William McGonagall, we're sorry to say, was born that way

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WILLIAM Topaz McGonagall has been reviled and revered as Scotland's worst poet.

But, while the Dundonian spent most of his career being pelted with flour and eggs and, on one occasion, was knocked out by a brick, a new biography suggests his indifference to public humiliation was a result of autism.

Dr Norman Watson in his new book, Poet McGonagall: The Biography of William McGonagall, that the "Bard of the Silv'ry Tay", who wrote over 200 poems in his career may have had Asperger's Syndrome, or a similar disorder on the autistic spectrum.

Among other eccentricities, McGonagall's poetry displayed an astonishing repetition of phrases. Over sixty begin "'Twas" and he constantly uses the phrase "beautiful to be seen". He also complained frequently of "noises in his head" towards the end of his life. His susceptibility to hoaxes, such as being told that "King Theebaw" of the Andaman Islands had appointed him "Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant", might also indicate some disorder, claims Watson.

He said: "McGonagall showed significant difficulty in social interaction - he made people laugh but seemed to remain insensitive as to why.

"The lack of demonstrated empathy is said to be possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Asperger's, while not recognising a listener's feelings or reactions is another form of social awkwardness associated with it."

Although written with serious intent, McGonagall's poems often created unintentional humour. For many years he performed at a Dundee circus, where he would happily read his poems while the crowd was permitted to pelt him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread. He received 15 shillings a night, but the events become so raucous that city magistrates eventually banned them.

"McGonagall seemed inured to insult, his deadpan response to ridicule being his greatest character trait," said Watson. "He wasn't concerned by verbal insults and didn't flinch before fusillades of missiles".

Professor Tommy MacKay, a psychologist and visiting professor of autism studies at Strathclyde University, thinks the theory valid.

"It's certainly quite possible. People who have Asperger's characterise it by impairments in reciprocal social interactions, so their ability to read the signals is very poor. They can come across as being very thick skinned and unable to read between the lines and sometimes even read the lines themselves. In regards to this, McGonagall would fit quite well."

Many great writers are believed to have had autism, including George Orwell, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and Hans Christian Andersen.

"Quite a lot of prominent figures including writers are believed to have suffered from some form of autism," said MacKay. "Einstein for example probably had Asperger's. Quite a lot of people who were viewed as having a touch of genius quite often have the features of being in the autistic spectrum."

In the 1890s, McGonagall moved to Edinburgh where he became a cult figure because of his quirky writings. However, by 1900 he was destitute and sickly, and died penniless in 1902. He was buried in a then unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. His death certificate, on which his name is mis-spelled McGonigall, states his cause of death as "cerebral haemorrhage".

But some dispute Watson's theory. Stewart Gunn, of the Scottish Society for Autism, said: "A diagnosis of a disorder on the autistic spectrum is not a quick fix or an easy solution and only comes about over a period of time. Autism is also often, for example, masked by other disorders. There isn't really enough [about McGonagall] to be accurate or helpful."

The poet WN Herbert, a Dundonian and McGonagall scholar, referred to the diagnosis as "a type of body-snatching". He said: "To look for extra-literary diagnoses is to pretend that what he wrote and how our ancestors responded to it was not a cultural phenomenon. It is to concur with the viewpoint that bad literature is somehow not literature. It is bad faith to McGonagall, poor suffering dope that he was, and to his memory, which is something far more complex, disturbing, and intriguing."

n skelly@scotlandonsunday.com