'Landmarks: Hugh MacDiarmid: The Brownsbank Years', by Alexander Moffat, Ruth Nicol and Alan Riach
Some readers may recall that not so long ago I reviewed a book almost identical to this one. Called Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland
, it was produced by the same team. I described its originality as amounting to a conversation between the visual and literary arts. MacDiarmid was one of the seven Scottish poets it featured, and an 'Introductory' page presents images of MacDiarmid and Brownsbank Cottage by both Moffat and Nicol. In the new book, identical in terms of structure and content to the previous one, this cottage which became the permanent home of MacDiarmid and his wife Valda in 1951, moves to centre stage.
Brownsbank is a roadside cottage a few miles north of Biggar, a small town in South Lanarkshire on the edge of the Scottish southern uplands. In the 1940s, having lived a poverty-stricken life in Whalsay in the Shetlands for almost a decade, the MacDiarmid couple moved back to the mainland and lived in and around Glasgow without ever finding the security of a permanent home.
All this changed, however, when a farming family called Tweedie offered them the use of a dilapidated cottage free of charge. Brownsbank initially had no running water or toilet facility, but in due course was successfully transformed into a small but comfortable home. Eventually Valda would write: 'You know very well – we can manage quite well – we have everything we want'. The cottage's two rooms became two bed-sitting rooms.
When Moffat, Nicol and Riach visited Brownsbank in 2020 – Moffat and Riach had been there in 1978 – nothing had changed. Ruth Nicol felt strongly that each room was a 'separate domain' – the couple's 'individual fiefdoms'.
The defining locations of MacDiarmid's long career – he was 86 when he died in 1978 – were Langholm, the Borders town in which he grew up, Montrose where he lived and worked in the 1920s, becoming the leading figure in what became the Scottish literary renaissance, and Shetland where he struggled over his physical and literary survival. However, it was in the Brownsbank years that he finally found some acceptance as a major Scottish writer. Other writers and artists visited him there including Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Seamus Heaney, and the American avante-garde poet Jonathan Williams. Another visitor was the major Russian writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko – who arrived with his girlfriend. A young Alan Riach was able to visit in 1977 and again in June 1978, just a month or two before the poet's death.
Valda MacDiarmid lived on in Brownsbank until her death in 1989. Thereafter the cottage was maintained by the Biggar Museum Trust and occupied by writers in residence. Early occupants – such as the novelist James Robertson, who only became a professional writer when he was awarded his residency, and the Gaelic poet Angus MacNeil – stayed for as long as two years. Later, much shorter residencies became the norm. In 2012, however, the Biggar Museum Trust's responsibility for the cottage came to an end. A new charity, MacDiarmid's Brownsbank, took over in 2016 with aims of restoring and upgrading the cottage, and re-establishing the Brownsbank Writing Fellowship for writers in residence. It welcomes donations to support these aims.
The book's title is, of course, identical to that of the exhibition which runs in the Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum from 2 October to 28 November 2021. Turning its wonderful 96 pages, however, the readers will feel they have actually seen the exhibition. Its contents, as in the earlier Landmarks
, brings together portraits by Alexander Moffat, pictures by Ruth Nicol, and poems by Alan Riach. The three also discuss at length how the exhibition came about and what it aimed to do, while Riach provides what amounts to a potted biography of Hugh MacDiarmid's life and career. This time, the Nicol pictures, sketches and drawings are especially vivid. They depict Brownsbank itself and its surrounding landscapes from a range of perspectives, but also focus on the cottage's interior. The fittings and furnishings of the two rooms are there in every detail.
In all, the book is a beautiful creation, a pleasure to handle. Once again it will surely become a collectors' much sought-after item. I certainly hope it will eventually become available to readers everywhere.
Ruth Nicol suggests that the book 'is about making everything immediate and fresh in our own time, not letting it slip into history…'. To my mind, this is exactly what it achieves. MacDiarmid lives again through the Brownsbank years, and we are made to reconsider his status today. Is that important? I think it is.
There is an odd paradox about Hugh MacDiarmid’s current reputation. As far as the wider literary world – both at home and abroad – is concerned, there is no problem: MacDiarmid is unquestionably the greatest and most influential modern Scottish poet. Whether writing in the synthetic Scots he created for such a major work as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
(1926) or in English for his First Hymn to Lenin
(1931), he is a national and international poet to be compared with Yeats, Eliot and Pound. However, his status within contemporary Scottish culture is quite different. It has faded to the degree of scarcely existing. A minor figure such as Trainspotting's
Irvine Welsh is much better known today.
Scotland's failure to embrace MacDiarmid – Brownsbank Cottage is no match for Abbotsford! – is partly the poet's own fault. Throughout his career, MacDiarmid was a controversialist and polemicist. He made many enemies and few friends. Early in the 1920s, he was one of the founding members of what became the Scottish National Party, but he was expelled for political reasons in 1933. He immediately joined the British Communist Party – only to be expelled in 1938. Then, in 1956, after the Soviet Russian invasion of Hungary to crush its attempt at independence had led many supporters to resign, he characteristically rejoined the party. In the 1960s, when the Troubles resumed in Northern Ireland, he defended the IRA.
As a literary critic, he denounced what he saw as the Burns cult – accusing it of having sentimentalised subsequent Scottish poetry. Back to Dunbar!
became one of his watchwords. (William Dunbar, the great Scottish poet of the Renaissance period.) With fellow Scottish writers he rarely saw eye-to-eye. He offended Edwin Muir and the two were never reconciled. He fell out with Edwin Morgan over 'concrete' poetry which he completely dismissed. Early in the 1940s, he was close to the experimental poet Ian Hamilton Finlay but in 1962 the two had a long-running conflict in The Scotsman
newspaper over a range of aesthetic issues.
Then, most famously of all, in 1964 in the same newspaper, he and Hamish Henderson had a fierce 'flyting' over traditional folksong and folk music versus high art forms. Henderson had become a leading exponent of popular art but MacDiarmid denounced it as valueless. (A striking portrait of the two appears in the book.) Finally, in his autobiography, Lucky Poet
, MacDiarmid even managed to offend many of the people of Langholm, his hometown. Overall, MacDiarmid seems to have courted unpopularity.
Will this exhibition and its accompanying book make any difference? It would be nice to think so. I notice that the Routledge Revivals Series has just republished a 1985 book about MacDiarmid called The Terrible Crystal
by the late Alan Bold – the author of the standard biography of the poet. Perhaps a reassessment is already underway.
To order a copy of this book (£15), simply email Denham Macdougall:
. For further details on the progress of the restoration of Brownsbank, please visit macdiarmidsbrownsbank.org.uk
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow