THE poet Edwin Muir died aged 72 on January 3, 1959. It was a cold and snowy month in Scotland but Muir had in any case retired for good to a village outside Cambridge, where the flat but fertile landscape had nothing in it to remind him of his distant childhood and youth.

His childhood he had spent in what he recalled as an idyllic Orkney, on his family’s farm of Folly in Deerness, the same parish of the Mainland as his mother had been born in. Whatever the memories of Orcadian bliss, the crofting economy was in fact entering a steep decline that would continue till the oil boom a century later.

So it was that in 1901, when Muir reached the age of 14, his father lost his farm, and the family had to migrate to Glasgow, in an abrupt transition from a pre-industrial community to the modern world.

The sensitive young man would later say it was a move from Eden to Hell. In quick succession his father, his two brothers and his mother died. He kept himself going at menial jobs, the worst of them in a factory that turned bones into charcoal. Often he came face to face with industrial realities that appalled him.

But he inched his way up the employment ladder, latterly with decisive help from Willa Anderson, who became his wife in 1919. Muir said: “My marriage was the most fortunate event of my life.”

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She earned a living as a translator. The pair of them were to introduce the Czech-German modernist Franz Kafka to the English-speaking world.

Muir started to write for himself and won plaudits for his poetry, The problem of income was eventually solved when he got a job in the British Council, founded in 1934 to provide a cultural counterpoint to the democratic principles the UK was being forced to defend in the real world.

This was how Willa remembered him at the time: “Eyes and mouth promised well; his brow was an intellectual’s, disproportionately wide and high, very noticeable above the slight, even meagre body, yet his eyes were dreamy looking, sea-blue, with a hint of distance in them, and his mouth was well cut, with full, sensitive lips.”

During the interwar period the couple served in Prague, Dresden, Rome, Salzburg and Vienna. These were turbulent times as Europe drifted towards another world war, but the gifted and cultured Muirs had plenty to keep themselves busy and contented.

It could have been readily understood if Muir had just forgotten about the Scotland he left behind, to settle for an agreeable and risk-free career travelling the world and doing what the couple wanted to do.

Yet Muir could not get Scotland out of his head, or his heart. We recognise nowadays that this period was a turning point in the life of the nation, when the easy assumptions of Scottish superiority during the Victorian era were suddenly exposed as bankrupt, in everything from traditional arts to modern technology.

A century later, we usually take Hugh MacDiarmid as the leader of a cultural revolution, the Scottish Renaissance, that refused to put up with a second-rate Scotland. It called on the nation to renew itself from its own resources, especially linguistic resources.

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They could be redeployed to position the Scots at the forefront of modern consciousness, for example in their poetry, and produce work that was inimitably Scottish yet stood up face on to the quailing western world.

A century ago, it would have been a travesty to regard the Scottish Renaissance as anything other than a broad movement, extending into music and painting as well as poetry.

This last has often sunk from view because a lot of it came in contributions to small literary magazines, which were neither well-read nor best-selling..

Both of the Muirs contributed to The Modern Scot, edited by James Whyte at St Andrews. Edwin wrote to him: “We are neither quite Scottish … nor are we quite delivered from our Scottishness … The very words ‘a Scottish writer’ have a slightly unnerving ring to me; what they come down to … is a writer of Scottish birth.”

Muir expanded on this outlook in his travelogue, Scottish Journey (1935). It again exhibits mixed feelings on his homeland. It goes into detail about the various regions visited by the author on a battered motorbike (some of the adventures are hilarious but it is not always obvious he sees their funny side).

A repeated question was whether the infant SNP could offer answers to real problems. From Muir, we get a resounding no. The nationalist movement was to him a mere political hotch-potch kept going by absurd optimism.

He concluded neatly: “The National Party has nothing behind it but a desire and nothing before it but an ideal.”

In a further tract Muir gave vent to the idea that Scottish literature and Scottish politics were in fact cancelling each other out. In Scott and Scotland he compared the progress these aspects of national life had respectively made over the previous century.

He concluded that the country could create a national literature only by writing in English.

The National: Dr Edwin Muir at this home.Dr Edwin Muir at this home. (Image: -)

The opinion placed him in stark opposition to MacDiarmid and a breach followed between the two men, who had been friends. In the 2020s, it is time for us to concede MacDiarmid had the better of the argument. Muir defines his terms too narrowly.

After all, James Kelman is a prize-winning novelist of international reputation who makes totally convincing use of a particular form of Scots, the language of proletarian Glasgow. It would be absurd to claim his characters might be more convincing if they spoke Estuarian English.

The Muirs had to return to spend the war years in their own country. In his poem Scotland 1941, Edwin had this to say about its contemporary culture, in a renunciation that appears to be unmistakably definitive:

Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,

Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,

And mummied housegods in their musty niches,

Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,

And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,

No pride but pride of pelf.

At the end of his career Muir became warden of Newbattle Abbey, the college outside Edinburgh for further education of people with few or no qualifications.

It must have been a pleasant surprise for him to accept an Orcadian student, George Mackay Brown, who wrote poems and stories with a local tang in his language but universality in his art. All the same, Muir never announced a change of mind.