THE exhibition Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland had its first airing at the Lillie Gallery, Milngavie, in 2018, going on to Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, then the Junor Gallery in St Andrews. It’s a showcase of some of the major poets of the 20th century in portraits by Alexander Moffat, in landscapes of the distinctive territories favoured by each of the poets, by Ruth Nicol, and in poems by myself.

Biggar Museum and Hugh MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank Cottage – a charity now owns the home near Biggar where he lived from 1951 until his death in 1978 – proposed to host a new configuration of the show and we hoped to open that around now – but we can’t. So we’re presenting a showcase online, on Tuesday, November 24, with sign-in from 4.30pm for a 5-6pm live event. Booking is open – it’s free but ticketed – at

MacDiarmid is at the centre of the new show, which charts his life and illustrates some of the encounters he had with other major artists – poets, singers, composers and others. Before Brownsbank, MacDiarmid’s landscapes had pre-eminently been those of the Borders, in Dumfriesshire, and the small island of Whalsay in the Shetland archipelago: from one extreme edge of Scotland to the furthest away from it. His life was dedicated to bringing out the best from all that those two co-ordinate points encompassed.

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He was born and grew up in the town of Langholm, eight miles away from England. He spent the 1920s mainly in Montrose as a working journalist, but his main commitment was to galvanise a new movement in all the arts, the Scottish Literary Renaissance, and to repoliticise the nation’s consciousness of the prospect of an independent Scotland, on the world stage. He made a lot of enemies. Many of them are still around.

In 1933, with his second wife Valda and their young son Michael, he relocated to the Shetland archipelago, and spent most of the next decade in extreme poverty, much of it under physical and mental strain. However, he produced some of his greatest poetry through what he called this “halophilous living by the cold northern seas” (a halophile being a creature that only survives in an atmosphere of salt).

In 1951, MacDiarmid, or to acknowledge his domestic name, Chris (Christopher Murray Grieve) and Valda (Valda Trevlyn Grieve) were given the cottage of Brownsbank, a few miles east of Biggar in Lanarkshire, rent-free, by the benevolent farming family who owned it, the Tweedies. Here, in this little two-room cottage, they were to live together until MacDiarmid died, with Valda continuing to make her home there until her own death in 1989.

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When Chris and Valda arrived at Brownsbank in January 1951, it was a hard, cold, snowy winter. The cottage itself was their saviour. There was no indoor toilet, no running water, but Valda remarked with relief: “Now we have all we need.” In the haven of Brownsbank cottage, the shelter of a home became a cradle for ever-widening engagement with the changing world, an ever-extending mind enquiring curiously, challenging the status quo, fighting all the while for a better social structure, and independence. What made all this possible was Valda.

In 1955, MacDiarmid published In Memoriam James Joyce, the major work of the era. In 1964, he engaged with Hamish Henderson in a flyting in the letters pages of The Scotsman – a public argument of extreme verbal flair, clashing on the matter of the value of “folk song” as opposed to “high art” and classical music.

In 1973, Allen Ginsberg visited Chris and Valda at Brownsbank, sharing a smile and a sunny conversation. Valda told me how he’d brought some “interesting tobacco” with him, and offered to share it around. Valda was eager to participate. Chris held shy of that, preferring his own malt whisky.

Near the end of his life, MacDiarmid was visited by the young artist Sandy Moffat, who began to sketch his portrait, with a sense of urgency, knowing that this was to be an essential record of a great poet, his image captured in art on the very edge of his life. Just as MacDiarmid had lived “where extremes meet”, the artist and the poet were meeting at a crossroads in both their lives.

His son, Michael Grieve wrote of his father’s last days, in Chalmers Hospital in Edinburgh. MacDiarmid saw the proofs of his two-volume Complete Poems before he died. He knew he had done as much as he could.

He died on September 9, 1978 at the age of 86. Michael would write: “At the very end, in the evening of his last night and unable to speak, though his eyes were still glowing with understanding and intelligence, he turned his head to the window and looked out to the Edinburgh skyline. A little later Scotland seemed ‘a colder and quieter place’.”

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He could not have seen on that Edinburgh skyline what we see there now, a new Parliament, a building in which we have our own government. On the walls of that Parliament are quotations from a range of Scottish poets. But as we write, in 2020, everything is under threat in Scotland: the National Health Service, the quality of the food in our shops, the very existence of our parliament and government in Scotland.

When Alexander Moffat first sketched Chris Grieve in 1978, neither of them could have foreseen the achievements and the threats that were to come. And MacDiarmid is still asking us: What do you want, you who are alive, here, today? What do you want for the future?