that he is describing. In his Edinburgh poems, the architecture of the city and particularly the old town, often remind him of events of centuries past. This is evident in a poem such as 'Old Edinburgh' in which history haunts the city like a ghost: 'history leans by a dark entry'. Not all the Edinburgh poems are immersed in history however and poems such as 'Nude in a fountain' and 'Botanic Gardens' are detailed observations of moments captured in the modern city.

As well as bringing places to life, some of MacCaig's best poetry describes certain characters, often based on the poet's own family and friends. 'Aunt Julia' uses rhythm and metaphor to give a brief character sketch of a woman and the eye which sees her. We are given descriptions of Julia through lively comparisons with buckets of water, and stormy winds, as well as through associations which the speaker connects with her, such as brown eggs and black skirts. Yet at the same time as describing the character of Julia, we learn as much about the person who is imagining her. Experiences of visiting Julia, frustration at the language barrier, memories of what she looked and sounded like, emphasise that this is a poem about how the speaker saw Aunt Julia rather than necessarily describing exactly who she was. 

A poem such as 'Aunt Julia' illustrates how MacCaig constantly investigates the nature of observation. It is his talent for detail and accessible use of metaphor which makes MacCaig such a popular poet. MacCaig is particularly well known for his nature poetry, especially in pieces such as 'Byre' and 'Summer Farm,' which at first focuses on the detail of the farm before widening out into a metaphysical world. Poems on particular birds or animals are common, but especially enjoyable are those on frogs which were a favourite topic of the poet. 

MacCaig's poetry spans the latter half of the twentieth century and with so many hundred pieces it is difficult to capture his vast work in a short description. However poems such as 'A Man in Assynt', 'Nude in a Fountain', 'Aunt Julia' and 'Summer Farm' can introduce the reader to some of the varying aspects of this accessible and much-loved poet and act as a way in to his vast Collected Poems.

Reading Lists

Primary

Far Cry (1943)

The Inward Eye (1946) 

Riding Lights (1955)

The Sinai Sort (1957) 

Honour'd Shade (1959) (Edited by) 

A Common Grace (1960) 

A Round of Applause (1962)

Measures (1965)

Surroundings (1966)

A Man in my Position (1969)

Contemporary Scottish Verse 1959-1969 (1970) (Edited by, with Alexander Scott)

Selected Poems (1971)

Penguin Modern Poets 21 (1972)

The White Bird (1973)

The World's Room (1974)

Tree of Strings (1977)

Old Maps and New: Selected Poems (1978)

The Equal Skies (1980)

A World of Difference (1983)

Collected Poems (1985)

The Honey of Memory (1987)

Collected Poems (1988)

Voice-Over (1988)

Collected Poems (1990)

Recent Editions

Collected Poems (1993)

Old Maps and New: Selected Poems (1978)

Selected Poems of Norman Maccaig edited by Douglas Dunn (1997)

Secondary

Marjory McNeill, Norman MacCaig: a study of his life and work (1996)

Norman MacCaig: critical essays, edited by Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross (1990)

Penguin Modern Poets 21, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown (1972)

Scottish writers talking : George Mackay Brown, Jessie Kesson, Norman MacCaig, William McIlvanney, David Toulmin interviewed by Isobel Murray and Bob Tait, edited by Isobel (1996)

'Unemphatic marvels': A study of Norman MacCaig's poetry (Gothenburg studies in English) Erik Frykman (1977)