Obituary: W. R. Aitken

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The Independent Culture
W. R. AITKEN was a scholar librarian - the friend and editor of Hugh MacDiarmid, and a talented and much-loved member of staff in the School of Librarianship at Strathclyde University; and, before the school became part of the university, at the Scottish School of Librarianship in Pitt Street, Glasgow. In both locations he inspired and educated generations of librarians with his charming mixture of humour and erudition.

William Russell Aitken was born in Calderbank, Lanarkshire, in 1913, the son of a minister. The family moved to Lochgelly, Fife, when he was three; and the manse was his home until his marriage in 1939. From there he went to school in Dunfermline, where he met his wife to be, Betsy Murison. At Edinburgh University he studied English, but there was more than study to his student life. He was film critic, then editor, of The Student and was spectacularly sacked in 1935 over an article in the 350th anniversary issue; because of this incident, he met C.M. Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid).

In the first issue of the magazine which Aitken edited he had written a comic piece on the subject of the university's men's latrines which did not amuse the upper echelons of the university. But it was the 350th anniversary issue which caused consternation. The anniversary of the university had been celebrated in a number of rather dull laudatory papers and Aitken hit on the idea of asking Grieve to redress the balance with a paper on the university's missed opportunities. The university's top brass was enraged, Aitken was summarily sacked from the editorship and narrowly escaped being sent down from the university. His father, deeply shocked, almost disinherited him.

Only support from the press who favoured student freedom of speech prevented the university from taking disciplinary action. Grieve was upset and concerned and, as a result, invited him to visit his cottage in Whalsay. This was the start of a lifelong friendship between Hugh MacDiarmid and Bill Aitken as his editor and sometime literary agent.

Aitken's first job after university was in the Scottish Central Library for Students and he later was successively County Librarian of Clackmannanshire (from 1946), Perth and Kinross (from 1949) and Ayrshire (from 1958 to 1962).

He and Betsy married at the outbreak of war and their only child, Christine, was born in 1944. They were a warm, friendly and caring couple and many ex-students, friends, neighbours and fellow Quakers could bear testimony to their kindness, support and generosity. They shared a profound religious faith which sustained them both throughout their life together. Bill had joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1962, and served in various capacities for Friends in Scotland, including being General Meeting Treasurer, editing the Scottish Friends Newsletter and representing the society on the ACTS Communications Committee until this year.

During Aitken's time in Perth and Kinross he completed his PhD thesis, presented in 1956 and published in 1971 as A History of the Public Library Movement in Scotland to 1955, served as an examiner and then as an assessor for the Library Association and developed a lifelong enthusiasm for the poetry of William Soutar.

In 1962 Professor Bill Tyler headhunted him to join the staff of the School of Librarianship in Glasgow where, in the early days, it seems he taught almost everything. Aitken adored teaching and contact with students and it showed. He was informative and entertaining and at his very best when discussing the finer points of textual bibliography and illustrating his talk with examples from his beloved Scottish poets. No one could read Scottish poetry better. He was a stickler for accuracy as regards facts, dates and grammar and many have benefited from his gentle corrections. During his period at Strathclyde he was also a Visiting Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada for the summer terms in 1971 and 1972. When he retired in 1978 he had achieved the well-deserved title of Reader in Librarianship.

He was always professionally active and was President of the Scottish Library Association in 1965. He remained a familiar and much respected figure at SLA Conferences throughout his life and became Honorary Vice-President in 1995.

His literary work was considerable and has perhaps been undervalued. He edited the poems of William Soutar (1961, revised 1975; and again, a new selection, in 1988) and, in 1978, with Michael Grieve, the Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (1994). He also produced check-lists of the work of MacDiarmid and of Neil Gunn, and, in 1982, a general checklist, Scottish Literature in English and Scots.

He was one of a select few who had visited MacDiarmid during the period when he lived in self- imposed exile on Whalsay in Shetland. Later, when MacDiarmid lived at Brownsbank near Biggar, there were marvellous stories of the rescuing of precious manuscripts from the attentions of hungry mice. (There was even a nest of young mice among the papers.)

Aitken was a man of wide sympathies and an enthusiast with many causes and activities: to mention only three, he was a Life Member of the Society of Friends of Dunblane Cathedral, a long- standing supporter of the Saltire Society and a staunch friend of the Scottish Poetry Library. He was also musical and composed some dance tunes, including a tango.

He and his wife joined the Samaritans Correspondence Group (a national organisation but based in Falkirk) and were also generous with their time and energy in many other fields. He was very much a Scot and passionate about the Scottish language and the literature of his country. It was typical of him that on moving into a residential home only the month before his death a prime concern was to get on the electoral register, for few political developments had given him as much satisfaction as the 1997 referendum result and the knowledge that the Scottish Parliament was to be reborn.

William Russell Aitken, librarian and editor: born Calderbank, Lanarkshire 7 February 1913; County Librarian of Clackmannanshire 1946-49, Perth and Kinross 1949-58, Ayrshire 1958-62; Lecturer, School of Scottish Librarianship 1962-64; Lecturer, School of Librarianship, Strathclyde University 1964- 67, Senior Lecturer 1967-75, Reader in Librarianship, 1975-78; married 1939 Betsy Murison (one daughter); died Perth 27 October 1998.