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"Eden": The Brough of Deerness, Orkney
"Eden": The Brough of Deerness, Orkney

Edwin Muir lived from 15 May 1887 to 3 January 1959. He was a novelist and translator as well as being one of Scotland's most important poets of the 1900s. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Edwin Muir was born on a farm in Deerness, a remote rural idyll in the most easterly part of mainland Orkney. In 1901, when Edwin was 14, his father lost the farm and the family moved to Glasgow to look for work. Edwin later described this as the "fallen" world, and starkly contrasted it to his "Eden" in Orkney. Within four years of arriving in Glasgow his mother, his father and two of his brothers had died, and Edwin himself had worked his way through a number of undesirable jobs. His response to the multiple family tragedies was mental breakdown and depression, a condition that was to plague him - and influence his poetry - for the rest of his life.

In 1919, Edwin Muir married Willa Anderson and the couple moved to London, before living in Prague, Dresden, Italy, Salzburg and Vienna in the early 1920s. After their return to England in 1924, Edwin and Willa collaborated on successful English translations of writers such as Franz Kafka, Gerhart Hauptmann, Sholem Asch, Heinrich Mann, and Hermann Broch. In 1925 Muir published the first of the seven volumes of poetry he was to produce in the years to 1956.

Between 1927 and 1932, Muir published three novels. He moved with Willa to St Andrews in 1935, and it was there that he published his highly controversial "Scott and Scotland" in 1936. In it he claimed that Scotland could only create a national literature by writing in English: something that upset the movement led by Hugh MacDiarmid to write in Lallans or Scots. Such was the (lack of) profile of Gaelic at the time that it appears not to have featured in the argument.

Muir continued to write all his life. Between 1946 and 1949 he was Director of the British Council in Prague and Rome, and in 1950 he was appointed Warden of Newbattle Abbey College in Midlothian. 1955 saw him take up an appointment as Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He returned to England in 1956 and died in 1959 in Cambridgeshire.

Much of the story of Edwin Muir's life was summed up in a single entry which he wrote in his diary in the late 1930s:

"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day's journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time."

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