David Craig obituary

Other lives: Creative writing teacher, poet and a prolific writer on landscape, literature and social history

My father, David Craig, who has died aged 89, was a pioneering creative writing teacher, a poet and a prolific writer on landscape, literature and social history.

Born in Aberdeen, to Margaret (nee Simpson), a legal secretary, and John Craig, a children’s doctor, he went to Aberdeen grammar school and read English at Aberdeen University. Then he undertook a PhD at Cambridge, later published as Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830.

Jobs were scarce for Marxist intellectuals in the late 1950s, and after teaching in schools in north-east Scotland he moved with his wife, Jill (nee Stephenson), and their young family to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to lecture at the University of Peradeniya. Returning to the UK, he tutored for the Workers’ Educational Association in North Yorkshire and in 1964 became one of the founding lecturers at the new University of Lancaster.

The years at Lancaster were eventful. With a group of like-minded colleagues, David conducted a series of experiments in teaching – open-book exams, continual assessment, peer review of lectures, inclusion of both popular and highbrow works in the curriculum, and the use of creative writing alongside criticism as a way of studying literature. He also proposed a series of changes to the way his department was governed, such as rotating and elected headships.

David Craig wrote on landscape, literature and social history. His book On the Crofter’s Trail, 1990, was an account of the Highland Clearances
David Craig wrote on landscape, literature and social history. His book On the Crofter’s Trail, 1990, was an account of the Highland Clearances Photograph: FAMILY PHOTO

Many of these innovations are now commonplace. In 1972 they were enough to cost several junior lecturers their jobs. David, the only one with academic tenure, faced a motion for dismissal at the university council. He fought back, using the proceeds from a benefit organised by fellow poet Adrian Mitchell to engage a barrister. The university’s capitulation meant David could carry on working at the university.

Although angry about the tactics used to undermine him and his colleagues, he used his new position to set up a master’s course and then a department of creative writing, eventually hosting the UK’s first PhD programme. His contribution was acknowledged with an emeritus professorship after he took early retirement in 1993.

David’s own writing became wider in scope following a conscious turn away from literary criticism. Books on his climbing experiences (Native Stones), on the Highland Clearances (On the Crofter’s Trail), and on landscape (Landmarks) followed. He also published two novels (King Cameron and The Unbroken Harp) and co-authored a rock climbers’ guide to the Buttermere and Newlands valleys in the Lake District.

The Glens of Silence, co-produced with the photographer David Paterson, brought together his love of the Scottish Highlands and anguish at the way the landscape was emptied of its people. He produced a steady stream of shorter writings, including many reviews and other pieces for the London Review of Books. His last book was his collected poems, Paradise and Wilderness, published in 2019.

He is survived by me and my brothers, Peter, Donald and Neil, from his marriage to Jill, which ended in divorce, and by our seven children. His second wife, Anne (formerly Spillard), whom he married in 1990, also survives him, as do her children, Candy and Rob, and their four children.

Marian Craig

The GuardianTramp

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