Callum, born 100 years
ago this week, stood
for no half-measures
Tessa and Callum
After distinguished service in the RAF throughout the war and until 1947, Callum Macdonald opened a stationer's shop in Marchmont, in Edinburgh, where he also bought a small Heidelberg hand-printing machine. There, he began to print the poetry of Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Iain Crichton Smith as well as the magazine Lines Review, on whose editorial board were Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean and Sydney Goodsir Smith.
Callum worked long hours in the night to accomplish the printing, often with the help of his family. Gradually the printing and publishing expanded and moved premises, eventually to Loanhead under the management of Ian McNee, with Tom Dalgleish as printing manager, becoming managing director.
Born on 4 May 1912, this is Callum's centenary year. One of 11 children of a Gaelic-speaking crofter on the isle of Bernera in the west of Lewis, he was the middle one with five brothers and five sisters. The whole family worked hard to be self-sustaining on the croft. Exchanges were made in kind. Cash was needed only to buy shoes. Having passed the exams for entry to the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, Callum lived in digs there from the age of 12 in order to attend it, taking his potatoes and oatmeal with him, often walking home 25 miles at the end of term. There were many hard and sad times to be endured for him and his family.
Callum left the island at 17 to stay with a married older sister and study at Edinburgh University. He married Winnie Ross, a daughter of the schoolmaster on the island of Scarp off Harris. The war came and Callum became a radar operator detecting torpedoes with coastal command off Scotland and Iceland, and later he was posted to the Mediterranean in Gibraltar.
There were many dangers and adventures during the war. One story is of when he was signals briefing officer on Gibraltar, responsible for briefing every aircrew that went through. John MacInnnes writes:
An American plane took off without his permission. He ordered its immediate return to base. This nearly led to an international incident because that plane was on a mission connected with the surrender of Italy. The subsequent inquiry revealed the Americans' highhandedness and vindicated Callum completely. He recalls the incident with wry amusement: "I probably held up the Italian surrender for 24 hours".
Callum also sent the news of General Sikorski's air crash to Downing Street in July 1943. He was mentioned in despatches in the New Year's honours list of 1945.
James Shaw Grant, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette and himself a successful author and raconteur, was a friend of Callum's all his life and they died within four months of each other. In an obituary for him in the Stornoway Gazette Jim wrote: 'He was, in a very real sense, but in an entirely new way, a patron of poetry…He was a struggling printer, trying to create a business out of nothing. He added, to the mechanical and financial problems of his task, the risk, which others would not face, of publishing unknown poets because he recognised the quality of their work. In an age dominated by money, Callum Macdonald was an aberration'.
Callum's contribution was recognised by an Arts Council award for services to literature in 1972, by his election as an honorary member of the Scottish Library Association in 1982, in 1987 by an excellent retrospective exhibition of his publishing output in the National Library of Scotland, and in 1996 by his portrait by Victoria Crowe for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Through the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, an annual award to publishers of pamphlet poetry set up in 2000 and administered through the National Library of Scotland, (see www.scottish-pamphlet-poetry.com) we celebrate his achievements and salute his unique services to Scottish literature for which he received a queen's medal and an MBE.
Callum always championed Gaelic literature, being chief publisher for poet and academic Derick Thomson, also from Lewis, who died recently. Also encompassing Scots and English, with an international outlook and devotion to quality, he was an exceptional and painstaking editor. Robert Garioch wrote that: 'No publisher was ever more considerate'. His intellectual background as historian and economist, as well as much life experience, made him highly admired and respected by clients, staff and employees, as well as by authors and other publishers. Callum printed the early Edinburgh Fringe programmes and other publications of arts and business organisations, as well as the 'History of Clan Donald'.
From the early 1950s until the end of the century, Callum published a great many books and pamphlets of poetry as well as fiction and non-fiction and that backbone to post-war Scottish poetry, Lines Review, ending with issue 144 in 1998. Aonghas Macneacail, also published by Callum, wrote a poem for the final issue in which he describes the poets as 'the land’s disputatious birds', which can be heard singing 'over all the cold peaks and through the forgetful darkness'.
Angus Calder in an obituary in the Independent wrote: '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'. And Alan Taylor wrote in the Scotsman obituary: 'Macdonald believed sincerely in the potency of poetry and its enduring value'.
Callum's wife Winnie died in 1986, and at the end of 1989 he married poet Tessa Ransford, whom he had asked to become the next editor of Lines Review. Thus it was that I edited 37 issues of the magazine for 10 years, while also working continuously as director of the Scottish Poetry Library, eventually building its new premises. It was rewarding work, the more so because I was sustained and encouraged wholeheartedly by Callum in everything I did in writing poetry and in working for the Scottish literary scene. Without either of us knowing of course, Callum had first protected me, when, as a child, I travelled through the Mediterranean in convoy in early 1944. He protected me again later by supporting my work.
I wrote this poem for him for Valentine’s Day 1999, while he was in hospital, only 10 days before he died.
My dearest love's a stoic
who will endure his pain
his deepest grief, believing
nothing is in vain.
Stricken, he will ask no help;
in silence he keeps his fears:
he will suffer, nor seek relief
in anger, talk or tears.
To others he'll give counsel
wise and closely thought:
the individual, universal
His feelings do not interfere
with judgement and good measure
for generosity runs clear
in humour, love and pleasure.
In all that's beautiful and true
of good report and pure
a stoic gives to worth its due
and love that will endure.
Tessa Ransford is a poet and founder of the Scottish Poetry Library