On Thursday August 15, from 7-9pm, there’s a celebration of the life and work of Donald Campbell – The Person, the Poet, the Playwright.

Donald Campbell (1940-2019), poet and theatre historian, was also one of modern Scotland’s most distinctive playwrights. Born in Pultneytown, Wick, Caithness, he spent the first five years of his life there living with his maternal grandparents while his father was in the army. This event sees John Herdman, Peter Burnett and George Gunn read from his works and talk about his achievements.

As Herdman wrote in Donald Campbell: An Appreciation in The One O’Clock Gun, a broadsheet distributed freely in pubs intermittently by Craig Gibson: “I first came across Donald in 1970 when he sent me some poems in Scots for the magazine Catalyst which I was then editing. We arranged to meet and became close friends. At the same time he was beginning to be published by Duncan Glen’s famous journal Akros. I introduced him to the Heretics poetry and music group (just founded); it was there that his poetry developed and his amazing performing talents found their first expression. That connection led to Gordon Wright’s Reprographia imprint publishing his first collection Rhymes ’n Reasons in 1972, with an introduction by Hugh MacDiarmid.

“Donald was a unique writer ... His particular talents belonged to a certain time and a certain place and yet in his vision he was a universalist. He had a very varied emotional range, from the richly comic through the delicate and poignant to the viscerally powerful. He had great eloquence, an underrated quality in modern writing, and this served him well when he turned to drama.

“Donald was the real thing: he knew the Scots of the streets, the pubs and the football terraces through and through. He had an unfailing sense of rhythm and tone, at times almost the equivalent of perfect pitch in music. I believe he was the best poet we have had in demotic urban Scots ...

“In the dramatic field he was a true innovator, one of the very first to write both historical and contemporary drama in a vigorous, convincing modern Scots ... The Jesuit, produced by the Heretics in 1976 when the established Scottish theatre world wouldn’t take it on […] was the pioneering and arresting first of a series of powerful plays flowing from Donald’s pen” including Somerville the Soldier and The Widows of Clyth. “He was extraordinarily productive and versatile as playwright and adaptor, writing altogether 29 stage plays in various genres, which won him several awards; Donald was himself particularly proud of his work for radio, that medium of pure sound. He also directed plays successfully on a number of occasions; and was an innovative and perceptive theatre historian, writing a history of the Edinburgh Lyceum, and, most importantly, Playing for Scotland, a ground-breaking general history of Scottish theatre.

“Donald never regarded himself as essentially political, but early on he described his philosophy in a phrase of John Dos Passos: ‘An old-fashioned philosophical anarchist, a believer in the Brotherhood of Man.’ Though not a party man he was a life-long believer in Scottish independence.”

Donald Campbell, Betrayal in Morningside

Embro my ain, ye are aye meant
tae be a city o middle-class douceness
blue-nosed mediocrity
bourgeois obtuseness
(listen tae what I’m tellin ye!)
The ither nicht
in the Morninside chippie
I was confrontit by nae fewer than ten
o the reuchest and the teuchest
o yer haurdest-haurd haurd men
– and (O Gode!) hou I wished I was in Glasgow!

On August 17, from 2-4pm, there is Duncan Ban MacIntyre: His Life, Time and Verse.

This is a presentation about the great Gaelic nature poet with Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart, Seumas Campbell and me.

Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart, who has been working on the Highland Enlightenments (including Gaelic song, tradition, poetry and scientific expeditions looking into environment and ecology), will talk about Duncan Ban and his work in this context, his lasting legacy, particularly after the famine of the 1840s, and his continuing significance for contemporary Scotland.

Seumas Campbell is one of the great Gaelic singers and an exceptional exponent of the songs of Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir with a rich repertoire to call upon, and my English-language version of Ben Dorain brings the poet’s greatest composition to a broad readership. Parts of Ben Dorain (in English) and a selection of songs will be performed as part of the event.

In the essay I wrote for The National on Duncan Ban MacIntyre (Friday March 5, 2016), I noted that Duncan Ban MacIntyre was born and grew up in Glen Orchy, near Ben Dorain. He had no formal education. He could neither read nor write. From 1746 to 1766 he was a gamekeeper for the Earl of Breadalbane and then the Duke of Argyll, working among the hills and woods of the area. By 1768 he and his family had moved to Edinburgh; in 1786, as Robert Burns’s poems were being published in the Kilmarnock edition, Duncan Ban and his wife were back in the Highlands and islands.

His greatest work, “Praise of Ben Dorain”, may be read in the 21st century as a poem not only of praise, but also of sorrow, resistance and anger, a permanent protest against the devastation some folk bring upon others. This is not explicitly depicted in the poem, but its historical context implies it: after Culloden and before the denudation and exploitation of the mountain and the land all around it. And that gets us to the question of land ownership in Scotland, which, as readers of The National know only too well, is still in urgent need of redress. This is how the poem begins:

Praise over all to Ben Dorain –
She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun –
In all the magnificent range of the mountains around,
So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none
To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight
Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run,
Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves
Of the woods, where the thick grass grows,
And the curious deer, watchful and tentative,
Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.

And on August 21, from 7-10pm, we have The Folksong Flyting: Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid.

This is a re-enactment of the Folksong Flyting, a battle of wits and pens between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid which played out across the pages of The Scotsman in 1964. The argument saw the clash of two ostensibly opposed priorities: that of the contemporary folk song revival, drawing on a rich heritage of anonymous singers and musicians, and, on the other hand, that of the “high art” of the centuries, from Homer to Shostakovich.

Henderson, who had recorded and rediscovered many of the living practitioners, passionately championed the former priority; MacDiarmid, with characteristically aggressive assertiveness and logic-defying speed, championed the latter.

Both had thought deeply about the relation between oral, vernacular poetry, music and song, and classical compositions of the most austere sophistication, musical and literary. Both took up opposing stands, no holds barred. The argument itself is historical and yet, in Henderson’s centenary year, well worth revisiting – not only to reconsider but to re-encounter at first hand the sheer verbal brilliance of the clash. The words of the two great writers will be brought to life by David Francis, Alec Finlay and me.

Here’s a brief sampling:

MacDiarmid: “We all know the great vogue and inter-traffic of European balladry. Most of it is rubbish, but in a few of our Scottish ballads it soars for a verse or two into the realm of great poetry. But all that arose out of an entirely different state of society from ours today or any ever likely to recur in ‘advanced’ countries. And what proportion of the great collection of recordings of the School of Scottish Studies is more than rubbish?”

Henderson: “Mr MacDiarmid contends that none of the great figures of world literature have also been popular poets. This is not true. I can provide from my own experience cogent illustrations of the position Dante holds in the life of his countrymen. In October 1944 I asked a young Tuscan Partisan – an electrician from Florence – why he had joined the Garibaldini, and had elected to share all the dangers and hardships of life in the mountains; his answer was in the words of Dante:

Liberta va cercando, ch’e si cara,
Come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.
Freedom he is seeking, which is so precious –
As they know who give up their lives for it.”

The Saltire Society, 9 Fountain Close, 22 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TF; phone 0131 556 1836; www.saltiresociety.org.uk