Born Christopher Murray Grieve on August 11, 1892, in Langholm, Scotland, near the English border, Hugh MacDiarmid adopted his pen name in the early 1920’s. His father’s side of the family worked mostly in tweed mills, while his mother’s people were farmers; throughout his life, MacDiarmid championed the working class. His father, who was a rural postman, died while MacDiarmid was still a teenager. Educated at Langholm Academy and Broughton Junior Student Center, Edinburgh, the young man worked thereafter as a journalist and became active in politics. In World War I, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika, Italy, and France.
In 1918, MacDiarmid was married, and he settled after the war in Montrose, Angus, where he continued as a reporter, local politician, and contributor to the Scottish Renaissance and Nationalist movements. Although MacDiarmid adopted his pen name in the early 1920’s, he continued to write prose under his given name for years afterward. He lived in England most of the time between the years 1929 and 1932, working at temporary jobs, perfecting his antipathy to the English, and suffering the breakup of his marriage.
After being remarried in 1932, MacDiarmid returned to Scotland, worked briefly in Edinburgh, and from 1933 to 1941 lived in Whalsay in the Shetland Islands, where he developed the geological interest that permeates his poems of this period. He performed factory and merchant tasks during World War II, after which he traveled considerably, including trips to communist nations. As late as 1964, when he was seventy-two, he stood as Communist candidate for Parliament in the district of Kinross and West Perthshire, insisting as always that his Communist and Nationalist commitments in no way conflicted. The publication of Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid in the United States in 1962, while omitting many good poems, brought him to the attention of a wider reading public, and in his final years, he was acknowledged as one of Scotland’s greatest poets. He died at the age of eighty-six on September 9, 1978.