Obituary: Dr Shirley Guthrie, Scottish scholar who specialised in Islamic art

Dr Shirley Guthrie MA PhD, Islamic scholar. Born: 11 June 1937 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 April 2020 in Edinburgh, 
aged 82.

An independent and unorthodox Scottish scholar with the perseverance of a dogged detective has died in Edinburgh, aged 82.

Dr Shirley Guthrie’s work cast new light on some of the masterpieces of medieval Islamic literature, and she was continuing her research until shortly before her death at the Western General Hospital on 19 April.

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Dr Guthrie came to research relatively late, after living abroad for many years while raising a family of four boys with her husband Charles, a highly qualified petroleum industry engineer. She was 48 when she received her first degree – in Hebrew and Arabic – at Aberdeen University in 1986; her doctorate in Islamic painting from Edinburgh University was conferred six years later in 1992.

Her research was self-funded and through it she carved a niche for herself by specialising in figurative Arabic art. She published three well-regarded books, in which she highlighted the often underrated role of women in the Arabic world of the Middle Ages. Her travels took her to many different countries to study rare documents, ending with the most challenging trip of all. In 2009 she travelled to Yemen, one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, at considerable personal risk.

“Right to the end Dr Guthrie was breaking new ground and her scholarship came full circle in a very satisfying way,” said Professor Robert Hillenbrand, the former Chair of Islamic Art at Edinburgh University who supervised her PhD work. “Shirley impressed me from the word go because of her steely determination to get the job done.

“She loved her research –there was never any doubt about that – but she brought to it an innate sense of discipline and a truly admirable work ethic.

“She was able to combine mastery of detail with a broad view, and not many scholars can do that. Shirley was a pleasure to supervise. Hers is a life to celebrate – an inspiration to all to follow their star.”

Shirley Guthrie, nee Gilheany, had an unlikely start for someone who would later become immersed in the exotic world of rare and colourfully decorated medieval documents. She was born into a working class family in Edinburgh’s New Town in 1937, her father John a career sailor with the Royal Navy who started working life as a stoker and ended up a chief petty officer after serving throughout the Second World War. Her mother Mary (Molly) was a waitress and housemaid.

Shirley’s life began in a basement flat in Dundas Street – Pitt Street as was – before the family moved to Northumberland Street. She grew up in that old democratic New Town, now gone, where all of society lived cheek-by-jowl. The cluster of streets around St Stephen’s Kirk were dotted with her many relatives; maids and miners, postmen, shop assistants and hotel workers.

After the war, Shirley moved with her parents and younger sister Maureen to Pilton, where brother James was born. Sister Maureen recalls she was a tomboy, with good footballing skills: “The local lads thought she was fantastic. She also cobbled together roller skates from an assortment of wheels and managed to whizz around on them.”

After primary school, she became a pupil at Broughton, the academically strong senior secondary school. Schoolfriends remember her as well-behaved – bright, alert and keen to learn. She kept in touch with some all her life and was instrumental in setting up The Broughton Group of former classmates, after her later life return to Scotland.

There were about 20 at the first get-together and one of them, Dulcie Hunter (nee Murray), remembers how delighted they were to be re-united. Another fellow pupil, and lifelong friend, Janette Thomson (nee Walker), played for the school’s hockey team alongside Shirley and says she can still picture her “flying down the field. She was very determined.”

Shirley showed an aptitude for languages, especially French. She was very sporty and – unusually for the times – later attained brown belt standard in judo. Soon after leaving Broughton school at 17, she moved to London in 1954 and worked as a civil servant.

She was married in 1959 to a fellow Scot, Charles (Charlie) Guthrie, also a New Town native. He had studied mining engineering at Edinburgh University, but in 1958 switched from coal to petroleum engineering, to take a job in Trinidad. Shirley joined him there, taking an oil tanker voyage from Avonmouth, Bristol, and they were married there on 10 October 1959.

The family grew to six as they moved to various parts of the world where the oil industry was flourishing, including Bahrain, Nigeria, Great Yarmouth and Aberdeen. When the family was more independent, and settled for a while in Aberdeen, Shirley decided this was “her time”.

She had learnt Arabic in Bahrain and in 1982 enrolled at Aberdeen University, having studied at evening class to gain her entry requirements.

She embarked on her first university term in the same year as two of her four sons – Gordon went to Bristol to begin a chemical physics degree, and Bruce to Cambridge to study medicine.

Most conventional scholars acquire their formal qualifications early but Shirley was not deterred from tackling the task later in life. Despite moving south in the mid-1980s on account of her husband’s work, she continued her studies at Edinburgh University. After achieving her doctorate, she lectured on the Eastern Arts Course at SOAS, and introduced Islamic Art to the syllabus at Birkbeck, both institutions attached to London University.

Her research took her to various locations, and she was able to examine ancient and priceless Arabic manuscripts in Paris, St Petersburg, Istanbul, and most recently, Yemen. She went there in 2009 and although it was six years before the current savage and ongoing civil war erupted, it was a risky mission, especially for a lone woman.

Few Westerners visited the country, except for essential business, but the sleuthing Dr Guthrie achieved her goal – access to a rarely seen and highly prized Islamic manuscript in the capital Sana’a. This research formed a major part of her third book about the Assemblies, Al-Hariri’s 50 fabled illustrated stories making up the Maqamat, one of the most revered works in Islam.

In retirement Shirley and Charlie settled into his old family home at St Vincent Street and the scattered Guthrie tribe, in that often familiar way, all drifted back to Scotland’s enticing embrace. Shirley and Charlie’s six grandchildren are all Scottish born.

She is survived by her husband and four sons. The eldest Donald lives in Aberdeen, working globally in the oil industry. Gordon is an IT specialist and politician manque. Bruce the third son became Professor of General Practice at Edinburgh University last year, while the youngest Neil, now based in Aberdeen, has pursued a career in oil and gas exploration, including drilling consultancy.

An Edinburgensian from “the neb of her nose to the tip of her toes”, Dr Guthrie was also an internationalist who admired many different cultures while remaining immensely proud of her Scottish heritage. A close English relative recalls a Calcutta Cup rugby game when she was staying at Shirley’s home.

She asked to watch the Six Nations game on TV, since both were avid rugby fans. “Quite early in the first half, it became evident it was not to be Scotland’s day, so Shirley turned off the sound, allowing only the picture. She claimed she couldn’t stand commentator Brian Moore but, while this may have been true, all the family knows she hated the prospect of her beloved Scotland being defeated by the Auld Enemy!”

James Gilheany