Obituary: David Morrison, poet, painter, editor and librarian
Born: 4 August, 1941, in Glasgow. Died: 1 September, 2012, in Wick, aged 71.
With the sudden death of David Morrison, Caithness in particular and Scotland in general have lost one of their more colourful creative spirits. Poet, painter, editor and librarian, he was many things to many people and, however local he was in his political and cultural commitments, Morrison was a literary figure of national significance and it is no coincidence that the subheading and stated purpose of Scotia Review, the magazine he founded in 1970 and subsequently edited for the next 34 years, was “for the Scottish Muse and Nation”.
Although born in Glasgow into a family of teachers and two generations of Presbyterian ministers, David Morrison was always drawn to the expressive arts and, before his formal training in librarianship at Strathclyde University, he had harboured ambitions to be a singer but the combination of a speech impediment and his mother’s refusal to sign his consent forms for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music Drama forced him to seek an alternative vocation.
So it was he found himself as principal assistant librarian at the Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1960s and, by his own admission, “unhappy”.
But his life was to have two major upturns. The first was his marriage to Edna Hanson in 1963. She remained his life-long companion, his inspiration and the mother of his two children, Ewan and Glenna.
Ewan is now a very successful novelist and Glenna an accomplished actor. So, however sudden his death, his life does have a symmetry.
The other upturn was the move to Caithness in 1965. Here, in the flat plateau of the Pictish peatlands with its huge open landscape and cathedral skies, David Morrison discovered his spiritual home and his artistic resource.
It was in Caithness he found work as the county librarian and did much to revolutionise the provision of books in the far north, but, more importantly, in Caithness he developed his artistic, cultural and political consciousness, made his home and raised his family.
As he wrote in his poem Caithness:
“This landscape cries out for verticals
Placed here and there, where the sun’s set
Will pierce and dance, taunt around a hole,
Cast shadows, shaft life on this ancient tomb.”
This cry, this “coronach”, is a constant feature of his poetic output, which stretched to 13 collections and various pamphlets and were gathered into The Cutting Edge: collected poems 1966-2003, published by the University of Salzburg in 2006. This restlessness, whether a product of professional or political frustration or by the wind blowing across the fields and cliffs of Caithness, gives Morrison’s work, both literary and visual, a sense of urgency.
There may be a few constants: family, friends, Scotland – but everything seems to be on the move. The legacy of Scotia Review – in the sheer number of established and young unknown writers (and this is where I first got to know David almost 40 years ago) and by the ground-breaking Wick Festival of Poetry, Folk and Jazz in the 1970s, is testament to this urgency and need for movement.
It was heartening that in 1984 the National Library of Scotland held a celebratory exhibition of the work of Scotia Review and I knew that David was very proud of this recognition.
He was a romantic nationalist in verse, an abstract expressionist in paint, a generous publisher and promoter, and a loyal and faithful friend; his energy touched many and his sincerity impressed those with the sense to see it.
The list of writers David brought to Caithness reads like a who’s who of 20th-century Scottish literature: Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, Fionn Mac Colla, Iain Crichton Smith – the list is long. There are few young artists from the north of Scotland who were not inspired – and practically helped – by David Morrison.
Sometimes big personalities in small places can create sparks and it will come as no surprise to the many who knew him that sometimes Wick and David Morrison would stare simmeringly at each other over an issue. He had no use for parochialism of any hue and whether his attention was fixed on Wick or Edinburgh it was the greater world that fascinated him. Sometimes his mood would grow black but he had a surfeit of humanity to ensure that it never lasted long. His gift was that he always accentuated the positive.
If there was a tragedy, it was that he did not promote his own work as tirelessly as he did the work of others.
If that has the consequence that his poetry and painting are not as fashionable as they could or should be, then it is the converse that it is the mark of humility and that in any age is a rare quality.
There have not been and, I suspect, there will not be many to come like David Morrison. Scottish cultural life has lost a rare and vital catalyst. He lit up my life and I will miss him terribly. His legacy, thank goodness, is more vital than my sorrow.
David Morrison is survived by his wife Edna, his son Ewan and daughter Glenna and four grandchildren.
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