Little Sparta Trust's Archive

Best of enemies: how two of Scotland’s literary giants fell out

by Magnus Linklater.

They lived within a few miles of each other, near the Lanarkshire town of Biggar, and in their day were considered towering figures on the Scottish literary scene. But far from neighbours and friends, they were to fall  out in spectacular fashion,  leading to a cultural spat that has few parallels in post-war Scotland.

The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, grand old man of 20th century writing, had once  enjoyed a close friendship with  the concrete poet and artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 16 years his junior; he was even best man at Finlay’s wedding and lent him his wife’s ring for the ceremony. That all changed when Finlay began planning  a journal he called Poor Old Tired Horse, which MacDiarmid saw as a reference to him.  Finlay and his friends, he said,  viewed his poetry as  “hopelessly provincial … out of touch with contemporary life … [and, for young people,]  completely boring.”

The  journal, said MacDiarmid was “utterly vicious,” and he counter-attacked with a pamphlet called The Ugly Birds Without Wings describing Finlay’s supporters as  “little men, hopeless mediocrities, ganging up against their betters.” While his poetry was recognised across the world, Finlay, he claimed,  struggled to find publishers, and had landed up with an obscure San Francisco magazine.

“[Has] any critic of established repute ever praised his ‘poems’ – or considered them as poetry of any value?” he demanded. “A few words of praise from someone whose opinion goes for nothing in any connection, published in a hole-in-corner periodical on paper (appropriately) resembling toilet-paper is scarcely international recognition.”

Finlay lost no time in hitting back – literally, as it happened. After Poor Old Tired Horse  was lampooned in the Scotsman newspaper, he and a friend, he claimed, went into the office and  punched the literary editor, “while I punched another man.” They decided  to take the row onto the streets.

“We are arranging a huge protest march with banners by avant-garde artists,” he wrote to a friend. “Half the known Scotch poets have been so intimidated by MacDiarmid (a communist and pro-Stalinist) that they have withdrawn their poems from [the journal] —it has become clear that there is NO alternative but to fight, and I who once was rather gentle and tolerant, am now going to make that crowd RUE THE DAY THEY showed their hatred of beauty.” In the event the protest was banned by Edinburgh magistrates, and the Ugly Bird pamphlet withdrawn before legal action could be taken.

The whole episode was recalled  at the 2019 Biggar Little Festival, when Finlay’s case was put by his friend and colleague, Professor Stephen Bann, and MacDiarmid was represented by Professor Alan Riach.

The feud continued until MacDiarmid’s death in 1978. Finlay is said to have  tried to make it up by sending MacDiarmid a conciliatory letter. Whether he ever received a reply is not known.