I wasn’t sure about it at first, last night’s BBC4 documentary to mark the 100th anniversary of Norman MacCaig’s birth. MacCaig was a keen fly-fisher, and the producers had the idea of following three of his friends – fiddle maestro Aly Bain, Billy Connolly and poet and novelist Andrew Greig whose most recent book is an homage to MacCaig – up to his favourite loch, the remote Loch of the Green Corrie, high up in the mountains of Assynt in the far north-west of Scotland. At first the banter between Bain and Connolly felt like an in-joke from which you were excluded. But gradually their anecdotes, and affection for their old friend drew me in.
For a long part of his career, MacCaig was a primary school teacher (later a lecturer at Stirling University), and he spent the long holidays every summer up in the wilds of Assynt,the place he loved in the North West Highlands. In an archive interview in the film, MacCaig said:
When I go up, as I do every summer, for 10 weeks – the stuff is there. Hoist your Venetian blinds, there it is. And I never write a thing. But I fatten my camel’s hump then feed on it all winter, quite unconsciously. I never say, ‘there’s a nice skinny rosebush, that’ll make a nice skinny poem.’ But sitting here, a year later, that skinny rosebush will scratch my mind and demand an utterance.
The journey from Edinburgh to Assynt and then the long climb to the Loch of the Green Corrie – where the trout proved elusive – was the framing device for a documentary in which friends and fellow poets – including Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney – paid tribute and furnished anecdotes, each one reading one of MacCaig’s poems.
November night, Edinburgh
The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the doors, and sidles past.
I gulp down winter raw. The heady
Darkness swirls with tenements.
In a brown fuzz of cottonwool
Lamps fade up crags, die into pits.
Frost in my lungs is harsh as leaves
Scraped up on paths. – I look up, there,
A high roof sails, at the mast-head
Fluttering a grey and ragged star.
The world’s a bear shrugged in his den.
It’s snug and close in the snoring night.
And outside like chrysanthemums
The fog unfolds its bitter scent.
Jackie Kay chose ‘Toad’, which, she said, reflected the modesty of the man, placing frogs or toads at the centre of so many of his poems and making the reader see these creatures very differently:
Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
Squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
Full of satisfaction in a man’s house?
You clamber towards me on your four corners –
Right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.
I love you for being a toad,
For crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
And for not being frightened
I put you in my purse hand not shutting it,
And set you down outside directly under
A jewel in your head? Toad,
You’ve put one in mine,
A tiny radiance in a dark place.
Back in 1995, Andrew Greig was talking with a frail Norman MacCaig in MacCaig’s living room in Edinburgh. At some point, Greig asked MacCaig: “What is your favourite place in the world?”
MacCaig answered: “I think it has to be the Loch of the Green Corrie. Only it’s not called that. ..I should very much like you to fish for me there. If you catch trout, I shall be delighted. And if you do not, then looking down from a place in which I do not believe, I shall be most amused”.
I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It’s silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.
Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.
A Man in Assynt
Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape?
the man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is masterless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.
MacCaig’s closest friend in Assynt was AK MacLeod, a consummate poacher and fellow fisherman and whisky drinker. According to Greig, ‘they had an illicit still together…they were like mischievous wee boys’. When AK MacLeod died in 1976, MacCaig wrote a series of beautiful elegies for him, including ‘Notes on a winter journey’, begun the day before he died and finished after:
Notes on a winter journey
The snow’s almost faultless. It bounces back
the sun’s light but can do nothing with
those two stags, their cold noses, their yellow teeth.
On the loch’s eye a cataract is forming.
fistfuls of white make the telephone wires
loop after loop of snow buntings.
So few cars, they leave the snow snow.
I think of the horrible marzipan
in the streets of Edinburgh.
The hotel at Ullapool, that should be a bang of light,
is crepuscular. The bar is fireflied
with whisky glasses.
At Inchnadamph snow is falling. The windscreen wipers
squeak and I stare through
a segment of a circle. What more do I ever do? …
(Seventeen miles to go. I didn’t know it, but when
I got there a death waited for me – that segment
shut its fan: and a blinding winter closed in.)
I went to the landscape I loved best
and the man who was its meaning and added to it
met me at Ullapool.
The beautiful landscape was under snow
and was beautiful in a new way.
Next morning, the man who had greeted me
with the pleasure of pleasure
Crofters and fishermen and womenfolk, unable
to say any more, said,
‘It’s a grand day, it’s a beautiful day.’
And I thought, ‘Yes it is.’
And I thought of him lying there,
the dead centre of it all.
MacCaig died in 1996. One of his later poems is ‘London to Edinburgh’, written in January 1989:
London to Edinburgh
I’m waiting for the moment
when the train crosses the Border
and home creeps closer
at seventy miles an hour.
I dismiss the last four days
and their friendly strangers
into the past
that grows bigger every minute.
The train sounds urgent as I am,
it says home and home and home.
I light a cigarette
and sit smiling in the corner.
Scotland, I rush towards you
into my future that,
grows smaller and smaller.
- The enduring appeal of Norman MacCaig: BBC Scotland page includes clips from the programme