Basil Megaw

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Basil Richardson Stanley Megaw, first director of School of Scottish Studies

Born: 22 June, 1913, in Belfast Died: 22 August, 2002, in Stevenage, aged 89

BASIL Megaw was for 12 years (1945-1957) director of the Manx Museum and thereafter, again for 12 years, director of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

He was born in Belfast and after primary and secondary education at Mourne Grange and Campbell College, he went on to Peterhouse at Cambridge, graduating BA in 1935 in the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos.

From 1936 to 1940 he was secretary and assistant director of the Manx Museum and Ancient Monuments Trustees. He was appointed director and librarian of the Manx Museum and National Trust as well as inspector of ancient monuments in 1940, but war-time service as a scientific officer with RAF Bomber Command meant that he did not take up these responsibilities until 1945.

Archaeology and its allied disciplines of ethnology and museum studies were his lifelong passion. He directed archaeological excavations and fieldwork in the Isle of Man and assisted others in work of this kind in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, among them such notable figures as Professors V Gordon Childe, Grahame Clark and Estyn Evans. He enjoyed recounting tales of the Sutton Hoo excavation and his meticulous drawings of finds were highly appreciated.

He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (London), and soon after his arrival in Scotland was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, of which he was a councillor (1959-1962), a vice-president (1974-1977) and a loyal and active supporter until the end of his life. He was president of the Scottish regional group of the Council for British Archaeology in the Sixties, when he also became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1957 he was appointed the first director of the School of Scottish Studies, which had been founded in 1951 under the guidance of Professor Angus McIntosh as a centre for the collection, study and dissemination of Scotland’s cultural traditions. He was director until 1969, when he was succeeded by Professor John MacQueen and was able to resume the material culture research which was so central to his interests. He retired in 1980, but remained an Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Arts until his death.

The fledgling School of Scottish Studies provided a focus for the fruits of field collection, which Basil valued, in the context of interdisciplinary and international scholarship. He and his advisers were responsible for appointments which built on and extended the work of its earliest collectors, outstanding figures such as Calum Maclean, Hamish Henderson and Francis Collinson, and placed its archives on an international stage.

As editor of its journal, Scottish Studies, from 1964 to 1968 and an adviser before and after, he ensured that the work of the School continued to reach a worldwide audience. Under his directorship and with his encouragement, the School became a catalyst in bringing together scholars with like interests. This seminal role may be seen in organisations which were created as a result of meetings which took place under its aegis - the Society for Folk Life Studies, the Council for Name Studies in Great Britain and Ireland, and later the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group.

He helped create the first open-air folk museum in the British Isles at Cregneash, in the Isle of Man, and supported the trust formed to preserve the unique township of Auchindrain in Argyll. He served on the board of trustees of the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh and on the council of management of the Highland Folk Museum, Am Fasgadh, in Kingussie.

Basil Megaw’s life embraced the three regions of the Q-Celtic world, Ireland, Man and Scotland, and the powerhouse of Celtic and related subjects which was Cambridge in the Thirties. It was there that he met his future wife, Eleanor Hardy, who was a kindred spirit and supporter in so many ways, including publication.

Long before "interdisciplinary" became an academic buzz-word, Basil was exemplifying it in his outlook, his work and in the encouragement which he gave to others. He respected the source materials which provided evidence for the historical geographer, the folklorist, the dialectologist, the archaeologist, the museum curator, the historian, the place-name scholar and the student of human society, and was always alert to their interconnections. He had a deep appreciation of visual sources, and took great pleasure from writing about the value of drawings and paintings for the ethnologist.

His was a truly international perspective. A Carnegie UK Trust travel grant in 1938 enabled him to study museum procedures in Scandinavia. He made friendships there which were to be lifelong, for he valued these northern connections and he welcomed many Scandinavian scholars to Edinburgh through the university’s Northern Scholars’ Scheme. He saw how much Manx archaeology gained from the activities of German archaeologists interned there during the Second World War, and was elected a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute in 1951.

He had a natural dignity to which was linked a keen sense of fun. He relished the good companionship and stimulating conversation which was to be found in the University of Edinburgh Staff Club in its heyday, and had a knack for putting people of like mind in touch with one another.

He will be remembered striding from his home in Merchiston to George Square, his knapsack on his back, and many will miss those little notes signed "B.R.S.M" - "Have you had a look at ...?" - with information which, indeed, proved useful and might otherwise have been missed.

His family were never far from his thoughts: Eleanor, who died in 1977, Sam and Helen Megaw, Clare, David and Heather Alford, his brother Peter in Cyprus and his sister-in-law, Thrse.

It was soon after celebrating his birthday close to that of his cherished grand-daughter, Heather, that he had the heart attack which was to bring his long life to a close. He was always alert to the interests of others and when thinking of him the words of the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray come readily to mind: "Friendship is the supreme value in life and the source of all other values."

A celebration of his life and work will take place on Thursday, 24 October, at 5:30pm in the Raeburn Room, Old College, University of Edinburgh.