Obituary: David D. Murison

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Uniquely among speech-forms descended from Old English, other than standard literary English itself, Scots exists in a huge corpus of written texts from all periods since the 14th century, and has a continuous literary history which includes many writers of stature and importance. Fittingly therefore, it is the only form of English (using that word comprehensively in its linguistic, not its political, sense) to have devoted to it two multi-volume dictionaries (one complete, the other almost so) conforming to the highest international standards of lexicography.

The Scottish National Dictionary (SND), which records the language from 1700 to the present century, is in 10 volumes and contains nearly 70,000 entries. In origin it is one of what was conceived, after the completion of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, as a series of supplementary dictionaries treating regional or historical varieties of English in more detail that the main dictionary could permit. It is not only the first completed, but by far the largest of the regional dictionaries, exceeded in scale only by the Middle English Dictionary and its Scottish companion the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. It is no denigration of the many researchers who have contributed over decades to this monumental work to claim that it is above all the achievement of one man: David D. Murison, its editor from 1946 till its completion in 1976.

Murison's education, at Aberdeen and Cambridge, was in the fields of Classics and of Celtic and Old English philology. This, combined with a native speaker's knowledge of the north-eastern dialect, which is still one of the richest and best preserved of Scots dialects, equipped him supremely well as a Scots lexicographer; and his linguistic erudition illuminates all his work. From his first academic post, that of assistant to the Professor of Greek at Aberdeen University, he transferred in 1946 to deputy editorship of the Scottish National Dictionary; and shortly afterwards succeeded to the editorship on the death of William Grant, who had guided the project through the preliminary research and publication of the letters A to C.

In view of the small scale of the dictionary's research team, and the chronic and sometimes critical financial stringency under which they operated, Murison's achievement in leading the project through 30 years of untiring effort can only be described as heroic. The SND itself became a grander work under his direction: physically the first two volumes are much thinner than the last eight, and the supplement with which the dictionary ends is a comprehensive rewriting for the earlier letters. Entries in the SND include detailed definitions with carefully chosen illustrative quotations for each sense of a word, etymological information and notes on pronunciation, grammar and usage; and every entry was personally overseen by Murison.

A native of Fraserburgh, Murison returned to make his home there on his retirement in 1979. Accompanying him on a walk through that pleasant but - at first sight - not especially distinguished fishing port was a memorable experience: Murison could illuminate every street, almost every building, with an interesting story from its past. Neither retirement nor - latterly - declining health impaired his enthusiasm for Scotland and its language: articles and monographs on many aspects of the Scots tongue, Scottish literature and Scottish folk culture, and on the history of Fraserburgh, continued to appear under his name.

The last section of the Scottish National Dictionary is a supplement of addenda and corrigenda, introduced by Murison with a brief note stating that a full revision of the dictionary "must be left to another generation of Scottish philologists, if such there should be". His doubts have proved unfounded. Scots linguistic study is now a well-established academic discipline and Murison's influence in this is immeasurable.

The sheer scale, as well as the quality, of his published output makes it one of the foundations on which all subsequent work in Scots philology must rest. Almost equally important, the inspirational quality of the man himself - genial, humorous, fascinatingly erudite, unfailingly kind and patient - gave encouragement to many students and younger colleagues. And it is certain that the now growing interest in the Scots language in primary and secondary, as well as tertiary, education, of which Murison would have wholeheartedly approved, is at least in part a result of the academic respectability of the language which he contributed enormously to re-establishing.

Murison was the most self- effacing of men: he refused all academic honours, his Festschrift was presented to him informally at his home, even his funeral was quiet and private. But his legacy to Scotland is one which few men of our time can match.

J. Derrick McClure

David Donald Murison, lexicographer: born Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire 28 April 1913; Editor, Scottish National Dictionary 1946- 76; married; died Fraserburgh 17 February 1997.