I enjoyed Andrew Hook's
review of Landmarks: Hugh MacDiarmid: The Brownsbank Years
. I'm from Biggar myself, and my long conversation with 'MacDiarmid' began in 1977 when, as a daft wee laddie, I interviewed Chris Grieve (or 'Mr' Grieve, as Mrs Grieve insisted I called him) as part of my research for my Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English (CSYSE) dissertation on 'The Political Paradoxes in the Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid'. Mr Grieve's input to that dissertation earned me an 'A' pass in my CSYSE, and that 'A' pass got me, the otherwise poorly qualified, ragged-arsed son of a family of itinerant farm labourers, into university and an education. I've much to be grateful to Mr Grieve for; he gave me an immense hand-up in life.
Nor was the pleuman's cottage into which he and Valda flitted in 1951 'dilapidated'. It was, for its time, a fairly typical but-and-ben affair, bisected into two rooms by a central passage, with a water pump out the front and a privy out the back. My mother's uncle had been the last pleuman to occupy it, and his wife and weans remembered it as 'luxurious' in comparison to other tied accommodation they'd lived in over the years. If anything, Brownsbank could even have been considered 'gentrified', members of the Young Communist League having jerry-built a bathroom/kitchen extension onto the rear of the structure for Chris and Valda a few years after the couple had taken up residency.
My conversation continued when, in 2003, I was invited by the great and the good of Biggar Museums Trust (BMT) to join its Brownsbank Committee, which curated the cottage both as a shrine to the Grieves and as a centre of ongoing literary activity in the form of the Brownsbank Fellowship.
The Brownsbank Fellowship was funded jointly by Creative Scotland and South Lanarkshire Council. From 2005, the council began to increasingly question the value of what it was getting in return for its investment – a 'mere' writer-in-residence that worked in schools and libraries throughout the local authority area. The Fellowship ended in 2011, when austerity bit and the local authority could finally justify pulling its funding.
Despite match-funding from the local authority having been a condition of the Creative Scotland grant, literature officers at CS 'connived' at its continuation for an ongoing series of month-long summer retreats, which, over the next two years supported a total of 12 emerging writers at crucial stages in their careers.
Meanwhile, the Museums Trust was seeking to rationalise its operations in order to develop a new, purpose-built museum in the town. Part of this rationalisation was its divestment of existing sites, such as the John Buchan Centre in Broughton, the Covenanter's House in the town's Burnbraes, the Moat Park Church, the original Gladstone Court Streetscape, the Holy Trinity Chapel in Lamington, and Brownsbank Cottage in Candymill.
The BMT's Brownsbank Committee withered, and the work of servicing the cottage and the retreats fell increasingly to me. Despite the support I received from stakeholders like Sandy Moffat, Alan Riach, Vicki Feaver, and former Fellows and Retreatants, my personal circumstances obliged me to give it up. The failure of the spring-fed water supply in 2014, rendering the cottage uninhabitable as a retreat, was the straw that finally broke this camel's back.
As Professor Hook indicates, a new charity – MacDiarmid's Brownsbank – took over the curation of the cottage and its legacy from BMT in 2016. I wish it well in its mission to keep Brownsbank 'immediate and fresh in our own time, not letting it slip into history…'. It has some good people on board. But it will need national support. And therein lies the rub. Where and how does MacDiarmid fit into our vision of a future 'Scotland'? That will depend on what our vision is.
Professor Hook suggests that MacDiarmid stands in need of rehabilitation, and the exhibition in the brand spanking new Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum could indeed be a step towards that. But would MacDiarmid have wanted to be rehabilitated? I doubt it. He'd a fairly clear and uncompromising vision of the sort of society he wanted to emerge from the Dostoyevskian debris of a deconstructed 'Scotland'. I suspect he'd have remained 'thrawn' with any vision that fell short of this. He'd certainly have resisted being rehabilitated as a peg on which folly and conceit might hank their rubbish on.
MacDiarmid often presented himself to the world as dynamite, around which it was dangerous to be. The world, on the other hand, largely received him as Marmite.
To those in Biggar who knew him fondly as 'Auld Grieve', he could be a genial, likeable, if at times distant kind of man, who enjoyed the occasional 'CRAFT' moment, such as when he left his denture glass out on the step for the milkman instead of the rinsed milk bottle Valda had left him in charge of, or when he'd set himself a-smoulder while smoking his pipe by the fire; a man we could take to our hearts.
On the other hand, those who knew him only as 'MacDiarmid' – the troublemaker who showed scant respect for the natural order of their world and society – could just as readily 'other' him as a Commie or a Nat, an unwanted viper in our midst.
So, as far as his rehabilitation goes, does the Scottish establishment – the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised in Scotland and its microcosmic Biggars – really want to be around his dynamite? I doubt that too.
Maybe MacDiarmid's proper destiny is to remain as he was in life – an outlier, a contradiction, an agitator, a gadfly. Maybe he should be left as he lived and worked – unassimilated, forever in the margins, where extremes meet, stirring trouble. Maybe this is where and how 'MacDiarmid' can continue to do the most good.
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