SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY 29 November 2009
By Tim Cornwell
FOR decades, their faces looked down from the nicotine-stained walls of the pub where they once argued and bantered over politics and poetry. Now a planned sale of poets' portraits from one of Scotland most famous writers' watering holes has sparked anger that a vital piece of the city's literary heritage is disappearing for good.
In the 1950s and 1960s Milne's Bar in Edinburgh's New Town became famous as the "Poets' pub", where legendary writers like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig and their friends gathered in noisy, impromptu literary salons. The downstairs "snug" was
known as "The Little Kremlin" for its lively political and poetical debate and its atmosphere was celebrated in novels.
But a refurbishment of the pub has meant that 15 hallowed vintage photographs and drawings of its former denizens – portraits framed with their poems – were unscrewed from the walls to be auctioned off in a planned charity sale.
Academics and literary experts yesterday warned yesterday that the last vestiges of its historic ambiance are being lost – and questioned why the capital, the world's first Unesco City of Literature, is not doing more to save it.
Robert Alan Jamieson, a poet and joint head of creative writing at Edinburgh University, said: "As Edinburgh is the World City of Literature it is disappointing that such an important place, given the quality of the writers, should be let slip. It is the end of another Scottish institution.You can look at it askance these days and say it was a boys club, but you cannot deny the quality of the work."
Murdo MacDonald, a professor of history of Scottish art at Dundee University, first spotted the pictures had gone. "They are not particularly great works of art, but they are part of the atmosphere of the pub," he said. "It's no longer a particular poet's watering hole, but it is certainly somewhere on a literary tourist trail," he said.
Half a century ago, Milne's Bar, at the corner of Hanover Street and Rose Street, was one of three writers' haunts, along with the nearby Abbotsford Bar, also on Rose Street, and the Cafe Royal. MacDiarmid and MacCaig, among the greatest of Scotland's post-war poets, were at the heart of a circle that included literary luminaries like Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown.
In 1980, the leading Scottish artist Sandy Moffat produced a group portrait remembering their heyday. His work, Poets Pub, is an imaginary vision of post-war Scottish poets and writers set in an amalgamation of all three bars, and also includes MacDiarmid, Iain Crichton Smith, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch, Alan Bold and the art critic John A Tonge.
Morgan, the Scots makar or poet laureate, is the only one left alive, at 89 living in a Glasgow nursing home.
Milne's, which still calls itself the poets' pub, was known as MacDiarmid's "favourite howff" and was redecorated in honour of the poet's memory in 1985, with photographs and a painted sign.
MacDiarmid's legendary days in the bar were featured in Alasdair Gray's novel 1982, Janine. The narrator, Jock McLeish, goes for "a pie and a pint" in a basement in Hanover Street. The passage reads: "The bar was crowded except where three men stood in a small open space created by the attention of the other customers. One had a sombre pouchy face and upstanding hair which seemed to, like thistledown, be natural, one looked like a tall sarcastic lizard, one like a small shy bear. 'Our three best since Burns,' a bystander informed me, 'barring Sorley of course'." It was a portrayal of MacDiarmid, MacCaig, and Goodsir Smith.
A spokeswoman for Punch Taverns, the chain that now owns Milne's, said the portraits were removed in one of its corporate "sparkle" refurbishments, to refresh the pub for Christmas.
Manager Wayne Carruthers said the plan is for the pictures to be auctioned in a Christmas charity sale for Cancer Research. "We have had quite a bit of interest for the pictures, a lot of feedback, people asking where have all the pictures gone. I want them to go somewhere where they will be more appreciated."
Jamieson believes the pictures should be kept as a collection, or donated to the Scottish Poetry Library, and not just randomly sold off. Jenny Brown, a literary agent and former Edinburgh International Book Festival director, said the city now boasts new literary watering-holes. She said: "We would obviously much rather see the tradition continued but it's a commercial decision, and there's so much other activity happening now in terms of where writers are meeting."