Died: 1996 in Edinburgh
First Book: Far Cry (Routledge, 1943)
Awards: Awarded an OBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1986
Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh on 14 November 1910. His father was an Edinburgh chemist and his mother hailed from the island of Scalpay. The Highland background that he inherited from his mother and the Gaelic culture that he encountered during visits to her family had an enduring influence on MacCaig and his work.
He was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh before going on to study classics at the University of Edinburgh from 1928 until 1932. He then trained to be a teacher at Moray House in Edinburgh and spent a large part of his life as a primary-school teacher. During the Second World War he registered himself as a conscientious objector, refusing active service on humanitarian grounds. As a result of his beliefs he served time in various prisons and was forced into extensive labour programmes.
His first collection of poetry, Far Cry, was published in 1943. Both it and The Inward Eye (1946) belonged to the New Apocalypse movement, which pioneered a surrealist form of writing that he later disowned. It wasn’t until Riding Lightswas published in 1955 that his distinctive voice first became apparent. This collection was followed by The Sinai Sort (1957), A Common Grace (1960), A Round of Applause (1962), Measures (1965) and Surroundings (1966). Following his appointment as a fellow in creative writing at Edinburgh University in 1967, he became writer in residence at the University of Stirling from 1970 to 1977, before returning to Edinburgh to be writer in residence from 1977 to 1979. Over this time, he published further collections: Rings on a Tree (1968), A Man in My Position (1969), Selected Poems (1971),The White Bird (1973), The World’s Room (1974), Tree of Strings (1977), Old Maps and New: Selected Poems (1978), The Equal Skies (1980), A World of Difference (1983) and Voice Over (1988).
MacCaig’s life and poetry was principally divided into two parts, with his home city of Edinburgh providing a valuable contrast to his holiday home in Assynt, a remote area in the north-west of Scotland where he spent much of his time. The landscape of this area appeared as a recurring theme in much of his poetry.
His friendships with Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch and Sydney Goodsir Smith bore a significant influence both on his work and in establishing him as a major force in twentieth-century Scottish poetry. In later years, he acted as mentor to Liz Lochhead, W. N. Herbert and Robert Crawford.
He never received much international attention despite being presented with numerous awards, including an OBE and the highly coveted poetry prize the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, in 1986. In recent years, his writing has become a compulsory part of the literature syllabus in Scottish schools and universities. Norman MacCaig died in Edinburgh on 23 January 1996, aged eighty-five.