Hugh MacDiarmid was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve, who lived from 11 August 1892 to 9 September 1978. He is widely regarded as the most important Scottish poet of the 20th Century. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Grieve was born in Langholm, the son of a rural postman whose radical views helped form Grieve's own outlook. He attended school at Langholm Academy, and among his teachers was the composer Francis George Scott, who would later set many of Hugh MacDiarmid's lyrics to music. From Langholm, Grieve moved on to become a student-teacher at a school in Edinburgh. Here his literary abilities were recognised and encouraged by George Ogilvie, whose played an influential part in Grieve's life for many years.
Grieve's politics were always on the left. He became a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1908, and was a member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1938 and again from 1956 until his death. In the 1930s he was a founder member of the National Party for Scotland. In 1950, MacDiarmid featured on a list of suspected communist sympathisers compiled by George Orwell for British intelligence. In the same year, Grieve stood in the General Election as the Scottish National Party candidate for the Glasgow Kelvingrove constituency. He came last, with 639 votes.
After the death of his father in 1911, Grieve became a journalist. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, and on his return to journalism after the war became the editor/reporter of the Montrose Review. In Montrose, Grieve became deeply involved in local politics, and he edited and published the three issues of Northern Numbers, representative collections of contemporary Scottish poetry. From August 1922 he issued editions of the Scottish Chapbook in which he helped launch a Renaissance in Scottish literature. Hugh MacDiarmid first put in an appearance in the first edition of the Chapbook, and thereafter became a regular contributor of poetry.
MacDiarmid's first volume of poetry, Sangschaw, was published, with an preface by John Buchan, in 1925. Meanwhile, Grieve was creating a storm in the Scottish literary establishment with a series of perceptive articles which many established figures found very uncomfortable. In 1931 MacDiarmid's highly influential poem First hymn to Lenin was published. In the same year his wartime marriage ended in divorce, and Grieve married his second wife, Valda Trevlyn. In 1933 the Grieves moved island of Whalsay in Shetland, where they would live for the next nine years.
In 1934 Grieve/MacDiarmid published three books: Scottish Scene, in collaboration with Lewis Grassic Gibbon; a collection of essays, At the Sign of the Thistle; and a further volume of poems, Stony Limits. In 1936 Grieve's book Scottish Eccentrics was published, with the glaring omission, a friend commented, of a chapter on Grieve/MacDiarmid himself. And in 1939 he published The Islands of Scotland, a personal view of the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland. His autobiography, published in 1943 was entitled Lucky poet: a Self-Study in Literature and Political Ideas. It was a highly individual book, combining prose and poetry in a way that many found irritating, but most also found fascinating.
Grieve moved with his wife to Biggar in 1951 and that was where died on on 9th September 1978. In all Grieve/MacDiarmid published around 30 books and many shorter works and articles. The poetry he produced in his later life is often viewed as difficult and inaccessible, but brilliant. The two volume Complete Poems, published after Grieve's death, ran to 1500 pages.
Christopher Murray Grieve was buried at Langholm. To the east of the town a minor road climbs steeply out of the valley. As it crosses Whita Yett, a short path from a parking place leads to the striking memorial to Hugh MacDiarmid. The memorial is the work of Jake Harvey and was unveiled on 11 August 1985. Made of steel and bronze, it is in the form of an open book, highly decorated with images from MacDiarmid's poetry. Nearby is a cairn carrying a verse by MacDiarmid and noting that "Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) was a man of Langholm, a champion of Scotland, a fervent internationalist and one of the great poets of the world."