Hector MacIver was born in the Outer Hebrides in 1910 and died in Edinburgh in 1966. He had a reputation that is chronicled in the festschrift 'Memoirs of a Modern Scotland' (Editor: Karl Miller, and recently republished by Faber).
Hector's claim to fame is a slightly curious one. He was a friend and confidant (and drinking companion) of – among others – Hugh MacDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. One price for their acquaintance, given that much of it was spent in the Café Royal in Edinburgh, was just possibly the liver cancer that killed him at a comparatively early age. Drinking with Dylan Thomas was never a particularly healthy activity.
His ex-pupil Miller wrote in the introduction to 'Memoirs of a Modern Scotland' that it was:
Published in the honour of Hector MacIver...He was a writer, a broadcaster, a talker, a speaker, and he produced plays. He was a gifted man and a gifted friend...He was not famous in the usual sense, but he made contributions to more than one of the fields under discussion and he did have a kind of fame. It went by word of mouth and seldom reached the newspapers; it was as oral as the world of his origins.
Hector was brought up in the village of Shawbost. His father was a merchant; and his mother a teacher. The family were affluent by the standards of the village. They lived in a slated 'white' house, at a time when most of the village houses were thatched 'black' houses. His house was full of books when most houses had none.
Hector's picture of his childhood village describes features that, even then, would have seemed inconceivable in lowland Scotland; and are now, for the most part, long gone, even in Shawbost. The thatched black houses with the fire in the middle of the floor and in winter the cattle at one end of the house had vanished by the end of the 1950s: a retrograde step for those of a romantic mind, a huge step forward for those more concerned with domestic comfort and infant mortality.
The Viking-descended water-driven mill for the oats and the barley had fallen into disuse long before the 20th century was half old; the cultivation of the oats and the barley which lasted well into the 1970s has now vanished; the digging of the native peat for fuel survives, but at a rate a fraction of what it was a century ago. The monolingual English infant teacher with the monolingual Gaelic infant class has gone, at least in that stark form: not least because there are very few monolingual Gaelic children entering school.
Only Hector's description of the treacherous Atlantic and of the winter storms powering themselves in from the ocean would be as true today as it was almost a century ago.
His account of boys stealing turnips from the crofts would have still been applied some 40 years later in the village where I was brought up; as would the New Year theft of carts and other agricultural implements which, in the name of celebrations, were dumped in the village pond. Today these customs are dead. The boisterous Hebridean village lads of today, even if
they are so minded, have no access to turnips or to carts: they are reduced to the primitive joys of the iPod and the MP3 player.
MacIver records that he went to Edinburgh University to study English, British history, moral philosophy and fine art. There he met Norman MacCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Sorley MacLean, later the finest Gaelic poet of his age.
On graduation, Hector trained as a teacher; and, as with so many Scottish teachers of the 1930s, initially found employment hard to come by. This appears to have been a spur to start a significant amount of broadcasting and print journalism. He records that it was through broadcasting he met Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas, both of whom became significant figures in his life.
A 1930s literary critic wrote of a 1934 Scottish publication which included essays by Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn and Eric Linklater:
One of the best essays was Hector MacIver's piece on the Outer Isles. It seemed to me full of exciting promise and I took it for granted that we should see much more of his writing.
And a source of the times quotes an extract:
In all the Hebrides, Benbecula is the sea's dearest child. That is why the returning tide races so quickly over the sand, hurrying with pouted lips to kiss its shore. And when the night's embraces are over, the sea leaves Benbecula again, like a mother bird going to forage for its young.
By the late 1930s MacIver had obtained a teaching job at the prestigious Royal High School. But he had also become even more set in the activity for which he became most famous (or notorious). In an autobiographical essay, he wrote:
How the walls of the Abbotsford or the Café Royal or Milne's Bar echoed to the talk at this time, on the state of Scotland, as Chris (Hugh MacDiarmid) and Sydney [Goodsir Smith] and I set the Celtic world to rights. Clouds of blue smoke, gallons of beer and whisky, witty talk -heart to heart-, narrowness and prejudice flew out of the Abbot door.
(Never having explored any of these hostelries, I dropped into one some time ago – purely for research purposes. I ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and six oysters, and admired the stunning internal design. A waitress said to me: 'You like this place?'. I said: 'Yes: the service is good, the wine is excellent, the architecture is interesting, the oysters are fine; and I believe
that some famous figures have been in here.' She looked at me and said: 'Yes, sir: five years ago Sting was here.')
Hector had gifts other than teaching and writing and talking. In a pub on Rose Street, while no Sting, he one night showed another of his talents. The musicologist Ronald Stevenson subsequently wrote:
Within a few minutes of our meeting, we had got on to Scottish music and soon he was singing – I remember his pleasant baritone – songs from his native Isle of Lewis. And very unusual songs: they were no 'sangs o' the cratur' but strangely serene psalm songs sung in the Gaelic, with no less than ten, and sometimes more than a dozen, notes to each syllable. Such long-linked melismas I had never heard in any other vocal music.
This may be a slight over-exaggeration: melismas, some very extended, are found in Gregorian chant.
A piece about author and poet Louis MacNeice tells us in an aside something of Hector's literary activity (most of which is now lost):
MacIver had published on the iniquities of landlordism, the failures of the herring industry, subsidy and the dole, and the collapse of Lord Leverhulme's attempt to set up manufacturing industry on Lewis.
Hector's friendship led to MacNeice visiting Lewis and staying with Hector's family in Shawbost. This proved a somewhat traumatic event for all concerned:
Louis had stayed with my family and me at An Gearraidh Buidhe and was supposed to be travelling with his wife. Actually he was not married!.... More than twenty years after, my family still became virulent when discussing the 'immorality' of his visit.
A later writer puts it more bluntly:
My English teacher, Hector MacIver, was his friend, the dedicatee of 'I Crossed the Minch' which in 1938 launched the ribaldries of the poem 'Bagpipe Music' while recording, though rather discreetly, how MacNeice ran off with the wife of the painter William Coldstream and had liberating sex with her in the black Calvinist houses of the Western Isles at the pit of the 1930s slump: surely deserving a Nobel Prize for libertinism.
The book includes the much renowned 'Bagpipe Music':
It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.
One has to search a little to find what effect Hector MacIver had on 'I Crossed the Minch' other than being a genial host. But one critic picks out where there is clear evidence of MacNeice and MacIver collaborating in an analysis of the difference between a dance in Shawbost, part of the 'Celtic timelessness' as they saw it, and a concert in the town of Stornoway – where the dancers were 'becoming objectified, alienated products of the music industry.'
Or, as MacNeice himself put it in 'I Crossed the Minch' '…one could thank God that one was not a citizen of Stornoway…European man at his worst.' The point that MacIver and MacNeice seemed to be making was that the entertainment in Shawbost was an indigenous local product; the culture of Stornoway they saw as an importation.
One 21st-century Hebridean critic has written to me:
MacNeice's view of Stornoway. What did he expect? For centuries the town has been the antithesis of rural Lewis: anti-Gaelic, weak in religious faith, hedonistic, eager to adopt imported behavioural trends (e.g. cinema-going, flapper attire in the late 20s, complex female hairstyles). Cailleachs [old ladies] from distant townships would actually stop to stare at the latest outlandish fashions among the gilded urban youth.
How much Hector appreciated MacNeice's book is sadly unrecorded. This would have been interesting to know, not least because of what is said by one reviewer (in 2007) on the book's re-publication:
MacNeice moans about the Island people, the drab landscape, 'the monotony of heather,' the food…He gropes his way over the islands with his eyes and ears closed. The only conversations he records are with people of standing; the editor of the Stornoway Gazette, which was produced in English, schoolteachers or his middle class friends... The locals he mentions only in passing as a means of providing him hospitality which he appears to
accept as his right. The Gaelic language he holds up as a barrier to local conversation.
Between one thing and another, one can understand why the book was as poorly received in Stornoway as it was in the MacIver home in Shawbost.
This article was first published in SR in 2014