In praise of Charles Murray

West Kirk, Alford, burial ground of poet Charles Murray

West Kirk, Alford, burial ground of poet Charles Murray

Today is the 148th anniversary of the birth of Charles Murray (1864-1941), still the finest and most revered exponent of poetry in Doric. Murray regarded his poetry as a hobby, but most North-east Scots held it, and still hold it, in far higher regard than that. It speaks of the humour of North-east Scotland, but also the hard work that life here entailed in Mr Murray’s era. And his abiding love of the Howe of Alford, his birthplace, glows in some of his finest work.

In the 1930s, when he contributed any poem to The Press and Journal, the daily newspaper based in Aberdeen, the editor knew to advise the machine room (the presses) to run off an extra 20,000 copes, such was the public hunger for Mr Murray’s work. Indeed, when It Wisna His Wyte (It Wasn’t His Fault), made its debut, even an extra 20,000 copies proved to be insufficient, and two further print runs had to be ordered to keep up with demand. Imagine any poem achieving similar results for newspaper sales now.

Every Doric-speaker has his or her favourite Murray poem. My own is: “Gin I was God” (If I were God), which tells the story of a man imagining the Creator being disappointed at his first attempt at fashioning the world and deciding to scrap it and start again. It is suffused with humour, despair and Mr Murray’s innate humanity. It’s just a cracking piece of writing. Mr Murray’s work fell out of copyright at midnight on Hogmanay 2011, so I reproduce it below.

But I commend the work of the Charles Murray Memorial Trust to you. Under current chairman, Mr Gordon Hay, of Longside, the trust promotes Mr Murray’s work and supports the use of Doric in schools.

 

Gin I Was God

Gin I was God, sittin’ up there abeen,

Weariet nae doot noo a’ my darg was deen,

Deaved wi’ the harps an’ hymns oonendin’ ringin’,

Tired o’ the flockin’ angels hairse wi’ singin’,

To some clood-edge I’d daunder furth an’, feth,

Look ower an’ watch hoo things were gyaun aneth.

Syne, gin I saw hoo men I’d made mysel’

Had startit in to pooshan, sheet an’ fell,

To reive an’ rape, an’ fairly mak’ a hell

O’ my braw birlin’ Earth, – a hale week’s wark –

I’d cast my coat again, rowe up my sark,

An’, or they’d time to lench a second ark,

Tak’ back my word an’ sen’ anither spate,

Droon oot the hale hypothec, dicht the sklate,

Own my mistak’, an’, aince I’d cleared the brod,

Start a’thing ower again, gin I was God.

 

For those of you who don’t have the Doric, here is my translation into English. This should prove to you how much more expressive Doric can be.

 

If I Were God

If I were God, sitting up there above,

Tired, no doubt, now that all my work was done,

Exhausted by the harps’ and hymns’ unending ringing;

Tired of the flocking angels, hoarse with singing,

To some cloud-edge I’d wander out and, goodness,

Look over and watch how things were going below.

Then, when I saw how men I had made myself

Had started to poison, shoot and kill,

To tear and rape and more or less make hell

Of my fine, revolving Earth — a whole week’s work —

I’d throw off my jacket again, roll up my shirt sleeves

And, before they had time to launch a second Ark,

Rescind my word and send another flood;

Drown the whole shebang, wipe the slate,

Admit to my mistake and, once I had cleared the board,

Start everything again.

If I were God.

Filed Under: AberdeenshireDoricFeaturedHistoryScotlandWriting

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  1. Margaret Young says:

    Dear Norman, I came across this website accidentally when I typed my brother’s name – Alex R. Scott – into “Google”. Alex, sadly, died very suddenly on Wednesday evening. He lived in Alford and wrote Charles Murray’s biography – Ours is the Harvest” Strangely enough our late minister in Inverness (I am an Aberdonian by birth) asked for a member of the congregation who could speak and understand the Doric to come and see him in his vestry one Sunday. I volunteered and when I went to see him it was to be asked to recite the above poem in Church one Sunday! Like you I think it is wonderful.
    Alex always “blamed” me for his decision to research Charles Murray’s life and then to write his biograhy! I had given him a copy of “Hamewith” and that started it off! Ales also wrote the foreword to the latest edition of “Hamewith”. Incidentally I have always been a fan of yours and was so disappointed when you stopped writing for the “P&J” Kind regards, Margaret Young

    • Norman says:

      Dear Mrs Young: Thank you for your kind words, and I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. My parents knew him well from church activities. I can well understand one exposure to Charles Murray’s poems leading to his long obsession. He did more than most enthusiasts, however, in that he applied his interest to producing the book, which is now a matter of record for future scholars.
      I am glad that you share my taste for “Gin I Was God”. I think Doric poetry or prose really need an authentic Doric-speaker to deliver them properly, so your minister certainly did the right thing.
      I am pleased that you found the website, albeit by accident and in such sad circumstances, but I hope you will return often as a visitor in future.
      With best wishes.

  2. Margaret Young says:

    Thank you very much, Norman. (I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name!) I’m horrified to see that I made a couple of “typos” in my comment above – I didn’t employ a proof-reader! I didn’t realise that your parents had known Alex, although I used to ask him and his wife if they knew you, but I don’t think they did. Sadly Alex developed Alzheimer’s approximately two and a half years ago – a tragic illness whomever it affects – but even more so in his case since “words” were such a great part of his life. He was an English teacher, starting off his teaching life at the Grammar School in Aberdeen and then teaching overseas for most of the rest of his career – Pakistan, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Kuwait and Turkey, ending up at the former Aberdeen College of Commerce.

    He wrote verse in the Doric on many occasions – one being my wedding day in 1967, when sadly, he was overseas and couldn’t be there – and he often included a poem with his birthday cards to me.

    Alex’s funeral is in Howe Trinity Church this coming Friday at 12-30.

    Thank you again for your kind words. Best wishes, Margaret Young.

  3. Linda Ritchie says:

    Just letting you know that Isie (Isabella Turner) mentioned in Charles Murray’s poem, was my Great-grandmother. I remember her well as a little lady who spent her last days in her bed. She died when i was 4 or 5 and she left me her pocket watch.

  4. Norman says:

    Thank you, Linda. What a fascinating tale. Do you know anything more about the circumstances in which your great-grandmother and Mr Murray met, and how he came to pay tribute to her in verse?

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