The Poet

Though easily the best known and most popular Scots poet of the period from 1910 till the 1960s, Charles Murray's literary output was modest. Though there was nothing amateur in his approach to his poetry, Murray was not a professional literary man and had to compose in the time he could spare from a busy working life first as prospector and mine manager, then as a senior colonial civil servant, in the newly created Union of South Africa.

'Aiberdeen Awa!' Play

Murray in the 1880s: around this time his verse first began to appear in periodicals like the  Edinburgh-based Scots Observer
Murray in the 1880s: around this time his verse first began to appear in periodicals like the Edinburgh-based Scots Observer

Only three individual collections appeared during his lifetime - Hamewith (1900, 1909); A Sough o War (1917) and In the Country Places (1920) - the latter two the traditional 'slim volumes' in which verse often appears. The poems from all three were brought together in Hamewith and Other Poems in 1927 which remained in print till the 1960s.

'The Whistle' with accompanying illustration
'The Whistle' with accompanying illustration

Murray's verse had appeared in book form before 1900 - his first collection, the privately-printed A Handful of Heather, appeared in 1893 in an edition of only 12 copies for family and friends. It is very rare, because Murray recovered and destroyed copies not in the hands of immediate family - almost certainly because of a poem called 'Mr Robinson', which lampoons the mining magnate J[oseph] B[enjamin] Robinson, an influential figure in 1890s South Africa. It begins

You've heard of the donkey, wrapped up in the skin,
Who thought as a king of the forest to pass,
Until a loud 'hee-haw' proclaimed from within
In spite of appearance the brute was an ass

Robinson's business ethics are questioned, but the main evidence of his folly is his disagreement with Murray's professional colleagues on 'Deep Level matters' related to the fast-developing goldmines of the Witwatersrand (ironically the professionals were wrong and Robinson right about the direction of the main gold-bearing reef).

Peter Murray and Mary Robbie with Charles and Sarah Murray
Alexander Keith ('AK');
journalist, writer, farmer and friend of Murray

In 1969, twenty-eight years after Murray's death, poems which had not appeared in book form during his lifetime were published as The Last Poems, with Preface and Notes by Alexander Keith.

Finally in 1979, Murray's friend, the novelist Nan Shepherd, edited Hamewith: the complete poems of Charles Murray. These publications were supported by the Charles Murray Memorial Fund.

The Shepherd Hamewith has been out of print for some years and the Fund's general editor, Dr Colin Milton, has prepared a new edition of Murray's poems. The new edition includes for the first time those Scots poems which appeared in A Handful of Heather but which were not included in later collections. And for the benefit of a new generation of readers, the Scots glossary has been expanded and fuller definitions given.


I've kent auld dominies wi' little skill o' teachin'

When put aneth the soundin' board show eloquence divine;

An' richt learn'd ministers nae worth a doit at preachin',

An' middlin' tradesmen, wonderfu' at gien oot the line.

Sometimes a Genius sets a bonny lowin' flame

Aneth the bushe'l in a neuk, lest it should stop the flails;

Whiles feet that should hae trod up the brae that leads to fame,

Gae trailin' weary doon a fur ahin' the ousen tails.

Now sirs, can ye explain why square pins sae aft are set

To fill roun' holes? Ye dinna ken? That brings me

nae surprise

For here I'm jamm'd sae ticht, where some other man would fit,

An' he is rattlin' in a place that's just my very size.

But bide till my corners are ance a wee bit worn,

An' I can turn as free as those wha think I shouldna try,

Syne mony wha look doon upon me now wi' scorn,

When speer'd at gin they ken o' me, will proudly answer, Aye.