Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) was one of Scotland foremost 20th century poets, and the one who most influenced my own poetry, both in his approach to writing poems and often in outlook. He was one of my primary school teachers, so I knew him personally. In appearance he was patrician, aloof, often stern, and in school his poetry was never mentioned, although we all know he was a poet. He was an indispensible presence in the post-war Scottish poetry scene, one of the pantheon which included Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Morgan, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and others.
Much of his poetry was written about his time in Assynt. For more than 40 years he spent his 10-week summer holidays with his family in rented cottages in Achmelvich and Inverkirkaig. I love his Assynt poems, and I share his love of the Assynt landscapes. Thanks to Top Left Corner I’ve just been celebrating MacCaig’s centenary at Glencanisp Lodge. I was primarily there on retreat, to write poetry (and I did), but there were events, dinners, and after-dinner discussions with Pippa Little, winner of the MacCaig Poetry Competition, Alan Riach, Sandy Moffat, Roderick Watson, Liz Lochhead, Alan Taylor, the Itinerant Poetry Librarian, the schoolchildren at Stoer, Lochinver and Ullapool, and some of the Assynt folk who knew MacCaig. It was a great week.
Tonight I’m taking part in the MacCaig celebration at the GRV in Edinburgh, thanks to Rob Mackenzie, who invited a group of poets to pick a MacCaig poem and to write one in response to it. I tried mine out at one of the get-togethers at Glencanisp, and it was well received there. I was paid an enormous compliment that night by Ewen McCaig, Norman’s son, who said, “Norman would have liked it.”
Postscript: The GRV event was excellent, with some superb new poems, and readings from a refreshing variety of MacCaig poems. The surprising consensus emerged that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ MacCaig poem, despite what many might have thought previously. And the musical settings were a joy to listen to.