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Slow down, here comes Langholm, birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid

Professor Alan Riach reflects on the launch of his new 'patchwork biography' The MacDiarmid Memorandum at the Buccleuch Centre in Langholm, on 6 September 2023.

Professor Alan Riach outside Macdiarmid Memorial, Langholm. Photograph courtesy of Philip Birbeck.

Hugh MacDiarmid was born in Langholm, christened Christopher Murray Grieve, in 1892. His mother reportedly described the baby as 'an eaten-and-a-spewed-like thing, wi een like twa burnt holes in a blanket'. The boy grew up surrounded by nature: rivers, hills and high moor, but also by learning: the Grieve family lived below the town library and as a boy, young Christopher read his way through all of it with a voracious intellectual appetite. I'd visited many times, but this was a special event, to launch my new book, The MacDiarmid Memorandum, a patchwork poetic biography of the poet, starting in Langholm, going with the poet after the First World War to Montrose, then to Shetland, and later, after World War Two, back to mainland Scotland, and Lanarkshire, to Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar.

The event was terrific. The audience was made up of entirely great people, about 20 folk turned out and each one was intent and alert and brightly wanting to know more, and clearly enjoying themselves. The conversations that followed from the Q&A session at the end were all different and fascinating in themselves.

My friend Margaret Pool and I drove up onto Tarras Moor before the event. Margaret had been deeply involved in the Community Buyout of the Moor from the Duke of Buccleauch and great swathes of the territory are now community-owned, and this is the subject of one of my poems in the book. I wanted to be up on the Moor and see it again before the reading. When we got up to the summit where Jake Harvey's memorial sculpture commemorating MacDiarmid is located, the afternoon was drenched in gorgeous sunshine and the whole expanse of the territory which is now in common ownership was spread out splendidly. You could almost hear individual insects and birds as well as streams and the breeze moving the plants and bushes. I was told there are now eagles nesting nearby and frequently to be seen in the skies above.

We were going up to the MacDiarmid monument when a camper van drove up and parked and a man got out and asked us if there was something to see here, and what was that spire on the hill. The spire is beyond the MacDiarmid monument, erected to a prominent local citizen in the 19th century and MacDiarmid himself has a poem about it denigrating such a symbol of upper-class superiority, so I told the visitor that it was a memorial to some local dignitary who was of no consequence whatever but he needed to pay attention to the sculpture just nearby. I introduced him to Margaret as 'The Godmother of the Territory' and she said, No, no, and introduced him to me, Professor of Scottish literature at Glasgow University, and he said: 'I've struck gold here, haven't I?' He was driving through on his way from England to Hawick, and had simply stopped for a look around, and to exercise his dog. We took him to the monument, and he sent a photo of me there, attached, for evidence.

We drove back down to Langholm and the event itself went very well, with a piper to announce the occasion to the town - very loud and clear! - at the opening - and a pianist to perform an F.G. Scott song to my reading of MacDiarmid, as part of the entertainment, to complement my own poems and bring some live music into the hall. But the complexity and difficulties MacDiarmid lived through and faced up to, which my poems address, were the central focus, and carried their own intrinsic interest.

Next day, Margaret and I drove back up to another part of the Moor, once again filled with early-morning warmth and late summer sun, and later I drove up myself to the cemetery, where I paid my obeisance to MacDiarmid and Valda at their graveside, and also came upon Michael's grave (their son), so I was glad to see it too. I had known them all personally, and had been at the funerals of MacDiarmid, Christopher Grieve, in 1978, and of Valda in 1989, and Michael had been a great supporter and encourager of my work in the 1980s and 1990s. He died too young. It was salutary to visit their graves that morning, in the beautiful, tree-surrounded, hilltop cemetery at Langholm.

When you drive into the town on the A7, either from the north or from the south, the sign doesn't just say 'Welcome to Langholm' - it says: 'Slow down. Here comes Langholm. Birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid.' I'm told that sign was designed by the local schoolchildren some years ago. New generations need to know of that pride of claim, that birthright. Not only in Langholm but all over Scotland.

But to the people of Langholm, heartfelt thanks for your welcome.

Alan Riach

contributed by

Professor Alan Riach

contributed by

Professor Alan Riach

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Professor Alan Riach reflects on the launch of his new 'patchwork biography' The MacDiarmid Memorandum at the Buccleuch Centre in Langholm, on 6 September 2023.
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