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Making it new interwar literature

Dr Margery Palmer McCulloch explores the ‘Scottish renaissance’, an outpouring of literature in the years between the two World Wars, producing a rich body of work from numerous authors that is still appreciated almost a century later
A bust of MacDiarmid, sculpted by William Lamb, 1927

The First World War, C.M. Grieve and plans for a new Scottish literature

It was Christopher Murray Grieve’s wartime experience in Salonika with the Royal Army Medical Corps and his first-hand contact with Europe both there and later in Marseilles which ultimately led to the birth of the interwar literary movement known in its own time as the ‘Scottish renaissance’. The principal fighting in Greece was over when Grieve arrived in Salonika in the summer of 1916. He was assigned duties in the hospital which catered for the wounded and he also acted as quarter-master, but once these duties were fulfilled he would appear to have had considerable free time for reading and thinking about his own and Scotland’s future. His principal correspondent when in Salonika was George Ogilvie, his former English teacher at Broughton junior student centre in Edinburgh, and this correspondence, edited by Catherine Kerrigan with helpful biographical and contextual notes and published by Aberdeen University Press in 1988, is a most useful guide to what Wordsworth earlier called ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ and to the development of the thinking of the writer who would later initiate a new direction in the development of a selfdetermining Scottish literature.

Like the Orkney-born Edwin Muir, Grieve’s post-school education had come largely from A.R. Orage’s New Age magazine, with its wide range of philosophical, social/political, cultural and literary – especially European literary – material. In Salonika he was able to continue his periodical reading interests as a result of material sent from ‘The soldiers’ recreation friend’ organisation in Edinburgh, together with an exploration of modern creative writers such as the American Henry James, Irish J.M. Synge and Russian Maxim Gorky. He was particularly interested in Wyndham Lewis and his Blast magazine, the first issue of which had been published in 1914, on the eve of war, and he followed eagerly The Little Review’s obscenity difculties with the publication of Lewis’s short story ‘Cantleman’s Spring-Mate’.

In addition, his school French would appear to have been of a standard to allow him to read ‘in the original a big anthology of contemporary French poets’ and by March 1919 he was writing to Ogilvie from Marseilles that he was now ‘in communication with Paul Valéry, André Gide, Albert Samhain and a few others’. The Christopher Grieve who would return to Scotland later in 1919 with the aim of reinvigorating Scotland’s moribund literature as well as making a name for himself as a writer was already looking to modern European writing for inspiration.

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About History Scotland

After the Great War: Rebuilding a nation Five great reasons to read History Scotland this month * New research on what life was like between the World Wars * Exploring the link between crime and military service * Special report on underwater archaeology at the German High Seas fleet scuttle site in Orkney * The women registrars who broke into an all-male profession * A new study of the controverial marriage of Queen Victoria's daughter Louise BONUS DIGITAL-ONLY CONTENT: Video report on a forgotten treasure trove of Victorian photos Exhibition preview: Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs Video: living history food & drink experience