'Landmarks, Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland' by Alexander Moffat, Ruth Nicol and Alan Riach (published by East Dunbartonshire Leisure and Culture Trust)
This is a very special and very impressive book. I cannot think of another work that is its parallel or equal. The post-MacDiarmid history of Scottish poetry comes vividly alive in its pages.
Its title and origins lie in an art exhibition held in the Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, in January and February 2018, and subsequently displayed in the Montrose Art Gallery. The exhibition centred on portraits by Sandy Moffat of seven Scottish poets. Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) is the key figure in that with the publication of The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
in 1926 he transformed Scottish poetry and the other six – Robert Garioch (1909-1981), Norman MacCaig (1910-1996), Sorley MacLean (1911-1996), Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), and Iain Crichton Smith (1929-1998) are all to some degree his followers.
But the exhibition displayed much more than the Moffat portraits. It also featured a series of landscape paintings by Ruth Nicol, all of them springing out of her own odyssey around Scotland tracking down and recreating the locations, settings and home towns and areas of all seven poets. Finally, the walls of the exhibition contained something even more unusual and unexpected: accounts by the poet and scholar Alan Riach of his encounters over the years with this band of poets and including some poems of his own related to his meetings. The exhibition, that is, involved what amounts to a conversation between the visual and literary arts. What is most remarkable of all, however, is the way turning the pages of the book seems to allow the reader to share the experience of being there at the original exhibition.
Back in 1981, the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow held an exhibition which prefigures the present one and may even have inspired it. That Seven Poets
exhibition featured Moffat's portraits of the same seven poets, but it also involved a range of other kinds of material including photographs, recorded interviews with the poets, and the texts of individual poems. Additionally, the writer and critic Neal Ascherson provided an introductory commentary on the significance of the seven poets, and then went on to write a brief account of each individual in turn. Ascherson's material is included in the present book suggesting how much or how little has changed in the last 40 years.
Outside the extraordinary impact of Moffatt's portraits and Nicol's landscapes, and in addition to the story of Alan Riach's encounters with the poets – beginning when he was only a young student and the poets were in mid-career but extending to the days of his professorship of Scottish literature when the poets were slipping away – the book also contains extended passages of conversations between the three editors, explaining how they became committed to the project, and debating a range of topics and issues involved in its conception and execution. The literary once again co-exists with the visual.
The book's fine front cover reproduces Sandy Moffat's 1979 Hymn to Lenin
now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Author of the poem of that name, MacDiarmid, pipe in hand, and with his book beside him, is the dominant figure, but Lenin is also there as well as traditional Scottish landscapes with other figures and perhaps activities.
A few pages on appears the most famous of all Moffat's portraits of Scottish poets: the 1982 Poets' Pub
, also now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Sitting in a version of one of Edinburgh's Rose Street pubs they frequented, drinking and smoking, are all seven of the above poets, plus Alan Bold, and Sydney Goodsir Smith who had died a year or two earlier. MacDiarmid seems again to be the central figure.
The back cover is Ruth Nicol's Langholm, 2014, Hugh MacDiarmid
. It shows what is perhaps an imaginary Borders landscape with green hills, a river and bridge, a road and a row of mills and houses. No picture of the poet, but some dark, obscure houses perhaps evoke MacDiarmid's Brownsbank cottage home near Biggar.
Elsewhere in the book, Nicol's frequently dramatic and exciting landscapes range across the length and breadth of Scotland while featuring the geography of the individual poets. Thus Shetland, where MacDiarmid lived for a time, George Mackay Brown's Stromness and Orkney, Norman MacCaig's Harris and Iain Crichton Smith's Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Sorley MacLean's Skye in the Inner Hebrides, Edwin Morgan's Glasgow, and Robert Garioch's Edinburgh, all appear.
Then in 2017, at the suggestion of his friend the filmmaker Douglas Eadie, Moffat painted Scotland's Voices
as a companion piece to Poets' Pub
. It portrays Hamish Henderson, the poet and song-collector largely responsible for the revival of interest in Scottish folk music, surrounded by a group of the Scottish folk-singers who were giving new life to traditional Scottish popular song. This picture too appears here.
Given my obvious enthusiasm for this treasure of a book – which will certainly become a collectors' item – it is disappointing to report it is not easy to obtain. Published by the non-commercial East Dunbartonshire Leisure and Culture Trust, it probably never reached bookshops. Such comment it received was brief and even churlish. Is there any kind of explanation for this neglect? To my mind there is – and it points up an ongoing issue in contemporary culture.
The problem is that all seven poets featured here are men. Of course, the editors are perfectly aware of this and comment accordingly. If this had been a book about contemporary Scottish poetry the line-up, we are told, would have been very different – Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, and Jackie Kay would be there beside Don Paterson and Robert Crawford. Ruth Nicol is perfectly clear on the central point: 'They were all men because in society at that time the patriarchy was normal. There was some opportunity for men, none for women'. She goes on to suggest that women didn't go into pubs at all! In any event, the main point is that the masculinity of these poets reflects only the cultural and historical reality of almost half a century ago.
If, despite all, you are anxious to obtain this beautiful book – and I hope that at least some readers will be – here are three possible procedures.
1. Purchase a copy on the MacDiarmid website
2. Send a cheque for £17 payable to MacDiarmid's Brownsbank, Woodend, Thankerton, Biggar, ML12 6NH.
3. Purchase a copy on Ruth Nicol's website
I can assure you it is worth every penny!
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow