Obituary: Iain Crichton Smith

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The Independent Culture
WHEN BBC Scotland TV lunchtime news, after dire remarks about the national football team's latest performance, came up with a well-compiled tribute to Iain Crichton Smith, one didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There he was, the portentously but deceptively rueful downturn of the mouth, the especially complete and candid baldness, but craggier than one remembered somehow, turning into a monument. But, as the rather strange phrase has it, there was "no side" to him.

Since he lived in Argyll it was surprising how often he turned up in Edinburgh for unprestigious literary events. Meeting him thus, one thought, not "great poet" (with an OBE and three honorary doctorates), but what a witty companion, completely unassuming, muttering briskly in the drily enigmatic accent of his native isle of Lewis, suspended somewhere between censure and send-up, kirk and comedy.

He used that voice to wondrous effect in his marvellous monologues of Murdo, an archetypal, parochial, universal Gaelic fantasist and sluggard, ironic obverse to the values of the Free Church which overarched the Long Island of Iain's childhood and youth. These had audiences in fits. But he read his verse, one would have to say, badly. His compeers Sorley Maclean and Norman MacCaig were in different ways spectacular public readers, and Edwin Morgan happily still is. Iain Crichton Smith, Lewis-wise, threw his lovely things away with rapid off-hand delivery, no bloom on it. This was despite his conviction, uttered in what must be his last pre- posthumous publication, an article in Chapman magazine which came out this week, that poetry above all should be musical. "We need," he wrote, "a new music. Not a new imagery but a new music . . . True originality lies in the music which more than the image is the sign of a new consciousness."

His own music came to him from a Gaelic tradition, closed to most of us, in which he practised all his life as one of the language's major writers this century, in fiction as well as verse. Ten years ago he told an interviewer that if he had "thought there was as much recognition, that I'd reach the same breadth of audience, and that there was as much going on, that there were as many other writers in Gaelic as in English, I believe I'd have chosen Gaelic." Typically auto-subversive. His first poem, written when he was 11, was about Neville Chamberlain's wee trip to Munich. "I think I'd been narrating the event to my family and out of that came my first poem, which was in the oral, rather than literary tradition."

Bayble, his childhood home, a drab village near Stornoway, without even a decent beach to it, was an unlikely place for either tradition to bear fruit. Grey sea, flat brown island. But he attended the Nicolson Institute, that great school which educated so many boys so well that they left the island for university, gained fame and fortune, and never came back. Here, in the fifth year, he received Sorley Maclean's book of love poems, Dain do Eimhir, just out, as a prize. "It was very progressive of that teacher to give me such a book." Meanwhile, they taught him Wordsworth and Tennyson and he discovered, for himself, in the magazine New Writing the latest poets, and in bookshops and library Eliot and Auden, who between them gave him his new music in English. He loved "Hollow Men", "Ash Wednesday", "Marina", and began an on-off relationship with Auden's verse which lasted a lifetime.

Committed to writing, he had to have a job. While he was teaching at the High School in Oban, from 1955, he began to establish a reputation as a rising poet. The English "Movement" was ascendant over taste and the rhymed formality of some early Crichton Smith might have fooled readers into thinking he went along with its aesthetics. But the 14- section sequence "Deer on the High Hills" which he himself continued to think of as his masterpiece, went in its philosophic meditation where the Movement dared not tread, jousting with complexities on its way to a deceptively simple conclusion: "The deer step out in isolated air. / Forgive the distance, let the transient journey / on delicate ice not tragical appear / for stars are starry and the rain is rainy, / the stone is stony and the sun is sunny, / the deer step out in isolated air."

His first novel, Consider the Lilies, published in 1968, about an old lady in the Highland Clearances, is now reprinted as a classic and has been much used in schools. He wrote novels, he said, to fill in the gaps between poems. He was addicted to detective fiction. (In my last conversation with him, on the phone three weeks ago, I asked him if it was true that he had once reviewed 50 detective stories in a single weekend. Pause. Hint of a chuckle. "I think it was only 26.") His own fiction, however, did not involve fancy plotting. It was simply and directly written, usually out of what he knew at first hand - though An Honourable Death (1992) is very successful in recreating the life of General Sir Hector Macdonald, the crofter's son who became a great imperial war hero and killed himself on his way to face army proceedings connected with his alleged interference with young boys. One remembers from Crichton Smith's novels not plot, but an atmosphere of friendly attention to fellow-humanity, expressed in the title of one of his best, A Field Full of Folk (1982). Perhaps In the Middle of the Wood (1987) will come to seem his most remarkable achievement in prose. Like Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, it derives directly from a phase of paranoia, which in Crichton Smith's case actually led to a spell in a mental hospital.

Iain Crichton Smith, I think, really didn't set very great store by his English prose fiction, though now that Alan Warner has made Oban world- famous in fiction, it is worth noting that The Tenement (1985) uses that unpropitious locality very effectively years before Morvern Callar was dreamt of. But novels were bread-and-butter after he dropped teaching in 1977 ("I said to myself, `There's no shortage of teachers in Scotland. Writers are, perhaps, not quite so available' "). The prizes flowed in for the poetry, which was less formal now, displaying the influence of William Carlos Williams in its centring on direct perceptions of the mundane - as in The Village (1989). There were radio plays, and plays for the stage which succeeded very well in the new Scottish touring tradition, like a thumping good short one about St Columba I saw last year in a small venue in Ullapool and Lazybed which more recently packed out the Traverse.

It would be easy to conclude that Iain wrote too much for his own good - 10 novels in English, two in Gaelic. Taking both languages together, some dozen volumes of short stories. More than a dozen books of verse in English alone. He wrote compulsively, habitually. He did not like revising, and said that he had barely touched even "Deer on the High Hills". In fact, it is the frankness and freshness of all his work which guarantees its durability. A vestigial Free-Church-like discipline reined back his surge of language, along with the technical rigous of the Gaelic verse tradition. His own music is heard throughout his big bulk of verse, and now that he's gone so suddely (just weeks from diagnosis of the cancer to his death), I think we will all hear its distinctiveness more clearly. One last wry thought - the Bible got him at last. Exactly three score years and ten.

Angus Calder

Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac A'Ghobhainn), poet: born Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides 1 January 1928; FRSL 1971; OBE 1980; married 1977 Donalda Gillies Logan (two stepsons); died Taynuilt, Argyll 15 October 1998.

All Our Ancestors

All our ancestors have gone abroad.

Their boots have other suns on them. They


in Canada and Africa with God,

their mouths tasting of exile and of spray.

But you remained. Your grave is in Argyll

among the daffodils beside a tree

feathery and green. A stream runs by,

varying and oral, and your will

becomes a part of it, as the azure sky

trembles within it, not Canadian but

the brilliant sparklings of pure Highland light.

From Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1985)