We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
MacCaig [McCaig], Norman Alexander (1910–1996), poet, was born at 53 East London Street, Edinburgh, on 14 November 1910, the only son and the fourth child of Robert McCaig (1880–1950?), a chemist, and his wife, Joan, née MacLeod (1879–1959). His father was a lowland Scot from Dumfriesshire and his mother came from Scalpay on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. A few months before his fifth birthday he was sent to school in the primary department of the Royal High School, Edinburgh, moving from there, in 1922, to the upper school. In 1928 he proceeded to Edinburgh University to read classics and graduated in 1932 with an honours degree. After university he attended Moray House College in Edinburgh to train as a teacher.

It was a difficult time to become a teacher and McCaig, unable to find a full-time job teaching classics, took on a series of part-time posts. For a few years he taught Latin, including a period at Portobello High School, where the art teacher, George Findlay McKenzie, painted the portrait which now hangs in the school of Scottish studies at Edinburgh University. After a series of temporary posts he accepted a permanent post in Craiglockhart primary school, and all his teaching thereafter, until 1970, was in primary schools. He was at Craiglockhart in 1939 when war broke out.

On 6 April 1940 McCaig married Isabel Robina Munro (1910–1990), a teacher, whom he had met at university, and they settled in a house in Broughton Street, Edinburgh. They had two children, Joan, born in 1942, and Ewen, born in 1944. McCaig lived in Edinburgh throughout his life but, ‘a threequarter Gael’ (MacCaig, 81), he spent most of his summers in a cottage in Achmelvich on the coast of Sutherland.

McCaig had been writing poems of what he called ‘an elaborate and increasing awfulness’ (MacCaig, 86) since his senior years at the Royal High School and during the 1930s and early 1940s he became involved with the short-lived movement, which published his first poems in 1939, in the anthology The New Apocalypse. These were followed by two books, Far Cry (1943) and The Inward Eye (1946), which collected his various periodical publications and added to them; they were all a reflection of his association with the New Apocalypse movement and were publications that he later desperately wished to disown. Many years later he declared that these two books illustrated not a revelation but an obscurement, and he totally repudiated them. Always a joker, he frequently used to tell the story that a friend to whom he had lent the second of these two volumes returned it to him with the words ‘When are you publishing the answers?’ (MacCaig, 85); so, he explained, he set about looking for the answers and they were not in the New Apocalypse Movement. Certainly, the poems from both books were completely expunged from his Selected Poems (1971) and from the later Collected Poems (1985).

During the Second World War McCaig was a conscientious objector, though not on religious grounds for, as he asserted in an interview, ‘I was born an atheist’ (Murray, 88). Yet he was a pacifist and objected to war for humanistic reasons, insisting that nothing could persuade him to ‘drop bombs on Hamburg’ (Murray, 96). When he was called up in 1941 he refused to serve in the armed forces. At the tribunal, however, he agreed to do non-military work and was drafted into the non-combatant corps. Later, when asked to service tanks, he refused and was court-martialled; as a result he was sent briefly to Winchester prison and then to Wormwood Scrubs, where he spent the official prescribed three months before being released and directed to ‘war work’ as a gardener.

After the war McCaig returned to teaching, which he loved. He was a marvellous teacher, full of wit, and a fountain of great stories. Despite Hugh MacDiarmid's well-known assertion that conscientious objection ruined McCaig's life, Norman enjoyed his years as a primary school teacher. They perhaps gave him the freedom to think and write, which intellectually more demanding and time-consuming grammar school teaching would have been likely to impede. The Scottish Renaissance movement which MacDiarmid nurtured in the 1920s aimed to revive the use of the Scots language in contemporary literature and at the same time to dissociate it from the sentimentality of the ‘kailyard’ school. Despite his admiration for MacDiarmid, Norman was not persuaded that he should write in a language not his own, and his own language, he often asserted, was English. Furthermore, he was out of sympathy with his friend's political interests, describing himself as ‘a-political’. He nevertheless went to New York with MacDiarmid in 1967 and counted him as one of his closest friends.

Some time between 1946 and 1955 McCaig adopted the spelling MacCaig, which he used for his publications, keeping the original for family matters. When asked about the change, he generally replied that it was because people kept mis-spelling it. His real poetic début came in 1955 with the publication of Riding Lights. The poems in this book show an awareness of nature in all its variety, of the cycle of the months and the seasons, and, in almost every poem, the poet himself is present in some way. The poems move between Edinburgh, MacCaig's physical home, and the highlands and islands of his spiritual home; they embrace landscape and history as well as the carefully carved cameos of familiar nature. The imagery is colourful and striking, as in ‘End of a Cold Night’:
The pond has closed its frozen eyelid,
The grass clump clenched its frozen claws.
Most of the poems in this volume are in formal rhyming four-line stanzas, with the occasional incursion of six-, eight-, or twelve-line stanzas. Sometimes there are no rhymes; sometimes assonance is used.The structural formality of Riding Lights is maintained, though with increasing variety, through the next three volumes, The Sinai Sort (1957), A Common Grace (1960), and A Round of Applause (1962). By the mid-sixties, however, in Measures (1965), there is a noticeable emphasis on different forms and by the time Surroundings was published in 1966 MacCaig seemed to have accomplished a painless shift to the use of free verse. In discussing his gradual move to his own particular brand of free verse, he commented, ‘How many free verse poems are ruined by the lack of a thorough-going rhythm to articulate the whole and by line-endings which are purely arbitrary and serve no functional purpose whatever’ (MacCaig, 83). This remark encapsulates the significance for him of rhythm in all his poetry, formal or free.

In 1967 MacCaig was appointed creative writing fellow at Edinburgh University and on his return to teaching in 1969 he became headmaster of Inch primary school, Liberton, south Edinburgh. The following year, however, he left schoolteaching for good when he was appointed, first as lecturer, and then as reader in poetry at Stirling University, where he remained until he retired in 1978. During this time and for the next ten years he continued to write poetry; another eight volumes were published at fairly regular intervals, the last one, Voice-over, in 1988, making sixteen in all.

MacCaig was essentially a writer of short poems and throughout his career he continued with his descriptions of landscapes and places, as well as choosing as his subjects the living world around him—animals, birds, flowers, and people—treating them with understanding and compassion. He was well known for his acerbic wit, though he frequently described himself as ‘a big softy at heart’; both these qualities are apparent in the poem ‘Responsibility’:
They left the horse standing for two days
with a shattered leg
till the vet signed a paper.
Then they dug a hole beside it
and put a bullet in its skull. …
This could have been worse only
if they had had to wait
till the horse signed a paper.
Some day they'll dig a hole
near enough to the vet's bed, for him to know it's there.
Here, the pronounced rhythmic patterning and the paralleling of the death of the horse with that of the vet is typical of MacCaig's free verse of this period.

MacCaig was always a cheerful, sociable man and during the 1940s and 1950s he frequented the various bars in Rose Street, Edinburgh, where he could be found talking with fellow Scottish poets—Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown, and others. He was later to become acquainted with Iain Crichton Smith and, later still, struck up a warm friendship with Seamus Heaney. Though he is best-known as a poet, MacCaig also delighted in music, both classical and traditional Scottish; he had a good singing voice and played the violin more than competently. He frequently claimed that he preferred music to poetry and that Bach, in particular, was a source of great solace to him.

As MacCaig grew older and the deaths of friends such as MacDiarmid and Angus MacLeod occurred, his poems began to reflect ideas of old age and death. In his summers away from Edinburgh in the wild countryside of Sutherland, MacLeod was his dearest friend and MacCaig found his loss hard to bear. The sequence of ‘Poems for Angus’ in The Equal Skies (1980) comprises some of his most beautiful and moving work. They voice the simplicity of his memories of MacLeod, represented in ‘In Memoriam’ as ‘a top branch … on the biggest tree in my garden’, which, though broken off, remains held up by the ‘living branches’; his feeling of loss is intensified in ‘Angus's Dog’:
in that blank no-time, no-place where
you can't even greet your master.
During the 1970s and 1980s MacCaig was much in demand to read his poetry to audiences of students, schoolchildren, and others. He was a popular reader, presenting his poems with a laconic wit and a wealth of funny stories to accompany them. One of his most potent weapons was the pregnant pause; his audience could hardly bear to wait until he came out with his punchline. He was a tall, loose-framed man, very imposing as he stood on a rostrum or sat on a classroom desk; his craggy features, the sometimes rather wistful set of his mouth, and, as he grew older, his silver flyaway hair gave him an endearing air of authority and his audiences, particularly the children, loved him. Asked about his methods of composition, he would tell them with appropriate dramatic gestures that his poems came straight out of his head onto the page and, miming screwing up a piece of paper and throwing it into a waste-paper basket, that he never laboured over his poems; if they were unsatisfactory he destroyed them. A glance through his Collected Poems, however, will show that he certainly hoarded some of them for many years; of the hundred or so new poems in that book, twenty-seven date from the 1950s.

MacCaig's well-known public trademark was the cigarette held in his left hand as he explained or disputed a point. He repeatedly claimed that it took him two ‘fags’ to write a poem. When he tried to give up smoking, he found that his muse disappeared. He was ordered for medical reasons to stop smoking, but despite many efforts it proved impossible.

In the last fifteen years or so of his life MacCaig received considerable public recognition, with honorary doctorates from Stirling, Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Dundee. In 1979 he was made an OBE and in 1986 received the queen's medal for poetry. Though he wrote neither in Gaelic nor in Scots, MacCaig was one of the most influential of the Scottish poets writing in the second half of the twentieth century. Writing in English, he nevertheless celebrated the Scottish landscape, Scottish characters, Scottish music, Scottish culture. He will remain a major Scottish poet.

Norman MacCaig never really recovered from his wife's death in 1990. Three years later he had a slight stroke and was no longer able to write. Early in 1996 he had another stroke and was taken to Astley Ainslie Hospital, Edinburgh, where he died on 23 January. He was cremated on 29 January at Warriston crematorium, Edinburgh.

Even though MacCaig always declared that he threw away all the poems he did not intend to publish, his son, Ewen McCaig, discovered after his death a mass of unpublished material, now part of the Norman MacCaig archive, Edinburgh University.

Hilda D. Spear

Sources  

U. Edin. L., university archives · M. McNeill, Norman MacCaig: a study of his life and work (1996) · N. MacCaig, ‘My way of it’, As I remember, ed. M. Lindsay (1979) · J. Hendry and R. Ross, eds., Norman MacCaig: critical essays (1990) · I. Murray, ed., Scottish writers talking (1996) · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

NL Scot., letters and poems · U. Edin., archive, MS 3198–MS 3210 · U. Edin., corresp. and literary papers · U. Edin., papers |  NL Scot., corresp. with Duncan Glen · U. Edin., letters to Trudy Wallace


Likenesses  

G. F. McKenzie, oil on canvas, 1936–7, U. Edin., school of Scottish studies · A. Moffat, oil on panel, 1968, Scot. NPG · A. Moffat, group portrait, oils, 1980 (Poets' Pub), NPG · M. Knowles, oils, 1988, BBC Gallery, Edinburgh · L. Westwater, plaster bust, U. Edin. L.