Murray, Alexander (1775-1813) (DNB00)


MURRAY, ALEXANDER, D.D. (1775–1813), linguist, was born on 22 Oct. 1775 at Dunkitterick, Kirkcudbrightshire, where his father was a shepherd. Up to 1792 he had little more than thirteen months of school education, but he had learnt the alphabet in a crude way from his father, and by his own efforts he had mastered English and the rudiments of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, knew something of French and German, and had begun the study of Abyssinian. Meanwhile he had been engaged, partly as a shepherd and partly as a tutor to children remote from school like himself, and the small funds accruing from these sources helped his literary needs. He translated Drackenburg's German lectures on Roman authors, and when he visited Dumfries with his version in 1794, after unsuccessfully offering it to two separate publishers, he met Burns, who gave him wise advice (autobiographical sketch prefixed to History of European Languages). The father of Robert Heron (1764-1807) [q. v.] lent him useful books, and James M'Harg, a literary pedlar from Edinburgh, proposed that Murray should visit the university authorities. His parish minister, J. G. Maitland of Minnigaff, gave him an introductory letter to Principal Baird, which led to an examination, in which Murray agreeably surprised his examiners by his knowledge of Homer, Horace, the Hebrew psalms, and French. Admitted to Edinburgh University as a deserving student, he won his way by class distinctions and the help of private teaching. Lord Cockburn remembered him as a fellow-student, 'a little shivering creature, gentle, studious, timid, and reserved' (Memorials of his Time, p. 276). He completed a brilliant career by becoming a licentiate of the church of Scotland.

Murray early formed the acquaintance of John Leyden (Leyden, Poetical Remains, p. xvii), and among his friends were Dr. Anderson, editor of The British Poets,' Brougham, Jeffrey, Thomas Brown, Campbell, and others. Through Leyden he became a contributor to the 'Scots Magazine,' and he edited the seven numbers of that periodical from February 1802, inserting verses of his own under one of the signatures 'B,' 'X,' or 'Z.' He was meanwhile diligently studying languages. From the spoken tongues of Europe he advanced about this time to those of Western Asia and North-east Africa. His latter studies led him to contribute to three successive numbers of the 'Scots Magazine' a biography of Bruce, the Abyssinian traveller, which he afterwards expanded into a volume (1808). Constable the publisher, struck with his knowledge and thoroughness, engaged him in September 1802 to prepare a new edition of 'Bruce's Travels' (7 vols. 1805, new edit. 1813), to which he did ample justice, despite hindrances due to the stupid jealousy of the traveller's son, James Bruce, and his family (Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents, i. 222). At the same time (1802-5) he worked for the 'Edinburgh Review,' and his letters to Constable mark a writer with an easy, humorous, incisive style, and keenly alive to the importance of literary excellence and a wide and generous culture. Almost from the outset, as De Quincey says, he had before him 'a theory, and distinct purpose' (De Quincey, Works, x. 34, ed. Masson).

In 1806 Murray was appointed assistant to Dr. Muirhead, James (1742-1808) [q. v.], parish minister of Urr, Kirkcudbrightshire, whom he fully succeeded at his death in 1808. He married, 9 Dec. 1808, Henrietta Affleck, daughter of a parishioner. He soon became popular both as a man and a preacher. His interesting, frank, and sometimes sprightly letters to Constable mark steady social development, patriotic spirit, and literary and philosophical earnestness. He hailed with enthusiasm Chalmers's 'Caledonia,' and Scott's 'Minstrel' and 'Marmion.' Among his own literary projects for a time were, an edition of the classics, suggested by Constable, and a history of Galloway, which he seriously contemplated, and about which he had some correspondence with Scott (Constable and his Literary Correspondents, i. 267). His chief interest, however, centred in comparative language. He thought of writing a philosophical history of the European languages (ib. p. 289). In 1811 he translated, with approbation, an Ethiopic letter for George III, brought home by Salt the Abyssinian envoy, whose familiarity with the revised edition of Bruce's 'Travels prompted his suggestion of Murray to the Marquis of Wellesley as the only capable translator 'in the British dominions.' On 13 Aug. 1811 Murray wrote to Constable that he had mastered the Lappish tongue, that he saw 'light through the extent of Europe in every direction,' and that he trusted to unite the histories of Europe and Asia by aid of their respective languages. He added his conviction that the day would come when 'no monarch, however great and virtuous, would be ashamed of knowing him.'

In July 1812, after a keen contest involving some bitterness of feeling, Murray was appointed professor of oriental languages in Edinburgh University. His interests were materially served by the advocacy of Salt, and the active help of Constable (Scots Mag. August 1812; Constable, ut supra). He received from the university on 17 July the degree of doctor of divinity. He entered on his work at the end of October, publishing at the same date 'Outlines of Oriental Philology' (1812), for the use of his students. He lectured through the winter, against his strength, attracting both students and literary men to his room. His health completely gave way in the spring, and he died of consumption at Edinburgh 15 April 1813, leaving his widow and a son and daughter. Mrs. Murray survived about twelve years, supported by a government pension of 80l., which had been granted to her in return for Murray's translation of the Abyssinian letter. The daughter died of consumption in 1821, and the son, who was practically adopted by Archibald Constable, qualified for a ship surgeon, and was drowned on his first voyage (ib. p. 336). A monument to Murray was erected near his birthplace in 1834, and it received a suitable inscription in 1877. A portrait by Andrew Geddes, formerly in the possession of Constable, is now in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

Murray's wonderful promise was not equalled by his performance. But he proved himself an ideal editor and biographer, and his impulse, method, and style had a permanent influence. To the 'Edinburgh Review' of 1803 Murray contributed a review of Vallancey's 'Prospectus of an Irish Dictionary;' to the number for January 1804 he furnished an article on Clarke's 'Progress of Maritime Discovery;' and in January 1805 he discussed Maurice's 'History of Hindostan.' His 'Letters to Charles Stuart, M.D.,' appeared in 1813. His great work, the 'History of the European Languages, or Researches into the Affinities of the Teutonic, Greek, Celtic, Slavonic, and Indian Nations,' was edited by Dr. Scott, and published, with a life, by Sir H. W. Moncreiff, in 2 vols. 8vo, 1823. The Life includes a minute autobiographical sketch of Murray's boyhood, in the form of a letter addressed to the minister of Minnigaff, Kirkcudbrightshire. He figures as a lyrist on his 'Native Vale' in Harper's 'Bards of Galloway.'

[Life prefixed to European Languages; Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents; Murray's Literary History of Galloway.]

T. B.