Obituary: Dr Athol Murray, historian, scholar and former Keeper of the Records of Scotland

Dr Athol Murray
Dr Athol Murray
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Dr Athol Murray, historian, scholar and former Keeper of the Records of Scotland. Born: 8 November 1930 in Tynemouth, Northumberland. Died: 24 August 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 87

The contribution made by Dr Athol Murray to the world of Scottish archives and historical scholarship is unlikely to be repeated. His dedication to promoting the use of Scottish records and archives, over a period of 65 years, contributed to public recognition of their value. His numerous publications helped further Scottish academic research and promoted improvements in archival practice.

Athol Laverick Murray was born on 8 November 1930 at Tynemouth, Northumberland. The son of George Murray, a bank manager, and Margery Laverick, he attended Lancaster Royal Grammar School and while still there was invited to write a school history, which was published in 1952. This early research experience allowed him to examine the school’s historical records and, to his surprise, he found that he had an aptitude for reading old handwriting and interpreting 13th century Latin.

Athol obtained degrees in History and Law from the Universities of Cambridge (BA 1952, MA 1957) and Edinburgh (LLB 1957, PhD 1961). He graduated from Cambridge earlier than most, aged 21. Looking for work, he considered a career in the university sector or the civil service, but was considered too young for both at a time when graduate entry to the civil service fast stream was 22. Instead he chose to write another history, for Sebright School in Worcestershire, a wealthy establishment which then owned a large chunk of Bethnal Green.

In November 1953 Athol was appointed to the Scottish Record Office (now National Records of Scotland) in Edinburgh. He later admitted that at the time he knew little about either the SRO or the city, his only previous visit to Edinburgh being when he attended the Glasgow Empire Exhibition as a child in 1938. Athol was interviewed by Sir James Fergusson, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, and the Scottish historian JD Mackie, who asked him about his army service. Athol had to confess that he had been excused on health grounds, but a further question about which regiment he might have served with elicited the reply, “My father’s old regiment, The Northumberland Fusiliers”. The answer was well received and he was appointed, though he thought that perhaps his name and being a published author helped as well.

Athol was the youngest permanent Assistant Keeper appointed to the SRO. In later years he would wryly comment that he was paid the princely sum of £1 a day, before tax. But work in Register House had other advantages, not least because it was where he met his future wife and life partner, Irene Joyce Cairns. Joyce started work in a temporary post on the same day and the couple were married on 11 October 1958 at St Giles’ High Kirk in Edinburgh.

Promoted to Deputy Keeper in 1984, Athol became Keeper of the Records of Scotland in 1985, holding the post until his retirement on 31st December 1990 after 37 years of service. His career was marked by his scholarship, his dedication to the office of Keeper and overseeing significant changes that laid the foundations for many key future developments. One such was securing government funding for the construction of a new purpose-built archive building in Edinburgh, Thomas Thomson House, which opened in 1994.

Underpinning Athol’s work as Keeper was an unrivalled knowledge of the records in his care. Set beside each other, the records he was responsible for would stretch from Edinburgh to Glasgow, yet it seemed to colleagues that he had opened almost every box at some point and assimilated their contents. While at the SRO he worked on the muniments of several Scottish landed families that read like a Who’s Who of Scottish landed estates – Agnew of Lochnaw, Borthwick of Borthwick, Drummond Castle (Earl of Perth), to name but a few.

But his particular research interest was the records of the government of pre-Union Scotland. A difficulty for all scholars of Scottish medieval history is the variable nature of the surviving source material. Record series tend to be incomplete and inconsistently compiled, and nothing can be understood quickly. Athol’s strength as a scholar lay in his masterly grasp of arcane procedure, particularly that of the Scottish Exchequer. When he started to work on that vast collection in 1957 much of it was still unsorted and the contents unknown. His initial work on the Exchequer records resulted in his PhD thesis (1961). Over 60 years later, while working as a volunteer, he was still trying to bring order to the remaining post-Union pockets of the material, much to the relief of many of his successor archivists.

Following retirement, in 1991 Athol was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to report on the Island’s archives. His report led to the States of Jersey setting up the Jersey Archives. In 1997 he led a team to report on the Hong Kong government archives just before the handover to China.

His recognised expertise and broad knowledge and understanding of Scottish charters and the Scottish chancery in the 14th and 15th centuries caused him to be invited to give oral or written testimony in a number of cases establishing correct title. They included the viscountcy of Oxfuird (1977), the earldom of Selkirk (1996) and the barony of Dairsie (1996). More recently Athol worked on a Court of Session court case of 1549 relating to the forgery of an instrument of sasine.

As well as having an eye for the wider picture, Athol appreciated the slightly quirky, as he showed in a short essay on official payments made for nearly a century from about 1708 to maintain a resident cat in the Exchequer office to prevent the records being eaten by mice. Both this and his extensive list of academic publications remain essential reading for academic historians and students of medieval and early modern history.

Beyond his work in the SRO, Athol’s other academic interests ranged widely. He was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Fellow and vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a founder member of the annual Conference of Scottish Medievalists, which first met in 1958. He missed only one Conference, and at its 2018 meeting entertained members to memories of its early years. He collaborated on many projects to the benefit of the research community. He was a mainstay of an important project to produce a list of post-holders in the dioceses of the medieval Scottish church, an electronic edition of which was completed just before his death.

In November 2017, in recognition of his outstanding achievements and contribution to the world of scholarship and archives, NRS named a new meeting space “The Athol Murray Suite” at West Register House in his honour. It was a fitting tribute and an appropriate accolade for a scholar who had dedicated his life to securing or using records and had made a key contribution to furthering our understanding of early Scottish administrative history. Athol was still volunteering in NRS only a few weeks before his death, working tirelessly on his beloved Exchequer records.

A keen bowler and member of Wardie Bowling Club, Athol was also a great fan of Italian opera and would attend performances regularly with his family at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

Athol Murray is survived by his daughter Helen, son Ewan, and granddaughter Sofia.