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About Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) was one of Scotland’s best-loved and most influential poets. Marked by a striking gift for metaphor, his poetry moves between his native Edinburgh and his ‘spiritual home’ of Assynt in the North-West of Scotland.

Beginnings

MacCaig attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and read Classics at Edinburgh University from which he graduated in 1932. After teacher-training at Moray House College, he embarked on a career as a schoolmaster, working first as a Latin master, then as a primary teacher at a number of Edinburgh schools. His pacifism led him to register as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, but he was able to resume his teaching career after the Armistice. MacCaig began writing poetry while still at school, and during the 1930 and 1940s was involved with the New Apocalypse movement, fashioning highly wrought neo-Romantic verse which he would subsequently disown. His first two books Far Cry (1943) and The Inward Eye (1946) featured work in this style and were later rigorously excluded from all anthologies of MacCaig's work.

MacCaig the Poet

MacCaig’s ‘real’ poetic debut was the much-acclaimed Riding Lights (1955) which saw the poet achieve a new simplicity of language. This and MacCaig’s next three volumes, The Sinai Sort (1957), A Common Grace (1960), and A Round of Applause (1962), largely featured rhyming verse. In the 1960s, however, MacCaig embarked on a period of formal experimentation, and by Surroundings (1966) had permanently shifted to free verse. MacCaig’s later years proved prolific, seeing the publication of A Man in My Position (1969), The White Bird (1973), The World’s Room (1974), Tree of Strings (1977), The Equal Skies (1980), A World of Difference (1983), and Voice-Over (1989). His Collected Poems (1985) won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award.

MacCaig was a prominent figure on Edinburgh’s literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. He was part of the circle of poets associated with Milne’s Bar which included Hugh MacDiarmid, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Tom Scott. He struck up a particularly close friendship with MacDiarmid despite MacCaig’s avowed indifference to politics and scepticism about MacDiarmid’s advocacy of ‘plastic Scots’.

Public Recognition

MacCaig was Edinburgh University’s first Writer in Residence (1967-1969) and went on to become Reader in Poetry at Stirling University (1972-1977). In the last two decades of his life MacCaig received considerable public recognition. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Stirling, Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Dundee. In 1979 he was made an OBE and in 1986 received the Queen's Medal for Poetry. He was made an Honorary Member of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (1978), an Honorary Member and Professor of Literature by the Royal Scottish Academy (1981), and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1983). During the 1970s and 1980s MacCaig became a popular reader of his own poetry and regularly addressed school and student audiences. MacCaig is one of the best-known Scottish poets abroad. To date, his work has been translated into 19 languages.

Further Reading

McNeill, Marjory, Norman MacCaig: A Study of his Life and Work (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1996)

Macrae, Alasdair D. F., Norman MacCaig (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2010)