Norman MacCaig

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The cover of MacCaig's Selected Poems
The cover of MacCaig's Selected Poems

Norman MacCaig (14 November 1910 – 23 January 1996) was a Scottish poet. His work is known for its humour, simplicity of language and great popularity.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Work
    • 2.1 Early
    • 2.2 Later
  • 3 Publications


MacCaig was born in Edinburgh and divided his time, for the rest of his life, between his native city and Assynt in the Scottish Highlands. He was schooled at the Royal High School and studied classics at the University of Edinburgh. During World War II MacCaig registered as a conscientious objector a move that many at the time criticised. Douglas Dunn has suggested that MacCaig's career later suffered due to his outspoken pacifism, although there is no concrete evidence of this. For the early part of his working life, he was employed as a school teacher in primary schools. In 1967 he was appointed Fellow in Creative Writing at Edinburgh. He became a reader in poetry in 1970, at the University of Stirling. His first collection, Far Cry, was published in 1943. He continued to publish throughout his lifetime and was extremely prolific in the amount that he produced. After his death a still larger collection of unpublished poems were found. MacCaig often gave public readings of his work, in Edinburgh and elsewhere, these were extremely popular and for many people were the first introduction to the poet. His life is also noteworthy for the friendships he had with a number of other Scottish poets, such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Douglas Dunn. He described his own religious beliefs as 'Zen Calvinism', a comment typical of his half-humorous, half-serious approach to life.



MacCaig's first two books deeply influenced by the New Apocalypse movement of the thirties and forties, one of a number of literary movements that were constantly coalescing, evolving and dissolving at that time. Later he was to all but disown these works, dismissing them as obscure and meaningless. His poetic rebirth took place with the publication of Riding Lights in 1955. It was a complete contrast to his earlier works, being strictly formal, metrical, rhyming and utterly lucid. The timing of the publication was such that he could have been associated with The Movement, a poetic grouping of poets at just that time. Indeed many of the forms and themes of his work fitted with the ideas of The Movement but he remained separate from that group, perhaps on account of his Scottishness—all of the movement poets were English. One label that has been attached to MacCaig and one that he seemed to enjoy (he was an admirer of John Donne) is Metaphysical.


In later years he relaxed some of the formality of his work, losing the rhymes and strict metricality but always strove to maintain the lucidity. He became a free verse poet with the publication of Surroundings in 1966. Seamus Heaney has said his work 'is an ongoing education in the marvellous possibilities of lyric poetry.' Whilst Ted Hughes wrote, 'whenever I meet his poems, I'm always struck by their undated freshness, everything about them is alive, as new and essential, as ever.' Another poet, beside Donne, that MacCaig claimed was a great influence on his work was Louis MacNeice. Although he never lost his sense of humour, much of his later work, following the death of his wife, in 1990, is more sombre in tone. The later poems appear to be full of heartbreak but they never become pessimistic.


MacCaig published sixteen collections of poetry. These include

  • Riding Lights, 1955.
  • The Sinai Sort, 1957
  • A Common Grace, 1960
  • A Round of Applause, 1962
  • Measures, 1965
  • Surroundings, 1966
  • Rings on a Tree, 1968
  • A Man in My Position, 1969
  • The White Bird, 1973
  • The World's Room, 1974
  • Tree of Strings, 1977
  • The Equal Skies, 1980
  • A World of Difference, 1983
  • Voice-over, 1988
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