Obituary: Sir William Murrie
Friday 10 June 1994
Within 24 hours of being elected as MP for West Lothian in 1962, I was confronted by an ex- civil servant constituent who claimed that he had been wrongly dismissed from the Scottish Office for alleged misconduct. Raw and naive, I asked to see the Permanent Secretary. As MPs are - rightly - supposed to go through ministers, the Permanent Secretary expressed some surprise, but agreed to see me. William Murrie, clearly annoyed, was a formidable opposition. Master of every detail of the case, he demonstrated that the ex-civil servant had no grounds for complaint. As I was leaving his office, with my proverbial tail between my legs, Murrie relented: 'Tea? Let's talk about other matters.' Perhaps this episode encapsulates Murrie's persona: rather frightening and sharp on duty; off duty a man of charm and considerable learning carried lightly.
The essence of Murrie was a passionate belief in the promotion of enlightened government. The public service was what mattered to him. The men he looked up to above all others, he told me, were Benjamin Jowett, Edward Caird and Sandy Lindsay, Masters of his old college of Balliol, Oxford, who sent young men into the world to improve the human condition as he saw it. Murrie was a mandarin's mandarin and proud of it.
William Murrie - Stuart to his family and close friends - was born into a Dundee merchant family. His father, Thomas, died when William was a small child. His mother married a Chilean and Murrie's early schooling was in Santiago. His lifelong friend Sir Charles Cunningham, later to be one of the most distinguished Permanent Secretaries of the Home Office, remembers Murrie coming back from Chile for his secondary schooling at Harris Academy, Dundee. South America was to be an abiding interest and during the Falklands War Murrie expressed to me his concern about the Anglo-Argentine community - Anglo-Scots Argentine as he put it - in greater Buenos Aires.
Gaining a bursary to Edinburgh University and graduating with First Class Honours in Classics, he then went on to Greats at Balliol and the Craven scholarship. In 1927 he entered the Scottish Office and was soon picked out to be Private Secretary, first of all to Noel Skelton, MP for Perth, Under-Secretary of State responsible for health, and then to Sir Godfrey Collins, the Secretary of State for Scotland. He was promoted to head the health department in 1935, where he furthered the cause of preventative medicine. One of his particular interests was combating rickets, then prevalent in industrial Scotland.
In 1932 he married an American, Eleanore Boswell, a student of Elizabethan literature who was to become a respected Shakespearian scholar. Together they were stalwarts of the Edinburgh International Festival, albeit based in London in the early years, encouraging Rudolf Bing, the first director of the festival, to welcome not only Shakespeare but late medieval Scottish work such as Sir David Lindsay's Thrie Estaitis.
At the outbreak of war Murrie spearheaded an exceedingly efficient programme for the evacuation of schoolchildren. It was also his task to be the civil servant immediately responsible for the effects of the bombing of Clydebank.
Plucked out of the Scottish Office by Norman Brook (Secretary of the Cabinet), he then became number two in the Cabinet Office, a vital position involving the co- ordination of demobilisation. From 1948 to 1952 he was the Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office. James Chuter-Ede told me that Murrie was one of the most effective civil servants with whom he had ever worked in government. That was high praise from the co-author of the Butler Education Reforms and Clement Attlee's Home Secretary.
In 1952 Murrie returned to Edinburgh as Secretary of the Scottish Education Department then overseeing a burgeoning school building programme. Sir Charles Cunningham, whom he succeeded as Secretary of the Scottish Home Department in 1957, paid tribute to Murrie's 'fabulous memory' and his superb ability at running a department efficiently. In 1959 he entered into a well-remembered and distinguished period as Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office at a time when the British Motor Corporation came to Bathgate, Rootes came to Linwood and steel-rolling came to Ravenscraig.
In his retirement he devoted himself to the National Gallery of Scotland, where art heavyweights were deeply impressed not only by his knowledge of painting but by his superb chairmanship.
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