Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

Hugh McDiarmid's 'A drunk man looks at the thistle'. First edition, Edinburgh: 1926. S.P. 386

Hugh MacDiarmid was the pseudonym of poet, writer and cultural activist, Christopher Murray Grieve. Born in Dumfriesshire, he worked as a teacher and journalist and served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War. Increasingly passionate about Scottish nationalism, he wrote and edited poetry and periodicals, including founding the influential The Scottish Chapbook (1922). As ‘MacDiarmid’, he began to write poetry in Scots, sometimes making use of Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary.

Hugh McDiarmid's 'A drunk man looks at the thistle'. A reading by Tom Fleming in the programme for a production at Edinburgh's Little Lyceum, 1978. STA FC 2/51

After well-received collections Sangschaw and Penny Wheep, MacDiarmid published the long poem, A drunk man looks at the thistle, in 1926. Encompassing the human condition, Scottish identity and cultural politics, it is now regarded as his masterpiece, featuring in numerous radio broadcasts and live readings since. In turn, MacDiarmid’s vision for Scottish poetry came to be challenged by others, including Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay. He remains the most significant and controversial figure in Scottish writing of the early 20th century.