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Significant Scots
Alexander Murray


MURRAY, ALEXANDER, D. D., an eminent philologist, was born, October 22, 1775, at Dunkitterick, on the water of Palneur, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. He was the son of a shepherd, or pastoral farm-servant, named Robert Murray, who was in the seventieth year of his age at the time of the birth of this distinguished member of his family. Young Murray was born in too humble circumstances, and reared in too secluded a. district, to have the advantage of early instruction at school. When he had attained his sixth year, his father purchased for him a copy of the Shorter Catechism; a work prefaced, in Scottish editions, by the alphabet in its various forms, and a few exercises in monosyllables. The good shepherd, however, thought this little volume (the cost of which is only one penny) too valuable for common use: it was accordingly locked carefully aside, and the father taught his child the letters, by scribbling them on the back of an old wool-card with the end of a burnt heather-stem. When the elements of language had been thus mastered, the catechism was brought forth, and given to the young student as a book of exercises in reading. He then got a psalm book, which he liked much better than the catechism; and at length a New Testament, which he liked better still; and afterwards he discovered an old loose bible, which he carried away piece-meal from the place where it was deposited, and read with all the wonderment natural to a capacious mind, on being first introduced to a kind of knowledge beyond the limited scene in which it had originally been placed. He liked the mournful narratives best, and greatly admired Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Lamentations. In his eighth year, he had acquired so much local fame on account of his acquirements in reading, that a wish was generally entertained among his friends to see him sent to some regular school. This would have been impossible—for his father was a very poor man—if a brother of his mother, by name William Cochrane, had not possessed both the means and the inclination to provide the requisite funds. He was placed, in 1784, at the school of New Galloway, where, though he made a very awkward appearance at first, he soon distanced the most of "the Bible class." He had been but six months at school, when he was seized by an illness, which called him home; nor did he again attend school for the four ensuing years. During the most of this space of time, he appears to have been employed as a shepherd; devoting all his leisure, however, to the study of such books as fell in his way. In the winter of 1787-8, he was so far advanced as to be able to teach the children of two neighbouring farmers. Soon after, he began to give irregular attendance at the school of Minnigaff, chiefly for the purpose of improving his arithmetic, as he had now formed a wish to become a merchant’s clerk. In 1790, he made his first adventure into the region of languages, by studying French and Latin; and such was his application, that in the course of three or four months, he had learned as much as the most of youths acquire in as many years. By extraordinary good fortune, he obtained an old copy of the larger dictionary of Ainsworth, at the low price of eighteen pence, and soon read the volume quite through. Every part of this large book he studied with minute attention, observing the Greek derivations of the words, and occasionally adverting to the Hebrew also; and thus, about a year after his first acquaintance with the rudiments, he was able to read Ovid, Caesar, and Livy, and to commence lessons in the Iliad. All the books which his school-fellows possessed, both in English and classical literature, were borrowed by Murray, and devoured with immense rapidity and eagerness. He had at this time no taste in reading: the boundless field of knowledge was open to him, and he cared not which part he first surveyed, for he was determined apparently to survey it all. He only felt a kind of wild pleasure in whatever was grand, or romantic, or mournful. In perusing the Iliad, he was greatly affected by the fate of Hector and Sarpedon. "And no sensation," says he, in his autobiography, "was ever more lively, than what I felt on first reading the passage, which declares that Jupiter rained drops of blood upon the ground, in honour of his son Sarpedon, who was to fall far from his country. My practice," he continues, "was to lay down a new and difficult task, after it had wearied me,--to take up another,—then a third,—and to resume this rotation frequently and laboriously." Dr Murray used to consider himself fortunate in his teacher, Simpson, in as far as the man was of a careless, easy character, and had no scruple in permitting him to advance as fast as he liked, and to step into any class for which he appeared qualified. "Desultory study," says he, "is a bad thing; but a lad whose ambition never ceases, but stimulates him incessantly, enlarges his mind and range of thought, by excursions beyond the limits of regular forms." We shall let Dr Murray narrate his further progress in his own words:--

"In 1792, I read portions of Homer, Livy, Sallust, and any other author used in the school. In the winter, 1792-3, I engaged myself with Thomas Birkmyre, miller, of Minnigaff mill, and taught his children during that season till March, 1793. My wages were only thirty shillings, but my object was to get a residence near Newton Stewart, and to have liberty of going, in the winter forenights, to a school taught by Mr Nathaniel Martin, in Brigend of Cree. Martin had been at Edinburgh, and possessed many new books, such as the Bee, Duncan’s Cicero, some of the best English collections, and so forth. From a companion, named John Mackilwraith, I got the loan of Bailie’s English Dictionary, which I studied, and learnt from it a vast variety of useful matters. I gained from it the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, the Anglo-Saxon paternoster, and many words in that venerable dialect. This enabled me to read Hicke’s Saxon Grammar, without difficulty, after I went to Edinburgh, and led the way to the Visi-Gothic and German. About the end of autumn, 1792, I had procured, from one Jack Roberts, a small Welsh History of Christ and the Apostles. I had seen a translation, or rather the original English, of this book in former years, but I could not get access to it after I had the Welsh in my possession. I mused, however, a good deal on the quotations from Scripture that abound in it, and got acquainted with many Welsh words and sentences. If I had a copy of the Bible in any language of which I knew the alphabet, I could make considerable progress in learning it without grammar or dictionary. This is done by minute observation and comparison of words, terminations, and phrases. It is the method dictated by necessity, in the absence of all assistance.

"In 1791, I had the loan of a stray volume of the Ancient Universal History from my neighbour school-fellows, the Maclurgs, who lived in Glenhoash, below Risque. It contained the history of the ancient Gauls, Germans, Abyssinians, and others. It included a very incorrect copy of the Abyssinian alphabet, which, however, I transcribed, and kept by me for future occasions. I was completely master of the Arabic alphabet, by help of Robertson’s Hebrew Grammar, in the end of which (first edition) it is given in the most accurate manner.

"In the autumn of 1792, about the time I went to the mill, I had, in the hour of ignorance and ambition, believed myself capable of writing an epic poem. For two years before, or rather from the time that I had met with Paradise Lost, sublime poetry was my favourite reading. Homer had encouraged this taste, and my school-fellow, George Mure, had lent me, in 1791, an edition of Ossian’s Fingal, which is, in many passages, a sublime and pathetic performance. I copied Fingal, as the book was lent only for four days, and carried the MS. about with me. I chose Arthur, general of the Britons, for my hero, and during the winter 1792-3, wrote several thousands of blank verses about his achievements. This was my first attempt in blank verse. In 1790, I had purchased ‘The Grave,’ a poem by Blair, and committed it almost entirely to memory.

I passed the summer of 1793 at home, and in long visits to my friends in Newton Stewart, and other parts. During that time I destroyed Arthur and his Britons, and began to translate, from Buchanan’s poetical works, his Fratres Franciscani. I made an attempt to obtain Mochrum school; but Mr Steven, minister of that parish, who received me very kindly, told me that it was promised, and, that my youth would be objected to by the heritors and parish.

"Some time in the same summer, I formed an acquaintance with William Home, a young lad who intended to become an Antiburgher clergyman, and who kept a private school in Newton Stewart. This friendship procured me the loan of several new books. I paid a visit to the Rev. Mr Donnan, in Wigton, an excellent man and scholar. He examined me on Homer, which I read ad aperturam libri, in a very tolerable, though not very correct manner. He gave me Cicero de Naturâ Deorum, which I studied with great ardour, though a speculative treatise. I was enthusiastically fond of Cicero, as my dictionary gave me a most affecting account of the merits and fate of that great man. In 1791, I bought for a trifle a MS. volume of the lectures of Arnold Drackenburg, a German professor, on the lives and writings of the Roman authors, from Livius Andronicus to Quintilian. This was a learned work, and I resolved to translate and publish it. I remained at home during the winter of 1793-4, and employed myself in that task. My translation was neither elegant nor correct. My taste was improving; but a knowledge of elegant phraseology and correct diction cannot be acquired without some acquaintance with the world, and with the human character in its polished state. The most obscure and uninteresting parts of the Spectator, World, Guardian, and Pope’s Works, were those that described life and manners. The parts of those works which I then read with rapture, were accounts of tragic occurrences, of great but unfortunate men, and poetry that addressed the passions. In spring 1794, I got a reading of Blair’s Lectures. The book was lent by Mr Strang, a Relief clergyman, to William Hume, and sublent to me. In 1793, I had seen a volume of an encyclopedia, but found very considerable difficulties in making out the sense of obscure scientific terms, with which those books abound.

"Early in 1794, I resolved to go to Dumfries, and present my translation to the booksellers there. As I had doubts respecting the success of a ‘History of the Latin Writers,’ I likewise composed a number of poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, and most of them very indifferent. I went to Dumfries in June, 1794, and found that neither of the two booksellers there would undertake to publish my translation; but I got a number of subscription papers printed, in order to promote the publication of the poems. I collected by myself and friends four or five hundred subscriptions. At Gatehouse, a merchant there, an old friend, gave me a very curious and large printed copy of the Pentateuch, which had belonged to the celebrated Andrew Melville, and the Hebrew Dictionary of Pagninus, a huge folio. During the visit to Dumfries, I was introduced to Robert Burns, who treated me with great kindness; told me, that if I could get out to college without publishing my poems, it would be better, as my taste was young and not formed, and I would be ashamed of my productions when I could write and judge better. I understood this, and resolved to make publication my last resource. In Dumfries I bought six or seven plays of Shakspeare, and never read any thing except Milton, with more rapture and enthusiasm."

The singular acquirements of this Galloway shepherd, had now made some impression in a circle beyond his own limited and remote sphere; and, in November, 1794, he was invited to Edinburgh, in order to make an exhibition of his learning before several individuals, who were not only qualified to judge of it, but were inclined to take an interest in the fate of its possessor. He underwent an examination before Drs Baird, Finlayson, and Moodie, clergymen of the city; and so effectually convinced these gentlemen of his qualifications, that they took the means to procure for him a gratuitous education in the university. Dr Baird proved, in particular, a zealous and steady friend, not only in the exertion of his influence, but by contributions to the means of his subsistence during the earlier part of his academic career. At the end of two years, he obtained a bursary, or exhibition, from the city, and soon after was able to support himself, by private teaching. He now commenced the necessary studies for the church, at the same time that he devoted every hour he could spare to the acquisition of general knowledge. In a very short space of time, he found himself master of the whole of the European languages, and began to make researches in the more recondite dialects of the east. His philological studies were conducted with a careful regard to etymology, and the philosophy of grammar; and it would appear that the design of tracing up all existing languages to one root, and thus penetrating back into the early and unchronicled history of the human race, gradually expanded upon him.

While thus devoting his leisure to one grand pursuit, he did not neglect the graces of the belles lettres. After having for some years contributed miscellaneous pieces to the Scots Magazine, he was induced, about the beginning of the present century, to become the editor of that respectable work, then property of Mr Archibald Constable. He also contributed several able articles to the Edinburgh Review. Having made himself master of the Abyssinian language, and also of the Geez and Amharic tongues, upon which the former is founded, he appeared to Mr Constable as a fit person to superintend a new edition of Bruce’s Travels to discover the source of the Nile. For nearly three years subsequent to September 1802, he was engaged with little intermission upon this task, chiefly residing at Kinnaird House, where he had access to the papers left by the illustrious traveller. To the work, which appeared in seven large octavo volumes, he contributed a life of the author, and a mass of notes, containing the most curious and learned discussions on philology, antiquities, and a manifold variety of subjects illustrative of Bruce’s narrative. The "Life" he afterwards enlarged and published in a separate volume.

In 1806, Dr Murray for the first time obtained what might be considered a permanent station by being appointed assistant and successor to the Rev. Mr Muirhead, minister of Urr, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright; at whose death, in 1808, he became the full stipendiary of the parish. In this situation, he displayed, amidst his clerical duties, his usual application to philological pursuits. His fame as a linguist was now spread abroad by his edition of Bruce, and in 1811, at the suggestion of Mr Salt, envoy to Abyssinia, he was applied to, to use Mr Salt’s own words, as "the only person in the British dominions" adequate to the task, to translate a letter written in Geez, from the governor of Tigrê to his Britannic majesty. Notwithstanding the obscurity of several passages in this rare document, he was able to acquit himself of his task in the most satisfactory manner.

In 1812, on a vacancy occurring in the chair of Oriental languages in the university of Edinburgh, Dr Murray stood a contest with two other candidates, and gained the situation by a majority of two voices in the city council. He was now for the first time in life placed in a situation suitable to his extraordinary faculties; and yet it was destined that, after all his preliminary labours, his career was now on the point of being for ever closed. His constitution, which had never been strong, broke down under the labours of the first session. Before opening his class, he had published his "Outlines of Oriental Philology," a remarkably clear and intelligible epitome of the grammatical principles of the Hebrew and its cognate dialects. During the winter, the fatigue he encountered in preparing his lectures was very great; and in February, 1813, a pulmonary ailment, which had previously given him great distress, became so violent as to prevent his attendance in the class-room. To quote the affecting account of his latter days, given by Mr Murray, [Literary history of Galloway, second edition, p. 256.] "he himself entertained hopes of his recovery, and was flattering himself with the prospect of being able to remove to the country; but his complaints daily assumed a more alarming aspect. On the day before his death, he was out of bed for twelve hours. He arranged several of his papers, spoke freely, and appeared in good spirits. He alluded to his approaching dissolution, which he now himself began to apprehend; but Mrs Murray was too agitated to admit of the subject being minutely adverted to. He retired to bed at eleven o’clock; he dozed a little; and every moment he was awake he spent in prayer. In the true spirit of genius, he said that he had once expected to attain to old age, and that he would be enabled to perform something of a more eminent nature, and of greater consequence to society, than he had yet accomplished; but not a murmur escaped his lips; he was, at all times, perfectly resigned to the will of the Eternal. The following verse of the hundred and eighteenth psalm he repeated a few hours before his death:—

O set ye open unto me
The gates of righteousness;
Then I will enter into them,
And I the Lord will bless.

At the end of these lines he made a pause, and Mrs Murray having proceeded with the subsequent verse,—

This is the gate of God; by It
The just shall enter in;
Thee will I praise, for thou me heard’st,
And hast my safety been,—

he looked wistfully and tenderly in her countenance, he put his hand on his breast,--and said it gave him relief and consolation. He now became suddenly worse; his speech failed him; and having lingered in this state for a short time, he breathed his last in the arms of his wife. This melancholy event took place at six o’clock in the morning of the 15th of April, 1813, in the thirty-seventh year of his age. The last words he was heard to utter were, ‘Take clear burial-ground,’ meaning no doubt, to intimate his desire that his remains might be placed in a grave which had not been previously occupied. He was interred in the Greyfriars’ church-yard, at the northwest corner of the church."

So died this amiable and most accomplished scholar, after a life which might rather be described as the preparation for something great, than as having actually produced any great fruits. He had written a philological work of profound and varied learning, which appeared in 1813, under the auspices of Dr Scot of Corstorphine, entitled "History of European languages; or Researches into the Affinities of the Teutonic, Greek, Celtic, Sclavonic, and Indian Nations." He left, by his wife, whom he married while engaged in his pastoral duties at Urr, a son and a daughter, the latter of whom died of consumption in 1821.


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