THE single most distinctive move Hugh MacDiarmid makes in his “guide book” The Islands of Scotland (1939) concerns what he calls “Scotland’s greatest exclave”, the Shetland archipelago, which he prioritises over the Hebrides. Inspired by its difference, its exclusivity, he properly sets his ideological compass due North, on a Thulean trajectory, that reaches out to the civic and economic example of the Faeroes and to Norway. There was no box around his Shetland, a Shetland he tested against the old Norn words as they “hvarfed” (turned, disappeared, vanished) from him “in all directions” in the poem, “On a Raised Beach”.

MacDiarmid’s poetry of the Shetland period collected in Stony Limits (1934) is still wildly under-appreciated. He seems to be kept in a box by those who can’t advance beyond Sangschaw (1925), Penny Wheep (1926) and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), brilliant works though they are. Why should this prevent us following MacDiarmid further?

Take the later MacDiarmid of Stony Limits out of the box too and make proper space on the literary map for it. Is his presence felt at all on Shetland today, in the way that the presences of Synge, Robinson, and Flaherty, for better or worse, are felt on the Aran Islands?

READ MORE: Hugh MacDiarmid: All about the poet's 1930s Shetland retreat

I am a circumstantial reader. I want to consider my poet where he lived and when, in the wider world, up against the everyday, writing what he lived. MacDiarmid argued from his own perspective, in what I would describe as “heroic solipsism”, a form of intellectual defiance, culturally saturated “in a strong solution of books”. This was to counter what he called “the megalopolis”: the assumptions of its denizens and politicians that they hold “the centre” and that by virtue of their location and number are entitled not only to their power, but to a belief that their vision of the world is superior, bogusly authorised by “majoritarianism”, the prime engine of democracy.

MacDiarmid opposes this: “The idea that by going to islands one cuts oneself off from the resources of civilisation is one against which I cannot protest too strongly,” he wrote. This was the man who lamented vehemently, and often, the near total absence of intellectual company and resources on Shetland, who now and then protested that he was quite out of touch with what was going on “down there” across the sea in Glasgow and London. He puts his case on the issue in a free-verse paragraph called “In the Shetland Islands”:

I am no further from the “centre of things”
In the Shetlands here than in London, New York, or Tokio,
No further from “the great warm heart of humanity”,
Or the “general good”, no less “central to human destiny”,
Sitting alone here enjoying life’s greatest good,
The pleasure of my own company,
Than if I were one with the crowds in the streets
In any of the great centres of population.

This is not just MacDiarmid skirmishing. He makes an ever-pressing point about the meaning of democracy and by implication the voice and place in the scheme of things of island life.

Stony Limits is a work of some forty-nine poems – lyrics, satires, ruminations, meditations – a more than worthy successor to A Drunk Man. The bulk of the key works it contains must have been written in some kind of fugue state for it was published, by Gollancz of London in June 1934, and MacDiarmid had only gone to the Isles the year

before. (“Mirror Fugue” is the title of one of the poems in the “Shetland Lyrics” series.)

Seamus Heaney, deeply sympathetic and perceptive on MacDiarmid’s earlier work, takes just a short step to meet the poet of Stony Limits as it were half way. Heaney doesn’t pull his punches and he’s right to balk at the merely propagandist matter in much of MacDiarmid’s later work – what he calls “blather” – he dismisses as “McGonagallese”. But how much of such material is in Stony Limits? Heaney gives no indication. His Oxford lecture “A Torchlight Procession of One” – the phrase is Norman MacCaig’s – is undoubtedly one of the better accounts of MacDiarmid written from outside Scotland. Yet it falls short. It only pokes its nose a little way into the box, and tars too much with the same brush.

THERE is something to Heaney’s outlook here of the Nobel mandarin. The finder-keeper of his own high grail comes over as too fastidious. Uncomfortable with MacDiarmid the man for being a drinker and what he terms “a messer”, he’s nothing short of priggish about him. Heaney singles out for praise the section “Nothing has stirred / Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago / But one bird” from “On a Raised Beach”. But then leaves us, vanishing like the Cheshire cat, having looked no further into the work, or set it in context. We can’t deny many of the larger faults Heaney finds in the later work but we can ask for a more attentive, discriminating reading of Stony Limits. We don’t expect Philip Larkin to join us. But we do surely have higher hopes of Heaney.

Bearing in mind the many fine shorter poems in Stony Limits, and the more experimental longer works, all have intrinsic value, but with a difference. How otherwise do we want our “intrinsic value”? Or, to cite another example from The Islands of Scotland: “Island Funeral”, the poem with an air of plagiarism and yet no known or identifiable source. These poems shouldn’t be waved away in offhand fashion with talk of MacDiarmid’s want of craftsmanship and attention to finish, or indeed habits of plagiarism.

When I think about Heaney’s difficulty, I’m put in mind of another uncomprehending encounter: that between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges. In particular, a passage of a letter from Hopkins to Bridges on the subject of Hopkins’s poem “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and of Walt Whitman: “Extremes meet, and (I must for truth’s sake say what sounds pride) this savagery of his art, this rhythm in its last ruggedness and decomposition into common prose, comes near the last elaboration of mine. For that piece of mine is very highly wrought. The long lines are not rhythm run to seed: everything is weighed and timed in them. Wait till they have taken hold of your ear and you will find it so.”

The National:
Seamus Heaney​

This “rhythm in its last ruggedness and decomposition into common prose” – Hopkins could have been writing about MacDiarmid.

There’s something else that makes Hopkins central to “On a Raised Beach”: his theories of “inscaping” and “instressing”, all haunted by the thinking of MacDiarmid’s fellow borderer Duns Scotus and the idea of “haecceity” – the “thisness” of things as developed by followers of Scotus, of which Hopkins was perhaps the most recent significant example, before MacDiarmid here. That Hopkins played a direct part in the evolution of MacDiarmid’s poetics is acknowledged in one or two earlier poems, for example “Water Music”. But here I think Hopkins is valuable to keep in mind for wider reasons than the alliterative. This ought to have been up Heaney’s street.

Within a few days of his Oxford lecture, Heaney attended the first meeting of the Oxford Hugh MacDiarmid Society, newly founded by David Norbrook, Bernard O’Donoghue and me. The text for the evening was “Lament for the Great Music” and I read it from start to finish to those of us gathered in Magdalen College – Tom Paulin was also there, and Liam McIlvanney, and a fair number of lost souls, staying away from or, like me, descended from Scotland.

When I finished there was due silence. It is quite a poem to sit through, with Greek and Gaelic quotations to render. Finally Heaney said, in his warm and generous way, if you are going to read that poem, that is how to read it. And at once added that it felt strange to him to hear it, in that he had just recently finished a poem that began where the “Lament” ends.

MacDiarmid closes his “Lament” like this: “Look! Is that only the setting sun again? / Or a piper coming from far away?” And the opening line of Heaney’s poem, “Keeping Going”, is this: “The piper coming from far away is you…” This is a poem Heaney wrote for his brother Hugh, included in the major collection The Spirit Level (1996).

The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling round you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow,
Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting
With laughter, but keeping the drone going on
Interminably, between catches of breath.

It’s pure and delightful mock heroic to MacDiarmid’s national epic. Heaney admitted later that he felt his Oxford lecture had not done MacDiarmid justice. So, his conscience pricked perhaps by our Hugh MacDiarmid Society meeting, we find him, again in The Spirit Level, going further, and making some reparation in the poem “An Invocation” where he confesses to MacDiarmid “I underprized your far-out, blathering genius.” Yet somehow in that “blathering” Heaney patronises MacDiarmid and undoes the good he intends. He pats him on the head, keeps him, as he says, “at an embraced distance”, and calls him a “wee / Contrary stormcock”.

There’s something amiss in that “wee”, is there not?

SURELY we must not underprize Hugh MacDiarmid. Still less should we patronise him for all his wild talk, drinking, messy life-style and arid propagandising for Joseph Stalin and his successors – or sell short the poetry of the Whalsay sojourn. Nor more generally, it seems from what I’ve been saying in these essays, should we underprize the gifted interloper or blow-in and what they can bring to the repertoire, in the name of local work and mercy, in whatever archipelago and individual islands we inhabit, or choose to identify as our own.

Perhaps it is not fanciful to say that “The piper coming from far away is you” and that therefore, we are all now entrusted, to keep the good drone going on forever, to hear, and to play, the ground bass, between the needful catches of our breath.

With which, I must now bow out, bring down the curtain on my act, and thank you very much for letting me be read, here in Scotland.

The 12th issue of Andrew McNeillie’s intermittent periodical Archipelago, with contributions from National writers Alan Riach and John Purser, is now available from Clutag Press via