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Monday 10 February 2014

Scomo: George Scott-Moncrieff

In a surprisingly brief obituary notice given that George Scott-Moncrieff was a columnist for The Scotsman newspaper, the following details were printed a day after his passing:

Mr George Scott-Moncrieff, the Scottish author, playwright and poet has died at his home in Peeblesshire. He was 64. He was born in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Aldenham School in England. He made extensive travels in America and Europe.
His books include "Scottish Islands" and "Lowlands of Scotland." He wrote the play "Fotheringhay," about the final years of Mary Queen of Scots and one of his works as a poet was the "Book of Uncommon Prayer." He also wrote on Scottish architecture.
He was married twice. His first wife died and he is survived by his second wife. There [are] seven children of the marriages.

Edinburgh-born George Scott-Moncrieff (1910–1974), nicknamed Scomo, was a journalist, playwright and novelist and the author of some well-known books on Scotland, such as The Stones of Scotland, and The Scottish Islands. Scott-Moncrieff moved to the Isle of Eigg from Edinburgh in 1945, after his wife had died at the young age of twenty-nine and settled in Cleadale. In order to deal with his grief, he wrote a novel Death's Bright Shadow (1948), a title which gives a hint of his deeply Christian optimism. He was a man of deep interior life. Scott-Moncrieff returned to stay in Edinburgh in 1951.

It is uncertain when Calum Maclean and George Scott-Moncrieff first became acquainted with one another but they may have met when Maclean was studying Celtic at the University of Edinburgh between 1935 and 1939; or, perhaps, they first met when Maclean returned to Scotland at the end of the Second World War after being an “exile” in Ireland since 1939. Either way, it is quite likely that a mutual interest in Scottish Nationalism, as well as Scottish culture in general, drew them together.

Scott-Moncrieff first came to literary prominence with his debut novel Café Bar (1932), “a closely linked series of low-life vignettes of London.” Such literature was popular during the 1920s and 1930s; this novel was followed in 1933 by Tinker’s Wind. But as Morley Jamieson wrote in his memoire of him: “The exigencies of making a living by writing compelled George to find a métier which he could enjoy as well as exploit. Fortunately much of his motivation stemmed from a profound love of his native Scotland in all its aspects. In a year or two he became an acknowledged authority on Scottish topography and to a striking degree its architecture. Scottish Country (1935), Stones of Scotland (1935), Lowlands of Scotland (1938), Scottish Islands (1939) and Edinburgh (1946) are good examples of his style and achievement. His work in this period was always distinguished by humour, awareness and a certain wisdom and commonsense which is not itself necessarily dependent on profound scholastic learning.”

Scomo was a kenspeckled character amongst the Edinburgh literati, including such luminaries as Robert Garioch and Sydney Goodsir Smith to name but two. They used to come and visit Scott-Moncrieff at Temple, a few miles outside Edinburgh. They also happened to be nationalists in their political temperament.

Scott-Moncrieff married Ann in 1936 and through her influence converted to Roman Catholicism. He had previously been an Episcopalian. At the outbreak of war, they moved to Breakacky near Kingussie, to be nearer to George’s sister Dorothy and their husband Neil Usher. The young couple later moved to Dalwhinnie; but they eventually made their way back down to the confines of Edinburgh.

In the meantime, George assisted in the foundation of a new literary adventure when The New Alliance came into being. He is described as having “imposed on The New Alliance standards of literary excellence that were to characterize it throughout the war years and were later passed on to its successor The Scots Review.” Scott-Moncrieff, however, lost both his older brother, Colin, and his younger brother, Charles, during the war. Tragedy was to strike again when his wife Ann died at a young age. Such was the affect of these losses upon him that Scott-Moncrieff even contemplated joining the priesthood.

Around a year before Calum Maclean came back to Scotland from Ireland, Scomo moved to the Isle of Eigg in 1945. Indeed, his five years spent there “was too much of a hermit-like existence for an essentially gregarious man and it could not be sustained indefinitely.” He returned to stay in Edinburgh in 1951, the year in which Calum Maclean himself would take up residence in the Scottish capital on the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

During his five-year residence on Eigg, Maclean would periodical visit his friend in Cleadale. Scott-Moncrieff is mentioned now and again in Maclean’s diaries that he kept of his daily activities, a requirement of the work that fieldworkers had to keep for the Dublin-based Irish Folklore Commission. Apart from writing that Maclean had received a letter from Scott-Moncrieff shortly before, the following entry contains the first mention of him:

Dia Luain, 29 Iùl 1946 [NFC 1111, 37]
Thriallas indiu chuig Oileán Eige. Fuaireas an bád go dtí Malaig agus as a sin chuig an oileán. Bhí Aonghas MacMhathain, léightheóir Ceiltise i n-Oilsgoil Ghlaschu ag dul i n-éinfeacht liom. Bhí sé ag dul amach chuig Uibhist. Casadh mo chara, George Scott-Moncrieff liom i Malaig. Bhí sé i nGlaschu, i n-áit a raibh drama a sgríobh sé dé léiriú. Bhain muid Eige amach faoi cheithre a’ chlog tránóna. Casadh an sagart is an dochtúir orainn. Tugadh muid ar fad chuig tae i dteach an dochtúra. Shiúbhlamar treasna an oileáin annsin chuig Cliadal. Bhí sé deireannach nuair tháinig muid chuig tigh Scott-Moncrieff. Chuadhas a’ breathnú ar shean-fhear MacGuaire, an duine is aosda ar an oileán. Tá tuairim céad duine ar an oileán.

Monday, 29 July 1946 [NFC 1111, 37]
Today I travelled to the Isle of Eigg. I got the boat to Mallaig and then from there to the island. Angus Matheson, a reader in Celtic at the University of Glasgow, went along with me. He was going out to Uist. I met my friend, George Scott-Moncrieff, in Mallaig. He had been in Glasgow too see some plays and to review them. We reached Eigg at four o’clock in the afternoon. We met the priest and the doctor. We all went to the doctor’s house for tea. We travelled through the island to Cleadale. It was late when we reached Scott-Moncrieff’s house. We went to visit and old man, MacGuire, the oldest man on the island. There are around a hundred people on the island.

Another typical entry for this time may be given:

Dia Satharainn, 3 Lughnasa 1946 [NFC 1111, 42]
Chaitheas an mhaidin a’ sgríobhadh. Bhíos a’ sgríobhadh an lá ar fad go dtí a ceithre a’ chlog. Bhí an lá réasunta tirim. Bhuaileas isteach a’ breathnú ar shean Dòmhnall MacGuaire, ach a réir cosúlachta, ní robh duine ar bith istigh. Tar éis tae, chuadhas suas chuig teach Eòghain MhicFhionghuin. Bhí dream deasa istigh annsin. Bhí oidhche bhréagha againn le ceól is le amhráin. Rinneas cupla fiteán an oidhche seo. Bhí an sagart ann an t-Athair MacCeallaig agus bhí na píopaí céoil aige. Tha neart seanchais aig Eòghain MacFhionghuin atá le fagháil uaidh fós. Bhí sé deireannach go maith, nuair a tháinig mé abhaile. Bhí mé féin is Scott-Moncrieff tamall a’ cómhradh annsin.

Saturday 3 August 1946 [NFC 1111, 42]
Spent the morning transcribing. Transcribed all day long until four o’clock. Today was reasonably dry. I went to visit old Donald MacGuire but apparently no one was in. After tea, I went up to Hugh MacKinnon’s house. There was a nice crowd of folk present. We had a beautiful night of music and song. A couple of cylinders were recorded tonight. Fr MacKellaig played on the pipes. Hugh MacKinnon has a great deal of lore which has yet to be taken down. It was quite late by the time I got back home. Scott-Moncrieff and I chatted for a while then.

The following year Maclean writes the following in his diary:

Dia Domhnaigh, 30 Márta 1947 [NFC 1111, 293]
Bhíos deireannach ag éirigh indiu. Ní raibh aon Aifreann i n-Eige mar d’ imthigh an sagart indé. Chuadhamar ar cuairt chuig Eòghain MacFhionghain agus George Scott-Moncrieff. Shocruigheamar le George Scott-Moncrieff go dtóigfeadh sé peictiúirí de na sgéalaithe is na seanchaidhthe a casadh orainn i mBarraigh.

Sunday, 30 March 1947 [NFC 1111, 293]
I got up late today. There was no Mass to attend in Eigg as the priest left yesterday. I went to visit Hugh MacKinnon and Scott-Moncrieff. I arranged with George Scott-Moncrieff that he’d take photographs of the storytellers and tradition bearers we had met in Barra.

In May of that year, Maclean and Scott-Moncreiff sailed over to Barra for the express purpose of taking photographs of the various storytellers and songwriters from whom Maclean had recorded a lot of material over the past six or so months:

Diardaoin, 15 Bealtain 1947 [NFC 1111, 334]
Bhí sé ’na lá saoire indiu agus chuadhamar ar Aifreann í seipéal Èirisgeidh. Tá seipéal gleóite acsa annseo. Ar an dó a’ chlog d’ imthigh Scott-Moncrieff agus mé féin go Barraigh. Chuir Niall Mòr Caimbéal as an Lùdaig treasna muid. Bhí an lá go h-áluinn. Bhí an camera ag Scott-Moncrieff. Agus bhiomar réidh le peictiúirí a thóigeál. Chuadhamar i dtír ar chéibh Eòiligearraidh i n-aice le teach Cheit Ruairidh Iain Bhàin. Bhuaileas isteach a’ breathnú ar Mhórag NicGill’Eathain. D’ éirigh linn peictiúirí a thóigeál de Niall Aonghas MacDhòmhnaill, de’n gCoddaí, de Cheit Ruairidh Iain Bhàin agus de Shéamas Iain Ghunnairigh. Níl Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh a’ breathnú chomh maith agus a bhí sé chor ar bith. Bhí inghean leis tinn le tamall anuas ach tá sí níos fearr anois. Bhí sé naoi a’ chlog nuair a bhaineas Bàgh a’ Chaisteil amach.

Thursday, 15 May 1947 [NFC 1111, 334]
It was a Holiday of Obligation and we went to Mass in the Eriskay chapel. They’ve a very nice chapel here. At two o’clock Scott-Moncrieff and I went over to Barra. Big Neil Campbell took us over from Ludag. It was a beautiful day. We landed at Eoligarry pier near to Katie Buchanan’s house. We visited Morag MacLean. We took pictures of Neil Angus MacDonald, the Coddie, Katie Buchanan and James MacKinnon. James MacKinnon isn’t looking well at all. His daughter had been unwell for a while but she’s better now. It was nine o’clock when we reached Castlebay.

Dia h-Aoine, 16 Bealtain 1947 [NFC 1111, 335]
Bhí an lá indiu go h-áluinn ar fad. Chuadhas síos go dtí an Bàgh a Tuath ar maidin agus tháinig mé ar ais le Scott-Moncrieff go Bréibhig. Thóigeamar peictiúirí de thighthe ceann-tuighe ar an mbealach. Chuadhamar annsin chuig Dòmhnall Bàn Eileanach agus thóigeamar peictiúirí de. Chuadhamar annsin go Bàgh a’ Chaisteil agus thóigeamar peictiúirí de Fhlòraidh NicNèill, de Niall MacGilleÌosa, de Anna NicIain, agus de Dhòmhnall MacDhòmhnaill, Èirisgeidh. Bhuaileamar isteach a’ breathnú ar an Ath. Iain MacGilleMhaoil. Chuadhamar annsin go teach na sgoile i n-Eòiligearraidh agus thóigeamar peictiúirí eile de Niall Aonghas MacDhòmhnaill agus e gléasta le feile beag.

Bhí an lá go h-áluinn ar fad indiu. Bhí tamall cainnte agam le Dòmhnall MacDhòmhnaill as Èirisgeidh tránóna. Dubhairt sé go ngabhadh sé a’ bailiú dhúinn ’sa samhradh.

Friday, 16 May 1947 [NFC 1111, 335]
Today it was an altogether beautiful day. Went down to Northbay in the morning and I came back with Scott-Moncrieff to Brevig. We took photographs of a thatched house on the way. We then went to visit Donald MacPhee and took a photographs of him. We then went to Castlebay and took photographs of Flora MacNeill, Neil Gillies, Annie Johnston and Donald MacDonald from Eriskay. We visited Fr John MacMillan. We then went to the schoolhouse in Eoligarry and took more photographs of Neil Angus MacDonald who was wearing a kilt.

Today it was an altogether beautiful day. I spoke for a while with Donald MacDonald from Eriskay in the afternoon. He said that he’d collect for us in the summer.

Three days later, Maclean, Scott-Moncrieff in the company of Professor James Hamilton Delargy, who was then visiting the island, travelled to Edinburgh. It was perhaps in Edinburgh that Scott-Moncrieff got the forty or so photographs developed that he had taken on Barra, copies of which made their way back to the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin.

One of the last mentions of Scott-Moncrieff in Maclean’s diaries (which by this time was kept in Scottish Gaelic rather than Irish) concerns a visit to South Uist in May 1950:

Disathairne, 27 An Cèitean 1950 [NFC 1301, 447]
An-diugh sa mhadainn bha na leòis a bh’ air mo chasan cho dona agus gur h-ann air èiginn a b’ urrainn domh coiseachd. Dh’fhalbh Séamus Ó Duilearga a dh’ iasgach an-diugh agus thill mise air ais dachaigh agus thòisich mi air sgrìobhadh. Bha mi a’ sgrìobhadh gus an robh e mu cheithir uairean feasgar. An uair sin chaidh mi sìos an coinneamh George Scott-Moncrieff. Thill sinn air ais dhachaigh nuair a choinnich sinn aig Creag Ghoiridh agus thug sinn an còrr den oidhche a’ còmhradh. Tha George Scott-Moncrieff a’ sgrìobhadh leabhar mu Eileannan na h-Albann.

Saturday, 27 May 1950 [NFC 1301, 447]
This morning the blisters on my feet were so bad that I could barely walk. James Hamilton Delargy left to go fishing today and I returned home and began transcribing. I transcribed until around four o’clock in the afternoon. Then I went down to meet George Scott-Moncrieff. We returned home when we met at Creagorry and we spent the rest of the night talking. George Scott-Moncrieff is writing a book about the Scottish Islands.

The book on which Scott-Moncrieff was then working on duly appeared as Scottish Islands two years afterwards. Although Scott-Moncrieff did not perhaps loom large in Maclean’s life, they were on friendly terms and would have visited one another in Edinburgh. The photographs taken by Scott-Moncrieff are significant for they not only capture a disappearing way of life but also they provide some wonderful portraits of those “ordinary” folk from whom Maclean had collected. These photograph paint a picture that no words could match and Maclean must be given credit for the foresight that he had of having their photographs taken at the time and for his friend for being so willing to assist him.

Perhaps the following valedictory address made by his great friend, Fr John Dalrymple, in Innerleithen on this day of his funeral, best sums up the character of the man: “…among other things his great love for his country and his devotion to the Faith. These dominated his life which was shaped around them and we remember him for his constancy and loyalty and his capacity of inspire those virtues in others. Bullies and portentious events did not intimidate him and when he triumphed it was in a modest key. He had a rare sensibility and used language in which the words remained fresh. Style in writing is an elusive quality and his humour and light touch could not conceal the underlying seriousness which enabled him to see clearly not only his own predicament but that of others.”

Earlier in his address, Dalrymple paints an overview of the man that he had known for many years, giving something of his essence and why he had such a large number of friends and acquaintances:

All his life he was mixed up in the politics, art, literature and religion of Scotland, and in all those areas he was a knowledgeable and respected figure. Someone early in his life dubbed him “Scomo” after the initial syllables of his surname and it was as Scomo that he was widely known and loved in his native land: a disheveled, untidy, windblown figure with a cleft palate and a hair lip, rapid speech, a tumble of ideas, immense warmth and charm, marvelous hospitality. George loved Scotland. He had a feel for his land and for the buildings which Scotsmen had erected upon it. He knew it astonishingly well. Wherever you proposed to go, he was sure to know all about the countryside and tell you what to see. Some of his best writing was done in this field, his book on Edinburgh being the best known. As a young man George played a vital part in the Scottish renaissance, part political, part literary, of the thirties and forties…

Anon., 'Mr. George Scott-Moncrieff', The Scotsman, no. 40491 (20 Aug., 1974), p. 8
Rev. Jock Dalrymple, ‘Obituary: George Scott-Moncrieff’, The Tablet (7 Sep., 1974), p. 22
Morley Jamieson, George Scott Moncrieff and a Few Friends: A Brief Memoir (Edinburgh: privately published, 1987)
NFC 1111; 1301 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1945 to 1948 and from 1949 to 1950]

George Scott-Moncrieff photographed in 1958

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