Obituary: Professor Duncan McMillan
Friday 02 July 1993
DUNCAN McMILLAN was an extrovert in philology, a subject frequently seen as a byword for mustiness.
Born in London in 1914 of Scottish parents, McMillan was educated at St Dunstan's College, Catford, and University College London, where his academic excellence was signalled by a Troughton Scholarship and a Rothschild Prize. Along with his academic work went an enthusiasm for sport, and his playing of water polo stands as a mark of the combative and gritty side of his nature. Following his BA he prepared a Ph D at University College, studying two British Museum manuscripts of the epic poem 'Les Enfances Guillaume', before going to the Sorbonne on a Clothmakers Scholarship. There and at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, whose diploma he gained in the same year, 1938, as he gained his doctorate, he studied under the pre-war luminaries of French philology, Mario Roques, Clovis Brunel and Charles Samaran. It was also in Paris that he met his future wife, Genevieve Busse, whom he married in 1945 and who is herself a considerable scholar of modern French language and literature.
His academic career was interrupted by service in the Army during the Second World War. On demobilisation in 1946 he was appointed to a lectureship at Aberdeen University, moving from there to Edinburgh University in 1950. In Edinburgh he worked under the great Scottish exponent of Romance philology John Orr, to whose chair of French Language and Romance Philology he was appointed on the latter's retirement in 1955.
He served as professor and head of the French Deparment from 1955 to 1969 and from then until his own retirement in 1981 as head of the Department of Romance Linguistics. He was elected Emeritus Professor in 1982.
Among a long list of publications devoted to his two specialist areas of historical linguistics and Old French epic his editions of La Chanson de Guillaume (1949-50) and Le Charroi de Nimes (1972) stand out, and it was on a third poem from the same cycle that he was working before his death. His love of this poetry led to his being a founder member of the Societe Internationale Rencesvals in 1955; from 1956 to 1959 he was President of the British branch of the society who recognised his service to the discipline with a volume of essays in 1984. His contribution to French medieval studies had already been rewarded by his election to the Council of the Societe des Anciens Textes Francais in 1963. His was not a 'cloistered' mind, however, and he maintained a lively interest in contemporary France, its language and culture, an interest manifest in his publishing jointly, with his wife, An Anthology of the Contemporary French Novel (1950). This broader role in disseminating French culture was recognised by his appointment as Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1958. As a head of department, too, he was forward-looking, instituting a pioneering joint honours degree in French and European Institutions.
As a colleague McMillan was generous and unstinting of his support where he felt it merited, but his outspoken abrasiveness inevitably made him enemies. A flamboyant figure in the city as well as in the university he could frequently be seen at the opera and theatre sporting black velvet jacket and McMillan tartan trews. The last years of his life were dogged by ill-health, which he confronted with a 'nil carborundum' brand of humour, remarking, following a severe hip operation, that he could no longer fly to conferences as his mere presence in the terminal set off the security alarm. He did continue to attend and address conferences, however, using his elbow crutch like an epic blade to extend the rhetorical flourish of his right arm.
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