A 100th birthday party marking the centenary of Hugh MacDiarmid’s first appearance in print will be held at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on Friday at 5.30pm.

Here, Alan Riach asks Denham Macdougall, convener of the MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank Charitable Trust, and the novelist James Robertson about the significance and legacy of the poet’s work and the need to subsidise the upkeep of the cottage where he and his wife Valda lived in from 1951 until their deaths in 1978 and 1989, respectively.

Alan Riach: Denham, could we start by asking you about Brownsbank Cottage – what sort of state is it in and why is funding needed to keep it in good repair?

Denham Macdougall: The cottage requires total refurbishment to make it habitable so that a writer-in-residence could be accommodated there. The collection, paintings, china, books and other artefacts which graced the interior when Hugh MacDiarmid, or rather, Chris Grieve, and Valda lived there are currently in storage.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused huge inflation in the building trade. We currently have applications with five potential sources to raise funds. We do have to make a fairly aggressive appeal for financial help with this. For further details and how people can help, please see our website at www.macdiarmidsbrownsbank.org.uk/

Alan: James, you were the first writer-in-residence in the cottage – could you tell us, was that the proverbial life-changing experience? What was your first acquaintance with MacDiarmid and how did his work first make an impact on you?

James Robertson: Well, I was the second, really, after MacDiarmid himself! Yes, it was life-changing to live in that place, so insignificant as a building and yet so loaded with historical and literary significance, and atmosphere!

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I was there from 1993-95 and those two years enabled me to move from full-time work as a bookseller to being a full-time writer. And that’s what I have been ever since.

Alan: So it was a liberation to your own life, your professional commitment and investment as a dedicated writer. What was the impression that MacDiarmid’s work itself made upon you?

James: The first time the name, let alone the work, of Hugh MacDiarmid registered with me was when he died on September 9, 1978. A few days before that, I had gone on my first-ever air flight to my first-ever destination outside the British Isles, as an exchange student from Edinburgh to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

It impressed me that even in the US, the death of this Scottish poet of whom I was completely ignorant was reported widely. I read the obituaries,and a little later a review of the posthumously published Complete Poems, and I wondered why I didn’t know anything about such an evidently important literary figure from my own country.

So I searched out some of his books in the University of Pennsylvania library and started reading, and I’ve never stopped.

It was his beautiful early lyrics in Scots that first hooked me, and I still love those poems but from there I explored further and not just MacDiarmid’s work but the whole corpus of Scottish literature, which nobody else had told me existed.

His writing is so vast, so varied and so designed to start arguments in your own head that I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with him. But isn’t it ironic – although maybe not surprising – that I had to leave Scotland in order to discover so much about it? I had been ignorant of it, but nobody in Scotland had told me of it at all.

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Alan: Denham, how do you think Brownsbank and MacDiarmid are thought of in the local community in Biggar and Lanarkshire? Are they revered, the building as local architectural treasure and MacDiarmid’s writing as a cultural and political legacy to be proud of?

Are there regular annual visits to the cottage from local schools? From Edinburgh University students (or anywhere else)?

When it was open to visitors, where did the visitors come from? Has there been much investment from the Scottish Government?

Denham: Since our charity was established in 2015 we have been struck by the level of local, national and international interest in MacDiarmid and Brownsbank. Locally there are many people who knew and had great affection for Chris and Valda.

Last autumn we hosted with our close local partners the Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum the Exhibition 'Hugh MacDiarmid: The Brownsbank Years'. Among the events held in the course of the exhibition were your own, Alan, with painter Ruth Nicol’s talk to the students of Biggar High School.

That was very effective. The students clearly evinced a thirst for this major cultural heritage on their doorstep. Their teacher remarked that she had never heard them keep quiet for so long!

We’ve hosted local and national writers’ groups as well as other interested parties including the George Orwell Society. There’s a huge development potential in a refurbishment and an ambition to make Brownsbank a more active hub and resource.

Literary tourism is an accepted economic generator these days. Brownsbank can link with the Barrie house in Dumfries, Burns’s Cottage in Alloway in Ayrshire, Ian Hamilton’s Little Sparta just a few miles away, the John Buchan Centre in Peebles and of course Walter Scott’s baronial mansion, Abbotsford.

The Scottish Government to date has had no direct involvement but our local authority, South Lanarkshire Council, has given us exemplary support, both financially and with advice.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmid photographed in a gardenHugh MacDiarmid photographed in a garden (Image: Newsquest)

ALAN: That series of writers’ houses could be a revelation of contrasts! Barrie’s imagination can be felt in the very terrain and shape of the land winding down through trees to the river at the house in Dumfries, Burns’s cottage is well-known but Alloway is also the location for the climactic chase in his poem “Tam o’ Shanter” and the road coming down into Alloway was travelled by the English poet John Keats when he visited the cottage, so the links and connections are multiple!

Ian Hamilton Finlay created his bizarre uniquely adult yet also playful garden at Little Sparta and was MacDiarmid’s friend before they fell out and became culturally hostile to each other!

And John Buchan was certainly a friend and supporter in the early years – despite their political differences! And Buchan, of course, connects to both Scott and MacDiarmid in different ways.

There’s a whole education through centuries and across politics in the panorama of comparisons and contrasts those buildings and resources of research represent.

Denham: A literary tour of the Borders connecting them all would surely be an attractive idea to many visitors, as well as students working on any of these writers.

Alan: James, how do you think MacDiarmid is perceived among writers and contemporary literary people? Is he an easy character to feel strongly about?

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James: He still has the capacity to annoy, even to infuriate, nearly half-a-century after his death. He said that his job was to “erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a lot of rubbish” or to be “the catfish that vitalises the other torpid denizens of the aquarium”.

In his lifetime many people hated him for stirring things up, and disliked his egotism, the existence of which I don’t think can be denied.

He got things wrong, too, such as his dismissal of the folk tradition as being of no artistic merit, and some of his political decisions.

Round about the time I was at Brownsbank, Irvine Welsh described MacDiarmid as “a symbol of all that’s perfectly hideous about Scotland”, which is interesting because they both, in different ways and in their own eras, put the boot into complacent and stuffy Scotland.

I suspect he is not read by many contemporary Scottish writers below the age of 50, but maybe I’m wrong. I hope so, because there’s such a world of ideas, wit, language, fury, tenderness, humour and brilliant observation contained in his poetry and prose.

Alan: Denham, could you tell us what’s most likely to happen on Friday evening? Norman MacCaig famously said that the anniversary of his birth should be celebrated by two minutes of pandemonium – is that what we have to look forward to?

Denham: Well, I’m not sure we’re qualified to go for full pandemonium yet! However, a very strong team with a varied and rich programme will get us onto the approach road! Readings from yourselves, James and Alan, will be augmented with readings from Sally Magnusson and Gerda Stevenson.

The striking musician Neil Sutcliffe has composed and will perform a piece to mark this very important anniversary. So we can look forward to a delightful and insightful gathering to propel us forward.

Alan: James, what do you hope will be marked by the event and what sense of MacDiarmid might people take away from it?

James: A centenary is surely worth marking. Of course, it’s 100 years since “Hugh MacDiarmid” first appeared in print, not since his progenitor and alter ego Chris Grieve was born – that was in 1892.

But I’d like people to reflect on what impact MacDiarmid has had on our literature and culture in the intervening years. What difference did he make? He is probably not widely read, and many folk won’t even have heard of him, and Scotland is a very different place from what it was in his lifetime, but I think it would be a much poorer country, and still a long way from regaining its independence, if he had not done all that he did.

Alan: Maybe sometimes it’s more a matter of the unexpected, what’s not on the menu. As with that poem you turned up by accident, James ...

James: Yes. I’d been browsing through an online archive from 1924 and found this – it’s a seemingly simple yet complex expression of humility and human sympathy:

Back Bedroom

The dirty licht that through the winnock seeps

Into this unkempt room has glozed strange sichts;

Heaven like a Peepin’ Tam ’twixt chimley-pots

Keeks i’ the drab fore-nichts.

The folk that hed it last – the selfsame bed –

Were a great hulkin’ cairter an’ his bride.

She deed I’ child-birth – on this verra spot

Whaur we’ll lie side by side.

An’ everything’s deid-grey except oor een.

Wi’ wee waugh jokes we strip an’ intae bed...

An’ suddenly oor een sing oot like stars

An’ a’ oor misery’s shed.

What tho’ the auld dour licht is undeceived?

What tho’ a callous morn oure shairly comes?

For a wee while we ken but een like stars,

An’ oor herts gaen’ like drums.

Mony’s the dreich back bedroom whaur the same

Sad little miracle tak’s place ilk’ nicht,

An’ orra shapes o’ sickly-hued mankind

Cheenge into forms o’ licht.

Alan: Serendipity! Just discovering that. I’ve always loved this verse, from “By Wauchopeside” but I forgot it, and then a friend quoted it to me recently and it just struck me again – what a great poet he is, and what he can do:

I used to hear a blackie mony a nicht

Singin’ awa’ t’ an unconscionable’ oor

Wi’ nocht but the water keepin’t company

(Or nocht that ony human ear could hear)

– And wondered if the blackie heard it either

Or cared whether it was singin’ tae or no’!

O there’s nae sayin’ what my verses awn

To memories like these. Ha’e I come back

To find oot? Or to borrow mair? Or see

Their helpless puirness to what gar’d them be?

Late sang the blackie but it stopt at last.

The river still ga’ed singin’ past.

Denham: And that story you told, Alan, about the actor Alex McCrindle, who, as a young man, got some of his pals together to come to Biggar to dig the ditches so that drains and pipes could be fitted and Chris and Valda could have indoor running water, an indoor toilet, all mod cons!

That was human kindness. And then the sequel …

Alan: Yes, that was the same Alex McCrindle who became a professional actor and more than a quarter-of-a-century later a whole generation of filmgoers watched him on screen in the first Star Wars film of 1977, commanding the rebel forces to fly out against the imperial forces and blow up the Death Star, with the line, “May the Force be with you!”

James: What Hugh MacDiarmid had been doing since 1922!

Denham: Well, “May the force be with us!”

Alan: Let’s go!

Yon Antrin Thing: 100 Years with Hugh MacDiarmid: Tickets priced £15 are available from Scottish Storytelling Centre (01315569579, www.scottishstorytellingcentre.com or macdiarmidsbrownsbank@gmail.com or www.macdiarmidsbrownsbank.org.uk/