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Norman MacCaig’s 85th birthday

Getting an audience with Norman MacCaig isn‘t easy these days. At the grand old age of 85. though, you can‘t really blame this most down-to-earth of Scotland‘s literary elder statesmen for not wanting to be bothered. For years. he has put up with an endless round of newspaper profiles and constant questioning about his poetry when he‘d much rather be left alone to write it. Nevertheless. his 
output has been vast. Some 23 volumes have been filled with works of deceptive simplicity, through which shine a warmth and depth of feeling that speaks to all. It‘s easy to see why his poetry is so revered by both conformists and literary outlaws, influencing generations of Scots writers  who discovered his work while probably still at school. A volume of collected poems was published in 1992, but since then. nothing. 

“lt’s finished,” declares MacCaig, reaching for his umpteenth fag of the afternoon. “I sat down to write a poem one day, feeling as I usually feel, and nothing would come. Absolutely nothing happened, and there‘s been nothing since. I‘m finished.” 

Asked if he regrets this state of affairs. MacCaig shrugs: “l‘ve written enough anyway.” 

He might be getting on a bit, but there‘s still a mischievous glint in MacCaig's eye that says he‘s not to he messed with. That and the constant chuckles he punctuates his words with give him a boyish air. Make no 
mistake, he does not suffer fools  or 
journalists  gladly, yet he looks set to be receiving a fair bit of press attention 
over the next couple of weeks. As part ofthe Assembly Alive! season at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms, Chapman magazine has organised an 85th birthday celebration, complete with entertainment from a who‘s who of Scottish letters, including Hamish Henderson, Sorley Mclean, lain Crichton Smith and Liz Lochhead. MacCaig, though, doesn‘t seem too fussed with the whole thing. 

“lt‘s their pigeon, not mine,” he says characteristically. “I‘m just going to sit at a table with my friends, that‘s all.”

 Despite a life of teaching, lecturing, giving readings,  a happy. 50-year marriage  MacCaig‘s wife is now dead  and a long-standing friendship with Hugh McDiarmid, MacCaig dismisses any notion of an autobiography: “Certainly not. lt would be boring to do for a start, and I‘ve a terrible memory.” 

What would he say has been his greatest achievement? 

“Oh, the poems. I've done nothing. I know a lot of 
people like the stuff, which is pleasant. It doesn‘t drive me off my head, though. I‘m Scotch.”

MacCaig once said it took him ‘two fags‘ to write a poem. “They were easy to write. which some people don't believe,” he says. “I just wrote what 
came into my head. That’s why I wrote so much. The only thing I regret about it being finished is that I liked writing the wee things. Otherwise I don‘t care ‘tuppence.”

Norman MacCaig: An 85th Birthday Celebration is at The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh on Wed 22 Nov. 

The List, issue 267, November 1995



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