Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"The Professor and the Madman" – the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Ulster contribution to the Scottish National Dictionary

I watched this movie on Netflix a few weeks ago, the dramatisation of how Scotsman James Murray and American William Chester Minor were an unlikely and unconventional collaborating duo in the successful compilation and publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. They were both controversial characters - Murray unorthodox and, some stuffy Oxford dons apparently thought, unqualified. Minor had a remarkable intellect and memory but was also a convicted murderer serving time in the psychiatric institution of Broadmoor. They 'met' as a result of Murray's efforts to find a nationwide army of volunteer assistance via a publicity campaign.

A dictionary committee had begun work in 1857; the project faltered along for 21 years until Murray was tasked with it in 1878. Six years later in 1884 the first volume was printed, and volume by volume followed. In 1928 the entire finished dictionary was republished as a complete set, and so 1928 became known as The Year of the Dictionary.

• James Murray's landmark Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, 1873
Murray was from Denholm in the Scottish Borders. Prior to being commissioned to lead the OED, he had already completed the monumental 270 page volume The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland in 1873 which is online here. His assessment of Lowland Scots v English and his analysis of Burns' poetry on pages 75-77 are worth reading. Interestingly he is also happy to use the term 'Scotch' which these days is often frowned upon.

Murray also makes passing reference to Ulster, and that he had been in correspondence with Rev Classon Porter of Larne and Robert MacAdam in analysing the extent of Ulster Gaelic in the Glens of Antrim and its connections and similarities with Scottish Gaelic, concluding "But there is not the slightest reason to deduce the Glensmen from Scotland; they are a relic of the ancient continuity of the population of Ulster and Western Scotland."

It was a groundbreaking and monumental work, with limited printed sources to draw from. Murray did the 'heavy lifting'. It wasn't perfect, for example in a 1996 paper Professor AJ Aitken remarked that Murray "...overstates what he sees as the moulding influence of Gaelic on Scots pronunciation and understates the Norse element in Scots ..." but also that Murray was "... the founder of the modern study of Scots, both historical and descriptive ...". Aitken also quoted the late Professor Michael Montgomery of Tennessee, a man I had the pleasure of meeting a few times, of hosting in our home, and occasionally corresponding with, concisely saying "all paths lead back to Murray". 

Murray seems to not have paid any attention to Scots in Ulster / Ulster-Scots - but the Introduction of Holywood man William Hugh Patterson's famous 1880 Glossary of Antrim and Down refers to Murray's work in a summary of the survival of Irish language in those counties.

• The Scottish National Dictionary and Dr Robert Moore Fraser
In Murray's native Scotland, and deriving much from his writing, the project to compile the Scottish National Dictionary had begun work in 1908 under the banner of the Scottish Dialects Committee. Interestingly, the Northern Whig published a letter on 12 January 1924 by Belfast Presbyterian and physician Dr Robert Moore Fraser B.A. M.D. (1865–1952) supporting the work of the Dialects Committee, and stating that in 1922 he had proposed at a meeting of the Queen's University Convocation that an equivalent be set up here.

• Robert Moore Fraser's Ulster-Scots background
His father, James, was from Fort Augustus in Scotland but travelled all over the country due to his job as an excise officer. In 1857 he was posted to Londonderry. He met Catherine Ann Moore who was ten years older than him, and they married in Carndonagh Presbyterian Church in 1859. Their first two children were born in Ireland; James was posted back to Scotland, and the family moved first to Pitlochry and then to Creiff.

During their time in Crieff, Robert Moore Fraser was born on 10 February 1865. In 1873, when Robert was 8 years old, the family moved again, this time back across the North Channel to Belfast permanently, and they frequently visited their Donegal family.

Robert was educated at Inst, and then Queen's. He married Margaret Boal Ferguson of Muckamore in Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church on 1 February 1900, but she died of TB in November 1903. He married again, this time a Londonderry doctor's daughter called Alice Josephine Cuthbert, in June 1907. In 1908 he began his medical career at 211 Albertbridge Road.

With this background of Scottish father, Ulster mother, and various migrations back and forth, it's not surprising that he could see the importance of, and connections between, the vernacular language of Ulster and Scotland.

• 1922: Fraser's attempt at Queen's University
A quick look at the Belfast News Letter of 14 December 1922 gives a full account of that Convocation meeting mentioned above, and Fraser's proposal that "in the event of the establishment of a lectureship in phonetics, the holder of the appointment will be required to exhibit special interest in and knowledge of the Ulster and Scottish vernacular... there should be research into the Ulster vernacular ... the sum he suggested to carry that into effect would be £25,000".

That amount equates to around £750,000 today. It is interesting that he was proposing this around the time that Northern Ireland was established, perhaps seeing it as a landmark project for the new jurisdiction, or perhaps a way of capturing the past before 'progress' might sweep it all away.

His 1924 letter continued that "unfortunately the resolution was defeated", expressed his dismay at the lack of "Ulster's self-respect", and that "it is of no use appealing to the Scottish Committee" so he must have thought it was game over for the idea.

• 1927: Scottish Dialects Committee in Ulster
Fortunately in 1927 Fraser was proven wrong, when the Scottish Dialects Committee placed adverts in Ulster newspapers. Two examples are below, from the Northern Whig in 1927, and also from the Ballymena Observer in 1928.

• 1931: Fraser on the Executive Council
Fraser's commitment paid off when he became the sole Ulster representative on the 30 member Executive Council for the Scottish National Dictionary, with Ulster contributions from the trio of Rev W. F. Marshall, Dr George Browne of Ballynahinch and John Johnston Marshall of Aughnacloy and Belfast. The four names appear on the opening pages of the first volume (pics below) which was published in 1931, with a section on Ulster. Its introduction firmly embraces Ulster as part of the linguistic region and family –
"The area of Scottish speech with which the National Dictionary deals comprises (1) the Lowlands of Scotland, (2) Orkney and Shetland, where it has superseded the Norn language within the last 350 years, and (3) parts of Ulster, especially Antrim, Down and Derry, to which, since c.1606, it has been extended by the immigration of Scottish settlers."

• 1952: Death of Robert Moore Fraser
Fraser died on 28 January 1952 at his home at 10 Winston Gardens, Ballyhackamore. His obituary in the Belfast Telegraph showed him to have been a colourful character - one of the first motorists in Ulster (driving a five horsepower Vauxhall with a crank starting handle) a leading figure during the Great War in the running of the U.V.F. Hospital (which was behind Queen's) active in McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church as Sunday School superintendent and as an elder in Knock Presbyterian Church. His only son, Sir Ian Fraser (Wikipedia here) was a renowned surgeon and President of the British Medical Association.

• Perhaps there are SND archives which might tell more about the importance of Fraser's role.
• Some of the biographical detail above comes from A Surgeon's Century: The Life of Sir Ian Fraser DSO FRCS, by Richard Clarke, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation (2004)
• Fraser's obituary in the British Medical Journal is online here, describing him as "a staunch Unionist".
• An essay by A.J. Aitken about James Murray is online here
• James Murray was born in Denholm in the Scottish Borders; it is likely that he was related to Colonel Adam Murray of Siege of Derry fame, to whom there is a memorial in Selkirk just 20 miles from Denholm.


Rhona said...

Many thanks for this really interesting history. There is indeed an SND archive, most of which was deposited with the National Library of Scotland some years ago (NLS inventory account numbers 10873, 10885, 11936, and 9448 for Scottish National Dictionary Association (SNDA) materials; inventory account number 8401 for materials from David Murison, SND's second editor; there is also a reference in the SNDA inventories to account number 6750 but I can't readily see what that relates to). The individual SNDA inventories can be accessed from here: None of them mention Fraser, but that's not necessarily significant. Inventory account 10873 would appear to be the most promising as it includes some papers going back to 1929. There are also some uncatalogued records and papers in the offices of Scottish Language Dictionaries (SLD), the successor organisation to SNDA. SLD had started to catalogue these materials just before the lockdown. We hope to continue that work when we return to our premises.

Thanks again,

-- Rhona Alcorn, CEO Scottish Language Dictionaries ( |

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks so much for getting in touch Rhona - I'm really glad the story was of interest, and very exciting that you may well have some further information within the SND archive. Perhaps once normality resumes some of these cross-channel connections can be further developed. Best Regards, Mark