The lilies are still in bloom

4th December 1998 at 00:00
THREE SCORE and ten, and with the death of Iain Crichton Smith another cloud darkened the face of literary Scotland. In the early eighties, when Glasgow English teachers were blessed with two complementary full-time English advisers, the visionary and the organiser, a three-day residential course at Castle Toward near Dunoon existed for aspiring Certificate of Sixth Year Studies candidates. Iain Crichton Smith visited as writer in residence, and he charmed the students with his concern and attention, and by his anarchic and infectious humour.

Many of the young people had read Consider the Lilies and his revelation that he wrote it during a summer holiday amazed them. He recounted how people bring their own baggage to their reading, saying that an American Southern Baptist had once congratulated him on making Mrs Scott undergo total immersion in the stream before her humanity was released in the novel. Chuckling, he explained that he had only been thinking of how to get Mrs Scott from her own house into that of her sworn enemy Donald Macleod - and falling into the stream was as good a way as any.

He was gleeful when the household staff were unhappy that pupils were staying up late discussing poetry and practising writing. He expressed great affection for the city of Glasgow in general and Celtic football club in particular - conveying the bond felt by Gaels for the welcome Glasgow has given to generations of students, girls in domestic service, seamen, policemen and nurses.

He was hugely impressive - skilled at talking to pupils, inspirational in his honest appraisal of the difficulties of writing and endlessly funny. He told of the best retiral speech he had heard - at Oban High - where, apparently, everyone who retired after a set number of years received a radio. One worthy, regarded by the staff as the fount of all knowledge, pushed his chair back, paused, and as everyone waited to hear the pearls of wisdom, said, "Well, it's all been a colossal waste of time", before sitting down again.

Crichton Smith roared and laughed as he told this story, and I thought as I watched a recent television tribute where he talked about teaching how alien the world of learning outcomes, performance indicators and instruments of assessment would have been for him.

Having a writer like Iain Crichton Smith all to yourself for 48 hours was a privilege unsurpassed. If Canongate, for example, was to reprint The Last Summer and On the Island for future generations to read and enjoy, then a partial memorial to one of Scotland's nicest men and greatest writers would be suitably ensured.

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