IT might seem strange that Scotland’s greatest modern poet should be the focus of the first international conference on his work at the University of Brest in Brittany, but is it? Would the Anglophone world have cared as much as the Bretons? Do we Scots ourselves care as much? Do we deserve our great artists, when we do so little with them? Is there a working Minister for the Arts in Scotland? What on earth are they doing?

Why Brittany? Why Brest?

There are many historical ties between Brittany and Scotland, especially as regards the contribution of the Scots to the post-Second World War reconstruction of the city of Brest, even now a working naval port, with all that means for the city’s character and ethos. The Scottish connection has left its mark in street names (Rue de Glasgow), and the University of Brest has for a long time supported Scotland-related events, academic, literary, musical and cultural in the widest sense.

And when conference organiser Camille Manfredi notes that there’s a long history of association between “our two nations”, she’s talking about the nations of Scotland and Brittany: “There is the marriage of Isobel of Scotland to François I of Brittany and Normandy in 1442; there are the flights of Jacobite soldiers to the coasts of Brittany and Normandy in the wake of the 1715 and 1745 uprisings; there is the construction of the first major naval shipyard in historic Brittany, at Saint-Nazaire, under the direction of John Scott of Greenock. And of course, there’s an ancient familiarity between the Onion Johnnies and pipers!”

Camille works in Brest at the University of Western Brittany, and co-edited with Michel Byrne of Glasgow University Brittany-Scotland: Contacts, Transfers and Dissonances (2017). She was the central co-ordinator of the organisers, Philippe Laplace (Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon), Monika Szuba (University of Gdansk), Lindsay Blair (University of the Highlands and Islands [UHI]), Fiona Paterson (Glasgow University) and me.

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When I asked her what she thought was the highlight, Camille replied: “The whole conference was the highlight! Not only was it organised by five universities in Brittany, Franche-Comté, Scotland and Poland, but also there’s a long-lasting relationship with extended collaborations between the University of Brest, the University of Glasgow and the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.

Together, we organised the first Alasdair Gray conference in 2012 (with Glasgow), the Brittany-Scotland conference in 2016 (with Glasgow, Edinburgh and UHI), the “Film-poetry, hybridity and cultural resilience in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Western Brittany” conference in 2022 (with Glasgow and UHI) – and now the MacDiarmid conference in 2023!

“Never mind Brexit, this is just the beginning!”

Camille points out that in many respects, Brittany and Scotland have followed parallel paths: each kingdom emerged in the mid-9th century, both attached themselves to their more powerful neighbouring kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries, and both lost their parliament in the 18th century.

She goes on: “The causes may vary, but some of the effects are similar: an institutional exclusion giving rise not only to protest movements, assertions of national identity and cultural revivals, but also a tendency to backward-looking nostalgia and self-denigration.”

The Scottish cringe has its counterparts, as does the cultural and political subjugation of the smaller state and its incorporation into the imperial gorgon. Also, as Camille puts it, “Brittany recognises itself in Scotland’s trilingualism (there is Breton, French and Gallo, only Gallo never quite made it to the level of Scots for lack, perhaps, of a poet of MacDiarmid’s calibre) and there are similar internal divisions (Brittany, like Scotland, has its Lowlands – Breizh Izel – and Highlands – Breizh Uhel). Brittany, like Scotland, is ‘multiform’.”

Camille noted that all the worst of these attributes were roundly castigated by MacDiarmid. Subjugation, willing surrender, and indeed the embrace of imperialism, run alongside a stubborn cultural resistance, active rebellion and self-determination. These are all familiar conditions in Scotland and have many echoes in Brittany. MacDiarmid sets a kind of precedent for Breton poets, writers and artists, and there are real affinities, especially in the works of Brittany’s most celebrated contemporary poet Paol Keineg.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmid's work is deserving of continued scholarly appreciationHugh MacDiarmid's work is deserving of continued scholarly appreciation

Paol recently translated a selection of 42 of MacDiarmid’s poems into French, Un enterrement dans l’île, published by the Brest-based publisher Les Hauts-Fonds in 2016, which included “Island Funeral”, “At My Father’s Grave”, “Harry Semen”, “John MacLean” “In the Slums of Glasgow” and “On a Raised Beach”. This is one of the best introductions to MacDiarmid’s poetry you could hope for, and a beautiful book, with a cover painting by John Bellany, “The Poet”.

On the shelf of MacDiarmid translations, it joins Marco Fazzini’s Sopra un terrazzo marino (Italian, 2000), Hans Petersen’s Ein Wind sprang auf (German, 1968), Masaru Victor Otake’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (Japanese, 1981), Poul Borum’s Den Slags Poesi Jeg Vil Have (Danish, 1992), Zhang Jian’s Modern Scottish Poems (Chinese, 2002), Yehuda Vizan’s MacDiarmid issue of the journal Dehak (Hebrew, 2021) and others. MacDiarmid’s international provenance is intermittent but (perhaps to many Scots, surprisingly) extensive.

And this gives some context for the phenomenal event that took place over two days, June 15-16, at the University of Western Brittany: the First International Hugh MacDiarmid Conference. For Camille Manfredi, the political context as well as MacDiarmid’s literary authority are both essential: “Both Brittany and Scotland are engaged in a cognate struggle to maintain their multiple identities in the face of an increasingly globalised culture. To me, the conference is part of that struggle.”

In Brest, Finistère is not far away. The word means the end of the Earth. To me, the edge of Western Brittany seemed a bit like Cornwall: as you look west, there is no distinction, sea and sky are horizontal bands of complementary tone, with no exact horizon. We are on the very edge of Europe. What better place to be, as MacDiarmid put it, “whaur extremes meet”?

We had two days packed with marvellous intensities and multiple angles of approach, lexical fireworks and a crowd of brilliant scholars, from a handful of the old guard, sharp analysts, experienced academics and ancient wisecrackers, to PhD students like Callum Irvine, Giacomo Bianchino and Fiona Paterson, who really do give you some hope for the future.

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And it really was international. There were about 30 folk in person, all wonderfully companionable, unstressed by any sense of rivalry, with everyone learning from each other, happily. Others Zoomed in from around the world online. There were voices from Scotland, England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ireland, France, the US (New York), Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, China.

A book of translations was specially printed for the conference, with MacDiarmid’s poems in Breton, French, Catalan, Italian, Romanian, Arabic, Chinese, Icelandic, Polish. Adnana Sava, a Romanian PhD student at Brest, said how much she’d loved translating “Scotland”: to her, she said, it felt like a love letter to her own country. You remember the poem?


It requires great love of it deeply to read

The configuration of a land,

Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings,

Of great meanings in slight symbols,

Hear at last the great voice that speaks softly,

See the swell and fall upon the flank

Of a statue carved out in a whole country’s marble,

Be like Spring, like a hand in a window

Moving New and Old things carefully to and fro,

Moving a fraction of flower here,

Placing an inch of air there,

And without breaking anything.

So I have gathered unto myself

All the loose ends of Scotland,

And by naming them and accepting them,

Loving them and identifying myself with them,

Attempt to express the whole.

The scholarly talks ranged widely. We considered such topics as: MacDiarmid’s influence on visual artists, MacDiarmid’s understanding and advocation of a healthy ecology and biodiversity, his relationship with the Gaelic world, his experience of the First World War, his argument with Willa and Edwin Muir, his biography, his early poems in Scots, his late, long, epic poems, questions of gender and sexuality in his writing, his religious poetry, his translation of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, his reputation in Iceland, how his poems can be turned into films.

There were examples of that in Alastair Cook and James Norton’s filmpoem “My Heart Always Goes Back to the North”, commissioned by the University of Brest for the occasion of the conference. In fact, the creative input was as characteristic as the scholarly provision.

To think of this in the context of Anglophone (but not English) scholarship, the significance of the conference being the first of its kind cannot be underestimated. This year saw the 30th Ezra Pound international conference at Edinburgh University and the 64th WB Yeats Summer School in Sligo, with the 28th James Joyce conference in Dublin in 2022 (the next one is due in 2024, in Glasgow).

This first MacDiarmid conference was a breakthrough. It sets a precedent.

Lindsay Blair, of the University of the Highlands and Islands, noted: “As well as the scholarship, there were other precious moments, on the ground: Camille had organised a local specialty, Breton crêpes, to be made individually for us all one lunchtime. Besides enjoying many and varied conversations with scholars from Scotland, Brittany, other parts of Europe, Australia and America, we were treated to a fine dining moment at the conference dinner: outstanding local fresh seafood platters!

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And a reading at the local bookshop introduced us to Paul Malgrati’s Poémes Écossais where we heard a distinctive music in the frisson between French and Dundonian Scots. That was a revelation!

“We were introduced to the new volume of poetry by Alan Riach and poetry and translations by both Manfredi and Breton poet Paol Keineg, in their hot-off-the-press anthology 9 Poetes D’Ecosse 1920-2000, collecting work not only by MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Sorley Maclean and Norman MacCaig but also by Edwin Morgan, Margaret Tait, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown and Muriel Spark. Not the most immediately predictable line-up.”

Lindsay continued: “Here we are, nearly 45 years after MacDiarmid’s death. In the 1970s, some of our Scottish universities tended to offer an option on Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir.

“We knew MacDiarmid as an unapologetic firebrand, a passionate agitator for Scotland’s cultural autonomy, both Scottish nationalist and communist, happy to enter into all manner of controversy – political, philosophical, cultural. But the conference took us so far beyond what we thought we knew of him, in so many different dimensions of appreciation.

“Alan Riach started with William Blake and the notion of excess, centring on MacDiarmid’s later poetry as a kind of poetic heteroglossia or modernist collage, born of a genuine desire to distribute forms of understanding away from the centred individual poet or self.

“If ‘MacDiarmid’ signified ‘Ego’, here was a sense that he set about deconstructing egotism in every direction. Patrick Crotty’s talk on MacDiarmid in the Highlands took us to the poet’s early vacations with relatives just outside of Dingwall, and in our third keynote, Scott Lyall spoke to us of the spiritual and metaphysical in MacDiarmid’s work. These were all fresh imaginings of a poet we thought we knew already.

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“There was a strong presence of young scholars. We heard a fascinating paper by Antoine Rumelhart, a translator from Lyon.

“Rumelhart had paid a pound for a copy of Willa Muir’s writings in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh and had been so impressed that he had committed to memory the first lines of Muir’s novel Imagined Corners. His close reading of Muir’s criticisms of MacDiarmid confirmed Muir’s powers of insight and expression. Paul Robichaud’s paper introduced us to an unexpectedly ambassadorial role played by Scots renegade Modernist, W.S Graham. And there were so many more…”

Monika Szuba, of the University of Gdansk, observed that “approximately one fourth of all the delegates were published poets themselves. What made the event even more unique was that it also attracted people working on MacDiarmid from outside the academy, including his new biographer, Alexander Linklater, with a bravura presentation, and the Edinburgh University librarian Paul Barnaby, who focused on MacDiarmid’s translation of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.”

Paul explained how Germany’s greatest socialist writer and the best playwright since Shakespeare was transformed by the conduit of Scotland’s greatest (somewhat musically challenged) 20th-century poet and most committed communist and Scottish nationalist into a 1970s London West End celebrity stage hit that came off the rails when the big star (Vanessa Redgrave) left the production.

And the freelance scholar Andrew Mitchell explained what MacDiarmid must have experienced in the First world War, as a Quartermaster Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, in Salonika, suffering from malaria, and then looking after invalided combatants in Marseilles who were likely to have been violent since their orderlies were recruited from the Ghurkas…

I got back to Scotland after hours of delay in Paris – the plane had been hit by lightning. Lightning seemed somehow an appropriate natural salutation, after all that. But there can be no detraction from the many and multifaceted pleasures and insights and promptings and enchantments of the conference, and all the good company. We’re still letting everything sink in.