OBITUARY: Fred Urquhart

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The Independent Online
Fred Urquhart was a short-story writer. That was his raison-d'etre. So are V.S. Pritchett and William Trevor. At his frequent best, Urquhart is of their quality. In the 1960s Rupert Hart-Davis began to publish his Collected Stories (it could have run to a dozen volumes), but the venture petered out after publication of the first two, The Dying Stallion (1967) and The Ploughing Match (1968).

Urquhart relished writing about country matters. Although born in Edinburgh, the son of a chauffeur, he spent much of his childhood in Fife, Perthshire and Wigtownshire, growing up reading books (he later worked in a bookshop). As a pacifist and conscientious objector, he worked on the land during the Second World War. This experience resulted in many of his finest stories, about rural life, set in and around the (fictional) town of Auchencairn. These stories have a classic simplicity in which Urquhart employs north- east Scots dialect with a precise, acerbic and loving ear. He was never a writer to use a four-syllable word if one of one or two syllables would suffice. His stories are, in a way, the verbal equivalent of C.F. Tunnicliffe's graphic art.

He was particularly understanding of horses, and edited a lavishly illustrated up-market anthology, The Book of Horses (1981). It didn't do well, presumably because "horsy" people aren't much interested in literature and art.

In story after story, Urquhart empathised with the world-weary and useful lives of horses. Without anthropomorphising the beasts, he flatters readers they can feel something of what it's like to be a horse, to possess its anatomy, experience its sweat and its breath.

Urquhart's was indeed the art of the short-story writer, the delivery of short (he'd have said "wee") epiphanies. To call his craft poetry in prose is to patronise the uniqueness of the short-story form. Urquhart was compassionate with what used to be called the under- privileged, the working class. He especially enjoyed writing about women whose lives both fascinated and, as so often with homosexual writers, appalled him.

He published eight or nine collections of stories, the best regarded being Jezebel's Dust (1951), but Urquhart couldn't much be bothered with the intricacies of "plotting". Nor was he a "modernist". His skill was to show characters in everyday, conversational action.

In 1958 he and his friend Peter Wyndham Allen, a ballet dancer, moved from Scotland to the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, Urquhart not returning to live in Scotland until 1990 after Allen had died. In his 30-odd years living in a somewhat middle-class milieu in lush southern England, the erstwhile working-class lad from north of the Border lost much of his feel and ear for the minute accuracy of contemporary Scottish life. The stories of his later, rather bitter and isolated years - correctly he felt unappreciated by the present Scottish literary establishment - owed more to the kailyard than he cared to acknowledge.

Frederick Burrows Urquhart, writer: born Edinburgh 12 July 1912; died Musselburgh 2 December 1995.