Lines on Callum Macdonald

What can you tell about someone by looking at their books? After the death of Callum Macdonald in February 1999 I went to Innerleithen with Tessa Ransford to take a look at her late husband’s book collection. His death marked the end of an era in Scottish literary life. I was rather nervous at the prospect of tentatively interpreting his life through his books.

We reached Innerleithen. The inevitable melancholy soon evaporated as Tessa began to show me Callum’s books. In the living room a bundle of correspondence from copious letter writer Robert Garioch was ready for despatch to the National Library of Scotland. Most of the books remaining in the house were to be sold.

Tessa Ransford is what I would call a pragmatic dreamer. Her tenacity of vision brought the Scottish Poetry Library into being, very much against the odds. As the project gained momentum it became increasingly broad-based and international in spirit, drawing energy from many quarters. The post of director was recently advertised; Tessa has decided to concentrate her energies on her writing and her family.

Vision, determination, a strong practical streak – these were also undoubtedly characteristics of Callum Macdonald. Born in Breaclete on the island of Bernera, Gaelic was the language of home and, they say, the language of his heart throughout his life. He left the islands to study history in Edinburgh University in 1931. He and his first wife, Winnie Ross, then moved to London where among other things he worked marketing Bernera lobsters.

In 1939 war elbowed its way between Callum and what may have been a very different future and he joined the RAF. After the war the couple returned to Edinburgh and opened a stationery business at 33 Marchmont Road, an address soon to become familiar to everyone interested in contemporary Scottish poetry.

The first issue of Lines Review, a broadsheet, appeared during the 1952 Edinburgh Festival. Callum then took over the management of the magazine from its founder Alan Riddell, producing Lines 2 in spring 1953. The magazines were printed in the shop basement on a Heidelberg AutomaticPlaten printing press. He had discovered his true vocation: printer-publisher.

I looked through some early issues of Lines, their covers a roll call of some of the most original and greatest Scottish poetic talents – Sidney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean. The creative synergy between these men is legendary. MacCaig, Goodsir Smith, Maclean and the artist Dennis Peploe joined the Lines editorial board in the Fifties. Magazine meetings were famously convivial affairs, more often than not convened in Rose Street pubs and winding up at Callum’s home in the wee sma hours.

Callum Macdonald sometimes referred to his dreadful reserve, but this reserve was evidently no handicap either to publishing or to friendship. What Lines published is in itself an emphatic expression of taste. As managing editor of the magazine for over forty years, he worked with a succession of editors – Alan Riddell, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Tom Scott, J. K. Annand, A. D. Mackie, Robin Fulton, Robert Calder, William Montgomerie, Trevor Royle and finally Tessa Ransford, who edited the very last edition of the magazine in March 1998.

A box full of books inscribed to Callum from their authors recalled his gift for friendship. These ‘association copies’, many rare first editions of early work by leading Scottish poets, resonated with emotional significance; I imagined each one being delivered by hand, and the evenings of talk and whisky that would follow.

Among his history books, two shelves in the living room were devoted to works by and about Napoleon Buonaparte. Callum Macdonald saw Buonaparte as a man born before his time, finding his internationalist spirit and concept of the future of Europe inspirational. Also numbered among his books were several published under his own imprint, Macdonald Publishers, Edinburgh.

In 1986 Winnie died. He frequently acknowledged her invaluable support, ideas and collaboration. Indeed, under pressure of deadlines, she and their six children were willing helpers; when she was seventeen, one of their daughters, Ann-Marie, hand-set The Long River, 1955, Iain Crichton Smith’s first collection of poetry.

Before returning to Edinburgh Tessa read me some poems she had written reflecting on various aspects of Callum’s life. Seven Valleys, published in 1991, two years after their marriage, takes its structure from the Sufi allegory The Conference of the Birds. For the sake of this project he relaxed his natural reticence and the first drafts were made while he spoke about years gone by, in the room where we now sat. As Tessa’s gentle voice recalled those occasions, the late-afternoon light reminded us that it was time to start making tracks back to Edinburgh.

Since my visit to Innerleithen I have read various accounts of Callum Macdonald, not least John MacInnes’s essay in the National Library of Scotland catalogue for its 1987 exhibition about his work. All confirm the authenticity of the impression left with me by his books: of Callum Macdonald as a man of deeply-held principle, who loved poetry, literature and the study of history; a man with a great capacity for loyal friendship, who shared his gifts unstintingly; a modest man, who enriched Scottish culture through his publishing enterprises.

The catalogue for the National Library of Scotland 1987 exhibition ‘Callum Macdonald, Scottish Literary Publisher’ includes a biographical essay by John MacInnes and a chronological list to 1986 of poetry publications by Callum Macdonald. Lines No. 100 (March 1987) includes a bibliographical history of the magazine by Hilda Spear. The Scottish Poetry Library has a complete, indexed run of the magazine.

The first issue of Lines was published by Alan Riddell in 1952. Callum Macdonald became managing editor from issue two onwards. He printed the magazine for over forty years. Until 1957 the printing of the magazine, books and pamphlets was done at 33 Marchmont Road; he moved to West Nicholson Street, and then Richmond Lane, Edinburgh. In 1968 the printing works transferred to Loanhead. The 40th anniversary issue of Lines has sold out and is already something of a collector’s item. However, the final issue is still available from Tessa Ransford

The Callum Macdonald Memorial Award

callumaward.jpg This Award has been created to recognise publishing skill and effort; to validate the practice of poetry publication in pamphlet form; and to encourage the preservation of printed material of this kind in the national collections. It has been created in Callum Macdonald’s memory. The prize consists of the presentation annually in May (the month of Callum’s birth) of The Callum Macdonald Quaich and a cash prize of £500.

Publishers of Scottish origin, living in Scotland, or engaged with Scottish culture may submit up to three poetry pamphlets, which should not be less than 6 pages or more than 30 in length (not including preliminaries). It is expected that the binding will be limp cover, folded, rather than case bound and the original print run will not exceed 300 copies. It is also acceptable for pamphlets to be published by poets themselves. The subject matter is unrestricted in the poetry field and may include material in any of the languages used in Scotland. Pamphlets should be published in the calendar year preceding the award.

For further information, please write to the Administrator, Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge Building, Edinburgh.



Copyright Jennie Renton 2005.


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