Obituary: Stephanie Wolfe Murray, renowned for her charity work and a maverick who broke the mould in Scottish publishing

Stephanie Wolfe Murray, publisher and charity worker. Born: 27 April, 1941 in Blandford Forum, Dorset. Died: 24 June, 2017 in the Scottish Borders, aged 76.

Stephanie Wolfe Murray, editor at Canongate Publishing in Edinburgh in 1982. Picture: Denis Straughan
Stephanie Wolfe Murray, editor at Canongate Publishing in Edinburgh in 1982. Picture: Denis Straughan

It was perhaps precisely because she had no experience in the field that she broke the mould in Scottish publishing – falling into it and then proceeding to leave the then somewhat staid Caledonian literary scene wallowing in her stylish wake.

Stephanie Wolfe Murray, a maverick at heart, swept away preconceptions, trampled over any boundaries she encountered and completely transformed the industry north of the Border, all in her pursuit of producing beautiful books.

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A co-founder of the Edinburgh publishing house Canongate, she is best known for introducing Alasdair Gray and his debut novel Lanark, A Life in Four Books, and for publishing reformed criminal Jimmy Boyle’s autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, written while he was still in prison. But she herself was most proud of reviving old, and often forgotten, Scottish works as Canongate Classics and of developing the Kelpies series of Scottish children’s books in a similar vein.

After shaking up the Scottish literary world she went on to immerse herself equally enthusiastically in charity work, rebuilding homes for the destitute in Kosovo – all quite a quantum leap for a girl once expected to simply become a debutante and marry well.

The daughter of Liverpool solicitor Hadden Todd and his wife Wendy, she was born in Blandford Forum, Dorset and educated at Overstone School, a girls’ boarding school in Northampton. Her mother, determined to prepare her for life as an eligible young lady, then sent her to Italy where she studied art in Florence. Returning to London she was engaged in secretarial work and mixed with the society set that included Antony Armstrong-Jones who went on to marry Princess Margaret.

A charismatic beauty, who once appeared as a cover girl on Queen magazine, she tried her mother’s patience when she fell for Scottish journalist Angus Wolfe Murray whom she married when she was barely out of her teens. They lived in London and Leeds – he was a writer on the Yorkshire Post – before moving to Scotland where they settled in a remote home in Inverness-shire.

By this time she had four sons who grew up roaming free in the Highland countryside until the success of their father’s novel, The End of Something Nice, prompted a return to London. They later moved back north, to her husband’s family home near Peebles, and the seeds of Canongate were sown thanks to their American friend Bob Shure. When he had difficulty getting a novel published they decided to establish their own publishers, working out of an office off Edinburgh’s High Street and naming it after the city’s Canongate area.

It was 1973 and the couple issued Shure’s book alongside a collection of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. She had had no formal training in publishing or the literary world but Mrs Wolfe Murray proved to be instinctive and enormously capable.

When she and her husband split up and he left the company, she took up the challenge of continuing to run the business, albeit precariously and on a shoestring. Shortly before they parted her husband had discovered excerpts of Lanark in a magazine, so she followed up and, with her colleague Charles Wild, published the novel that has since become a modern classic.

While bringing up her four boys, she went on to publish Jimmy Boyle’s book and Charles Palliser’s epic novel The Quincunx as well as supporting less high-profile writers, such as struggling poets, and mentoring other publishing talent. She helped to establish the Scottish Publishers Association (now Publishing Scotland), a co-operative for independent publishers, was a long-standing member of its board and on the founding board of the Edinburgh Book Festival. She believed in co-operation, as opposed to cut-throat competition, and her innovative solution to the rising dominance of bookshop chains, and the difficulties smaller publishers had in accessing big buyers, was to develop a network of sales agents who took on a group of publishers.

She travelled widely to book fairs overseas, garnering extensive contacts in the international publishing world, winning hearts and, occasionally, attracting the unwanted attention of border guards. Her friend Lorraine Fannin recalled Mrs Wolfe Murray, dressed flamboyantly in a black boiler suit cinched by her old Girl Guide belt, attempting to carry an entire, fully-loaded display of Kelpie books onto an aircraft in New York. During questioning security staff discovered she was also in possession of a quantity of suspicious crushed leaves – the supply of Earl Grey tea she’d been forced to bring since, she declared, US tea was “such filthy rubbish”.

Another acquaintance, one of her son’s friends, remembered arriving at the family home to discover all the cupboards were bare. She promptly sent them all out to gather nettles and then whipped up a vat of delicious soup to feed everyone.

Despite her ingenuity and engaging leadership, by 1994 Canongate was in financial difficulty and was bought out by her colleague Jamie Byng. Mrs Wolfe Murray retired from publishing but became heavily involved in charity work instead. She helped to set up the Edinburgh charity Scottish European Aid, which later merged with Mercy Corps Europe, which now works all over the world. She was also involved with Edinburgh Direct Aid, the Scottish Charities Kosovo Appeal and Connect Humanitarian Agency.

Around the millennium she spent two years living in Kosovo, rebuilding homes and being continually besieged by people looking for help. There she experienced the brutal wartime regime’s aftermath, summed up vividly in one message home after a visit to a well: “We were told that 17 women had been raped, had their throats cut and been flung down it,” she wrote. “We steeled ourselves to look, trying not to breathe and saw, simply, clothes floating on top in bloated colourful shapes.”

Testimony to her work there are condolences from Kosovans, including one who has named his daughter Stephanie.

Returning to Scotland, she moved to Traquair in the Borders and was reunited with her husband Angus – they had never divorced – some 30 years after they separated. She continued to be involved in charity work, joined Traquair village choir, took up gardening and supported a local environmental movement. But books were still in her blood and she had latterly worked as a freelance editor, editing a number of titles including one her son Rupert wrote about his experiences living in Tibet.

She is survived by her husband, their sons Kim, Rupert, Gavin and Magnus and extended family.