Obituary: David D. Murison

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea