About identity

Discussions on Scottish identity were nothing new, but for some the First World War had invigorated the debate. It had also engendered a sense of national pride, embodied in undertakings such as the establishment of the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish National War Memorial in the 1920s.

Individually, no-one was more active than Christopher Grieve ('Hugh MacDiarmid') in forging a new cultural landscape for Scotland.

Writing from 'Somewhere in France' to his former schoolteacher on the day the Armistice was declared, he states: 'My plans for after the war are all cut & dried — I am ready & eager for a time of systematic production.'

A powerhouse of ideas, creativity and publishing throughout the 1920s, he effectively started what became known as the Scottish Renaissance. Many of the writers and artists who engaged with Grieve's energy and vision were drawn to Scottish nationalism and the possibility of political independence.

Promoting the 'Scottish Renaissance'

Grieve promoted this vision for Scotland through widely published journalism and commentary, and a series of periodicals which he edited and published in the early 1920s. These were:

  • 'Northern Numbers, being representative selections from certain living Scottish poets', 3 volumes, 1920-1922
  • 'The Scottish Chapbook: A monthly magazine of Scottish arts and letters', August 1922 to November / December 1923
  • 'The Scottish Nation', a weekly published from May to December 1923
  • 'The Northern Review', a monthly published from May to September 1924.

Alongside all this activity, his poetic alter-ego Hugh MacDiarmid — or M'Diarmid at this early period — was beginning to emerge.

There was something by M'Diarmid in every issue of 'The Scottish Chapbook'. The first Scots lyric was 'The Watergaw' in October 1922, and the final issue of November / December 1923 is nearly all Scots poems by Hugh M'Diarmid.

Helen B Cruickshank — a writer who would become a close and important friend of Grieve's — later said of him: 'I had then the unmistakable feeling that here was a genius seeking expression not only for himself but for a nation …'

A new literary Scots language

MacDiarmid produced, in quick succession, two collections of short Scots poems or lyrics, 'Sangschaw' (1925) and 'Penny Wheep' (1926), with his epic masterpiece 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle' following in the same year.

With this generally well-received body of work exploring a new literary Scots language, the Scottish Renaissance was truly under way.

Grieve was always politically active, and in 1922 was elected to the Town Council in Montrose as an Independent Socialist candidate. He served in the role for two years.

At the level of national politics, he was committed to the idea of Scottish independence and was an active member of the left-leaning Scottish Home Rule Association. With other literary figures — chiefly R B Cunninghame Graham and Compton Mackenzie — he had a role in the creation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928.