Obituary: Callum Macdonald
Calder, Angus, The Independent (London, England)
IN 20-odd years after the Second World War, Scottish literary culture went through a curious agony. The last firms representing the great era when Edinburgh had vied with London as a publishing centre still had headquarters in the city, where a stupendous International Festival of the arts was launched in 1947. But Scottish writers of poetry and serious fiction were paupers at the feast. "Lallans verse" was the butt of facetious London literati. The great MacDiarmid was alive and fulminating, but his poetry was only scantly in print. In a review article in New Saltire, a typically short-lived periodical, printed in 1961, Edwin Morgan asked, "When are the leading Scottish publishers going to do something about modern Scottish poetry?"
He went on to notice three pamphlets self-published from Edinburgh addresses - and two items produced by M. Macdonald, printer and publisher, in that city. He praised "Malcolm" Macdonald for his struggle "to keep Scottish poetry in print".
A potent mythological Gestalt shows us MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and Sydney Goodsir Smith smoking away together over many whiskies in Milne's Bar at the intersection of Rose Street and Hanover Street in the centre of Edinburgh and somehow creating the waves which buoyed up a Literary Renaissance. It is true that Robert Garioch was usually present, and that Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown and Alan Bold did join them on occasion, though in fact MacDiarmid was rarely in town and the others were as likely to be in the Abbotsford. It is also true that Callum Macdonald would often quietly be of the company. It was he who persuaded MacCaig to cease to be "McCaig". He published Iain Crichton Smith's first slim volume of poems, then, decades later, the collected poems of Garioch, and of his fellow Gael Derick Thomson. When he set up Lines Review in 1952, MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, MacCaig and Goodsir Smith were on his editorial board. But the first editor of Lines was Alan Riddell, an Australian Scot recently associated with Alexander Trocchi in founding the avant- garde, internationalist magazine Merlin in Paris. That orbited with Beckett and Neruda. Macdonald's outlook was never parochial. He was a man of wide vision, not a Milne's Bar groupie. A reserved, dignified Gael, he stood, fag and glass in hand, on the verge of many a literary gathering, where, with his immaculate suit and tie, he might have passed for a modest Highland draper accidentally present, but was actually a subject of awe among those who knew how devoutly he had obeyed his ruling passion for poetry, so that, while he was a shy man himself, others felt shy in his presence. Behind his courteous mien was a spirit which stood for no half measures. He worked ferociously hard himself and demanded equal commitment from others. Incorrigibly generous, he could not thole the sight of anyone's empty glass. He despised filter-tip cigarettes and stuck with high-tar Virginia. Trevor Royle, a distinguished editor of Lines in the Eighties, recalls how packages from Macdonald Printers always announced their arrival with a strong whiff of tobacco. Macdonald was born in 1912 on the island of Bernera, off the west coast of Lewis, and grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community. Because it produced so many ministers, his branch of Clan Donald was nicknamed "Knox". Throughout his life, "Callum Knox" reread the Bible in Gaelic. Via the illustrious Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, he progressed to Edinburgh University, where he was an enthusiastic and talented student of history. He married Williamina ("Winnie") Ross, from Harris, in 1934, a union which produced six children. …