There are about 800 poems in the published work of Norman MacCaig of which some 130-140 have a main focus on the Assynt landscape or people.

Their significance appears to outweigh the numeric proportion, partly because of when they were written (most were from the 1960s onwards when, in my view, his best work was produced) but mainly because of their direct expression and strong personal commitment.

Where did this special quality in his work come from? Why Assynt? It’s a beautiful place with nice people in it, but does that fully explain the depth of the personal and poetic engagement? Was his poetic talent all that he brought there?

The MacCaigs first went to Assynt in 1947, and a lengthy sequence of summer visits followed. Getting to know the place and the people intimately took time. The landscapes were not explored by my father as a romantic Wordsworthian rambler. He was an enthusiastic and bloodthirsty fisherman and, although he loved walking through the Assynt landscape, it was the fishing that got him out of his chair. His growing knowledge of the land can be linked to the widening exploration of the fishing possibilities that we undertook when I was young. Communication with a wide range of local people also took some years to build up, partly because we (and others) did not have a car in the early times and the community was widespread. There is little doubt that, for him, the landscape and the community were aspects of a singular thing and the development of his many local friendships was as important and (in the poetic sense) meaningful as the landscape.

The poetic response to Assynt was not immediate. A few poems were written in the 1950s but significant numbers did not appear until he had been an annual visitor for over 15 years. They then grew in frequency and, when age and infirmity took over and he could no longer go there, more and more of his work drew on Assynt. Time was usually needed: apparently minor events become poems decades later. The response to Assynt was not a facilely descriptive one.

What he mainly brought to Assynt, in my perception, was the impact of his childhood holidays in Scalpay, Harris, the birthplace of his mother. These happy visits made an indelible impression on him, of the place and, especially, of the people and his own heritage. His Scalpay poems are not very numerous, but they are among his finest.

Despite being family and a welcome guest, he was an English speaker and, for lack of a softer word, an outsider. Without implying the least unhappiness, I believe this stayed with him all his life, as profound childhood impressions do, and gave him a longing for acceptance in the Assynt community that could never be fully assuaged by the reality of the friendships he found there. This was visible in company. In Edinburgh social gatherings he was normally centre stage, where he tended to dictate the topics of conversation and generally take charge. In Assynt he was no less gregarious, but he became more of a listener and he looked up to the company in a way that would have been inconceivable elsewhere.

In selecting Assynt, he chose well. A more fertile soil for planting the seeds that had been germinating since childhood could not have found and the fruit was many great poems. Although the Scalpay visits were of fundamental importance, his exploration of the highlands as a young man should not be forgotten. He went for lengthy, and extremely intrepid, cycling and camping holidays with friends, covering virtually everywhere, both on and off road, on a single gear bicycle. Many of the poems about Scottish places other than Assynt must come from experiences in this period.

Following the war and the appearance of young children he drew on this knowledge of Scotland when selecting a place for family holidays. Achmelvich was chosen. It was ideal for children and good for fishing, but other places will have suited in such ways. He said that a major factor in the choice was a similarity in the Assynt coastal landscape to Scalpay and the east of Harris. He was, in a sense, seeking his roots. Scalpay itself would have been unthinkable by this time – too minister-ridden and too teetotal.

In selecting Assynt, he chose well. A more fertile soil for planting the seeds that had been germinating since childhood could not have found and the fruit was many great poems. It brought him happiness, but without stultifying contentment. He had to ‘woo the mountain, till I know the meaning of the meaning, no less’ a process that kept him writing Assynt poems into his eighties, with no loss of freshness.

– Ewen McCaig

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 7

Don’t forgot to check out our MacCaig centenary celebrations, events happening all week in Assynt curated by Top Left Corner, and to have a listen to the first of two MacCaig-inspired podcasts, the first featuring Andrew Greig.

Our friends down the close at BBC Radio Scotland thought you might like to know about an upcoming special programme to mark 100 years since the birth of Norman MacCaig.  It will focus specifically on his love of Assynt, and the way that this landscape influenced his poetry.  Here’s the blurb below, and here’s the BBC Radio Scotland website.

The poet, Norman MacCaig, was born 100 years ago this November.  Much of his poetry celebrates the landscape of Assynt in the North West Highlands.  In a special programme, Mark Stephen explores the mountains, lochs and beaches of Assynt through the poetry of MacCaig, and discovers why this ancient landscape is so special.  That’s ‘Norman MacCaig’s Assynt’ on Out of Doors on Saturday 6th November from 7am, and again on Sunday 7th at 11am on BBC Radio Scotland.