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Tails o the Comet? MacLean, Hay, Young and MacDiarmid’s Renaissance

Michel Byrne
ScotLit 26, Spring 2002

An Cuilithionn 1939 & Unpublished Poems

On 4 May 2002 the ASLS held a conference at the University of Glasgow to celebrate the work of Sorley MacLean whose Dàin do Eimhir, so ably edited by Christopher Whyte, was the ASLS Annual Volume for 2001. ScotLit is very happy to reproduce here a slightly shortened version of Michel Byrne’s paper on the relationships between the poets Sorley MacLean, George Campbell Hay (son of the novelist John MacDougall Hay, author of Gillespie) and Douglas Young – all poets of the second wave of cultural energy which characterised the 1940s in Scotland – and Hugh MacDiarmid, poet and champion of the first wave who was a major influence on younger poets.)

At last, at last I see her again

In our long-lifeless glen Eidolon of our fallen race,
Shining in full renascent grace,
She whose hair is plaited
Like the generations of men,
And for whom my heart has waited Time out of ken. Hark! hark! the fead chruinn chruaidh Chaoilte,
Hark! hark! tis the true, the joyful sound,
Caoilte’s shrill round whistle over the brae,
the freeing once more of the winter-locked ground,
the new springing of flowers, another rig turned over,
dearg-lasrach bho’n talamh dubh na h-Alba,
Another voice, and another, stirring, rippling, throbbing with life,
Scotland’s long-starved ears have found.

The exultant tone on which opens Hugh MacDiarmid’s long poem “On Receiving the Gaelic Poems of Somhairle MacLean and George Campbell Hay” (1940) should hardly surprise. Little could have done more to herald a new dawn of the Scottish Renaissance Movement launched twenty years before, than the emergence of these two poets. MacLean and Hay seem so much like the fulfilment of MacDiarmid’s hopes, that had they not existed MacDiarmid would have had to – and probably have tried to – invent them. This article aims to point out some of the connections between the two rising stars of Gaelic poetry and MacDiarmid’s Renaissance, and to highlight the role of fellow-poet Douglas Young, to whom the opening poem was first sent.

MacDiarmid had been waging his long kulturkampf against the Anglocentrism and parochialism of Scottish culture since the 1920s. The ‘Scottish Renaissance Movement’ (as it was named by French critic Denis Saurat) sought, in MacDiarmid’s words:

  • to shift the cultural and political emphasis away from “our affinities with the English, [and] to our differences with the English”
  • to “refecundate Scottish arts and letters with international ideas and tendencies ... – importing them direct, not via England, and without ... the automatic filterscreen of the English language”.
  • “to recover our lost Gaelic and Scots traditions in their entirety” – “among our main tasks must be a systematic exploration of the creative possibilities of Braid Scots and a recapture of our lost Gaelic background”.

In the course of the late twenties and early thirties, MacDiarmid’s preoccupation with the role of Gaelic in his cultural revolution grew more and more pronounced. It wasn’t merely that “the profitable affiliations of Scots lie, not with English, but with Gaelic”, but that Scots culture was “really a subsidiary development of ... ancient Gaelic culture”, “represent[ing] the Celts’ compromise with circumstance”. In the introduction to his Golden Treasury of 1940 MacDiarmid would restate that the Renaissance aim of recharging the Scots language was “only a stage in the breakaway from English, preliminary to the great task of recapturing and developing our great Gaelic heritage”.

In 1927 MacDiarmid advocated that the next essential step in resistance to capitalist globalisation – “the great over-ruling tendency towards standardisation inherent in contemporary industrialism, dependent ... on cosmopolitan finance” – should be the formulation of a “Scottish Idea” complementary to the “Russian Idea” of Dostoevsky and other Russian intellectuals. MacDiarmid identified an artistic tendency throughout Europe towards “neo-classicism”: “the re-concentration of advanced artists in all countries ... on the ‘ur-motives’ [aboriginal motives] of their respective races. So far as we in Scotland are concerned our ‘ur-motives’ lie in our ancient Gaelic culture. We must repair the fatal breach in continuity which has cut us off from our own roots.”

In literary terms, in an echo of his “Back to Dunbar” cri-de-guerre to Scots poets, he recommends “an increasing endeavour to win back to the tradition and technique of the Bardic Colleges – behind the feminisation of Mary-of-the-Songs” (17th century vernacular praise poet Mary MacLeod). He also calls for “social and political equivalents” and sketches out a theory of “neo-Gaelic Economics”, including the abolition of the usury-based banking system in favour of Social Credit. “The impetus to civilisation” MacDiarmid claims, “ was an Ur-Gaelic initiative” (presumably referring to the westward migration of the Celts), and he concludes that “the reconciliation of East and West” is therefore “the ineluctable mission of the Gaelic genius”.

The Scottish Idea also found expression in poems such as “Dìreadh”:

I covet the mystery of our Gaelic speech
In which rughadh was at once a blush,
A promontory, a headland, a cape,
... And think of the Oriental provenance of the Gael,
The Eastern affiliations of his poetry and his music,
... And the fact that he initiated the idea of civilisation
That today needs renewal at its native source ...

MacDiarmid’s ideas are impressive in their ambition but also in their sheer presumption. However glorious the world mission being bestowed on Gaelic, the “ur-Gaelic intiative” is clearly the latest in a long line of alien appropriations of the language and its culture. (One is reminded of Derick Thomson’s wish for a ‘soisgeulaiche ... nar cainnt fhin’ [‘an evangelist...in our own tongue.’]). Sorley MacLean himself would comment with exasperation in 1940 that MacDiarmid “should really stop his pose of interpreter of Gaelic Scotland” (though he conceded that “perhaps it’s not a pose, but honest boosting”). Yet it is striking the extent to which MacDiarmid’s notions chimed with MacLean and Hay’s own concerns. What we can see repeatedly is MacDiarmid flagging up very real issues in Gaelic culture, with a partially informed understanding which then gains in substance as he establishes his friendships with MacLean and Hay.

For example, before meeting MacLean in 1934 MacDiarmid had already opined with typical hyperbole that:

in Gaelic literature sight has been lost of the great traditions, and the whole field is monopolised by insignificant versifiers expressing Wee Free sentiments. The ministerial voice is ubiquitous and poems are judged by their conformity to sectarian dogmas and canons of provincial respectability. ... And, above all it is insistent that the substance of poetry must be silly vapourings, chocolate-box lid pictures of nature, and trite moralisings. Penny novelette love is all right, but not politics, not religion, not war, not anything that can appeal to an adult intelligence. Finally good poetry cannot be anti-English. It must bow the knee to Kirk and State. Anglophobia and sedition are out of the question.

These criticisms prefigure the scathing assessments of modern Gaelic poetry and the prevailing cultural ambiance, that would issue from both MacLean and Hay – the preponderance of the “pretty-pretty”, of romance over truth, Hay’s reference to “the ring of clergy, Comann Gaidhealach Britons and academicians who would like to preserve the Gael in a kind of intellectual red Indian reserve where... they will be aesthetically and morally catered for by the soiree and the kirk”.

Similarly, before meeting MacLean MacDiarmid had already trumpeted the virtues of the major eighteenth century Gaelic poets, and had championed the re-evaluation of the 19th century nationalist poet William Livingston of Islay (“that splendid masculine poet, who has put away childish things [and] was sure of misrepresentation in his pusillanimous and effeminate age”). But it was MacLean who enabled MacDiarmid to substantiate his promotion of Gaelic poetry by providing him with detailed translations of the work of MacMhaighstir Alastair, Donnchadh Bàn, and Livingston. These formed the basis of the texts published in MacDiarmid’s Golden Treasury of 1940. Not entirely to MacLean’s satisfaction, though, as he told Douglas Young:

I wish he had not represented Gaelic by the very few very bad prose translations [of mine] which were merely to give him an idea for versifying.

Neither did MacLean wholeheartedly endorse MacDiarmid’s enthusiasm for Livingston:

Why the hell has Grieve to boost L as a poet because of his political opinions? He never does that with Scots Lowland poets whom he knows at first hand.

To take yet another example, MacDiarmid had already understood in the Twenties the inauthenticity of Celtic Twilight presentations of Gaelic culture, condemning “the pseudo-Celtic ‘Hebridean’ songs of Mrs Kennedy-Fraser and the like”. In a 1935 article, however, we find that he can offer specific examples of the “egregious fraud and shoddy substitution” effected in Songs of the Hebrides, which he has clearly derived from MacLean.

A final example is found in MacDiarmid’s ambition to “revive the classical traditions and modes of our ancient Gaelic literature, and reapply [these] to modern conditions”. Such literary re-Gaelicisation in MacDiarmid’s own work finds expression in bardic postures, in the notice given to a major Gaelic poets such as Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and the liberal sprinkling of quotes from Irish and Gaelic found in To Circumjack Cencrastus. His specific call for a return to the discipline of the medieval bards, however, (quoted above, from 1927) emerges as one of the central tenets of George Campbell Hay’s poetic manifesto published in 1939 – in MacDiarmid’s own quarterly The Voice of Scotland.

Hay had broached the subject in a letter to MacDiarmid (probably his first communication with the doyen, cited anonymously in the Voice of May 1939), in which he decried developments imported wholesale from English poetry, and insisted that “Gaelic poetry hasn’t drawn all the sap from its own roots yet”. Modern poets should develop the metrical potential of Gaelic folksong, and emulate “the discipline and close-knit diction of bardic poetry.” The young poet was given space to elaborate his ideas in full in the following issue by an editor presumably delighted to see a decade-old hobby-horse vindicated from within the Gaelic world.

Hay was a valuable addition to the ranks of the Renaissance in other ways too: he fulfilled the internationalist role demanded by MacDiarmid, in his translations from Greek, Welsh, Irish, and (in the Forties) from French, Italian and Arabic; and above all, he embodied the reconciliation of Gaelic and Scots cultures, the “higher synthesis” of Highland and Lowland “without [which] ... a Scottish cultural unity is impossible”. Since the Twenties MacDiarmid had denounced “the vicious Highland v. Lowland antagonism [which] proved one of the main stumbling blocks to the reintegration of Scottish nationalism”. Here was a trilingual poet who explicitly celebrated “Alba nan Gaidheal ’s nan Gall”.

These, then, are some of the ways in which MacDiarmid’s meeting with MacLean in 1934 and with Hay five years later drew their work into the centre of his cultural war. The development of MacDiarmid and MacLean’s friendship after their meeting in 1934 has been well documented (see Joy Hendry’s chapter in Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays), but it is impossible to discuss the relationships between MacDiarmid, MacLean and Hay in the late Thirties and into the Forties without highlighting the role of Douglas Young as intermediary, friend and propagandist.

A gifted classical scholar and polyglot, a genial man of immense integrity and strong political commitment, and himself a poet, he cemented the relationships between Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean, introduced Hay and MacDiarmid to each other’s work, was instrumental in bringing MacLean and Hay together, played an important part in the publication of both Gaels’ work and also promoted their poetry through his own Scots versions. He was memorably described by the poet William Soutar as “an exceedingly tall fellow with a shovel-beard – his leanness, longness and fringiness [giving] the impression of a BBC announcer who had partially metamorphosed into an aerial”. His friends simply referred to him as God, or The Deity.

Young’s years in Oxford in the mid-thirties (following his first degree at St Andrews) coincided with Hay’s own classical studies, and the two young men struck up a very strong friendship, based largely on their passion for literature and languages and their commitment to leftwing nationalism. Before their return to Scotland, both had vowed to uphold an SNP conference resolution to resist conscription into the Crown Forces in the event of a war. This eventually led to Hay spending eight months as a fugitive in 1940-41, and twice to Young’s incarceration. (By then Young had entered the arena of electoral politics and was even elected Chairman of the SNP.)

It was at Oxford in 1936 that Young introduced Hay to the poetry of MacDiarmid. Indeed Young attributed Hay’s maturation as a poet to this “acquaintance [which] stirred him up to performances of novel and striking varieties”. He pithily recalls this in his “Letter to MacDiarmid, 1940”, when he describes himself passing time in Waverley Station reading Scots Unbound:

a present o whilk I well remember
giean to Deorsa ae day in December
fourr year syne. And I’ld aisilie show it
set him on to becoman a poet.
Thon’s a thing wi rime but nae reason,
the makan o Hay in a winter season.

It was in 1939 in turn that Young brought Hay’s work to Grieve’s attention, having written to comment on his new periodical The Voice of Scotland (the first issue of which had featured MacLean’s new poem BanaGhaidheal.) Immediately MacDiarmid featured a selection of original poems and translations from Greek, Welsh and Irish by Hay. Over the following months Young kept MacDiarmid abreast of his various projects with Hay, including a “gallimaufry” of their joint work, a satirical political sequence which was never completed (perhaps surviving only in Hay’s poem Grunnd na Mara, rendered into the Scots Thonder They Ligg by Young), and later a joint book of translations from Classical and modern European literatures.

MacDiarmid’s generosity in championing the younger poets is striking, particularly given his own extremely difficult circumstances in those years of poverty and isolation in Whalsay. Having been unable to include their work in his Golden Treasury (though drawing attention to the “two very remarkable young Gaelic poets” in his notes), in Spring 1940 he is not only preparing a sequel to include Hay, MacLean, Young and Goodsir Smith, but also a Six Scottish Poets for Hogarth Press which features these four with Soutar and himself. He also offers to draw on his Irish contacts including Douglas Hyde and Frank O’ Connor to ensure the publication of MacLean’s political epic An Cuilithionn and Hay’s poems, and suggests setting up a subscription list to which he’ll add his name and a note of commendation, for Hay’s and Young’s joint collection.

It was during MacLean’s period of teaching in Edinburgh in 1939 that he and Young met. The first selection of MacLean’s poems was published in Seventeen poems for 6d, a collaboration with Robert Garioch, in January 1940, and it was around this time that according to MacLean “Douglas Young came and pretty well took me over aesthetically”. Hay supplied Young with a review of MacLean’s contribution, in which he commented: “How long ago was it that the last Gaelic poetry that really meant anything was produced? At the time of the evictions? Long since anyway. But from these poems it seems as if we are getting out of the rut at last.” Later, in 1941, he would say of the still unpublished Dàin do Eimhir, many of which he had copied into his own notebooks: “The life of these poems is hot enough to break-up even the thick casing of dead-ice that has lain over Gaelic literature so long.”

Young’s extraordinary dedication in preparing the Dàin do Eimhir for publication is documented in Christopher Whyte’s splendid edition. It is astonishing that on top of his own academic, political and literary work, Young found the time and energy to meticulously type out and edit Sorley’s drafts – only painfully legible – checking variants and every linguistic dilemma with MacLean. Sorley told him while in Catterick military camp: “All I can say is that no one else has ever done so much for me as you have done, intellectually and materially.”

Hay also entrusted Young with his poems before leaving for North Africa and continued to send him copies of each wartime poem. The production of Hay’s volume, however, was a far more tortuous affair, suffering from too many hands on the oars and too little direction from Hay. The advertised collection, Gaoth air Loch Fìne, was scrapped by Hay when he realised that it included “political rants” he had no desire to see published as poetry. He had his own reservations in any case about his work, as he confessed to MacLean: “Doubts assail me at times as to whether ¾ of my stuff is worth publishing. A lot of it may be bonnie verse, but is not new or significant.” And a few months later: “It’s not a book that will show much advance or development on the past in the way Dàin do Eimhir has done. My only hope is that it revives a few genres and some technique that was valuable in the past. But I feel in the trim for a forward jump one day.” Within four months he had begun to write his great war poem Mochtàr is Dùghall, and the run of major poems which mark the apogee of his work.

The poem by Young quoted above, “Letter to MacDiarmid, 1940”, was composed in response to receiving from Grieve the poem which opens this article, “On Receiving the Gaelic Poems of Somhairle MacLean and George Campbell Hay”. In it Young refers to the younger poets (whom MacDiarmid wishes could visit him in Whalsay) as “sparks i the tail o your comet”. Young’s first collection Auntran Blads which appeared in the same year as the Dàin do Eimhir, was dedicated to Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay, and carried a long introduction by MacDiarmid. Among its translations from a dozen languages, it included Scots recreations of poems by both Gaelic poets. Young’s book highlights the close communication, the support and mutual inspiration binding some of the key literary figures of mid-twentieth century Scotland.


Michel Byrne lectures in the Department of Celtic at the University of Glasgow.


Copyright © Michel Byrne 2002


Last updated 23 August 2010.