SOMETIMES described as the greatest Scots poet since Bobby Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid is credited with restoring Scots as a literary language and leading a Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s.

If you’re familiar with the fellow visually, you’re probably picturing a conspicuous, even kenspeckle, figure with a tweed jacket, flyaway hair, moustache and pipe, stravaiging across the heather with his trusty cromach beating a path before him.

Not a millennial then. Nope. He was born Christopher Murray Grieve on 11 August 1892 and, while it’s tempting to believe him the love-child of McGlashan, from TV comedy Absolutely, and Grigor McWatt –from Annalena McAfee’s wonderfully creative novel Hame – the prosaic truth is that his father was a postman. So he was fated to become a man of letters.

The family lived above the public library (where his mother was a caretaker) in the Dumfriesshire town of Langholm, perilously close to the border with England. It’s said young Christopher took home tomes from that den of literacy upstairs in a clothes basket. Thereby all hope of living a normal life with a useful trade was ended.

He was educated at Langholm Academy and then Broughton Junior Student Centre, in Edinburgh, which he left in 1911, possibly following some opaque jiggery-pokery involving books and postage stamps being, er, mislaid. Thus qualified, he found work in journalism with the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch before moving to Wales and writing for the socialist Merthyr Pioneer run by fellow Scot and Labour Party founder, Keir Hardie.

Thereafter, in a notably peripatetic life, he worked for the Clydebank and Renfrew Press before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of war in 1914. After that war (First World), he became editor of the Montrose Review.

In the meantime, he was enthusiastically investigating the Scots tongue or leid and, in 1922, adopted the MacDiarmid handle. However, his first book, Annals of the Five Senses, published in 1923 at his own expense, was a mixture of prose and poetry in English.

In 1926 came his most famous work, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the most Scottish title in the history of poesy. The first lines of the book-length poem read: I amna fou’ sae muckle as tired – deid dune/It’s gey and hard wark coupin’ gless for gless/Wi’ Cruivie and Gilsanquhar and the like/And I’m no’ juist as bauld as aince I wes.

I see. MacDiarmid expert Kenneth Buthlay describes A Drunk Man as “crammed full of fine lyrics, satire, flyting, parody, burlesque, occasional verse, Rabelaisian jokes, metaphysical conceits, translations and adaptations, sustained meditations and speculations on philosophical and religious problems, elemental symbols, and allusions recondite and otherwise”. Yes, that’s almost word-for-word what I thought.

At any rate, MacDiarmid deployed a “synthetic Scots” language of his own, melding multiple dialects. In his later work, he returned mostly to English or, indeed, “synthetic English”, combining scientific vocabulary as, to less than universal acclaim, he moved to more fact-based verse.

The Poetry Foundation notes that his work is “often characterised as lyrical, argumentative, polemical, and contradictory”, while the English critic (with Scottish parents) Ian Hamilton judged that MacDiarmid “makes his own rules, contemns categories, cracks open water-tight compartments, bestraddles disciplines, scorns social, cultural, and academic cliques and claques …”

Hamilton also wrote of encountering in MacDiarmid a reference to “mither-fochin scones”, which rather took him back, until he looked up the glossary and found that, in MacDiarmid’s Scots, “to foch” meant “to turn [used of scones on a griddle]”.

In 1929, MacDiarmid foched off to London, where he worked for a year on Compton Mackenzie’s magazine Vox. Next came Liverpool from 1930 to 1931, London again, then the village of Thakeham in West Sussex, before returning to Scotland and, in 1933, moving with this son and his second wife to the attractively named settlement of Sodom (originally Sudheim) on the Shetland island of Whalsay.

In 1942, war work took him to Glasgow, where he lived until 1949, in which year the English, and anti-Scottish, writer George Orwell shopped him to MI5 as among those “those who should not be trusted”. Indeed, he’d been watched by British intelligence since 1943.

How so? Did his poems sap morale? Probably not, but his opinions might have. In 1941, he wrote in a letter: “On balance I regard the Axis powers, tho’ more violently evil for the time being, less dangerous than our own government in the long run and indistinguishable in purpose.”

There was also the small problem of his Communism. And, er, his Scottish nationalism. Indeed, our Hugh had placed his fingers in various political pies since the age of 16, when he joined the Independent Labour Party.

In 1928, he was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland – whatever happened to that? He left them due to his Communist views and was expelled from the Communist Party because of his nationalist views.

He also flirted with Mussolini-style fascism in the 1920s, when it had a more left-wing component, but pooh-poohed it when it went somewhat far-right. His daughter-in-law, Deirdre Grieve, said: “I think he entertained almost every ideal it was possible to entertain at one point or another.”

The man himself said: “I am . . . interested only in a very subordinate way in the politics of Socialism as a political theory; my real concern with Socialism is as an artist’s organised approach to the interdependencies of life.” Righty-oh.

MacDiarmid stood in Westminster elections for the SNP in Glasgow Kelvingrove in 1945 (excellent timing) and 1950, and for the Communist Party in Kinross and Western Perthshire in 1964, winning 127 votes.

Between 1949 and 1951, he lived in a house in the grounds of Dungavel House (now an immigration detention centre), Lanarkshire, before settling down – at last – in a cottage called Brownsbank (Brounsbank in Scots) at Candymill, near Biggar. Visitors to the cottage included Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Allen Ginsberg, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Seamus Heaney.

He died in 1978 at the age of 86, a monumental literary figure who breathed new life into words like bleezin, loupin and foch.