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Caithness has lost a champion of the arts

By SPP Reporter

David Morrison.
David Morrison.

THE phone rings. I pick it up. It’s either a song or the unmistakable greeting: "David here!" It is hard to believe I will hear neither again.

When David Morrison died suddenly on the 1st September at the age of 71, his family not only lost a husband, father and granddad, but Wick, Caithness and Scotland lost a champion. And many people lost a good friend.

His son Ewan once described David as "a poet, librarian, nationalist, romantic, drinker, friend of tinkers, drunks and passing strangers, painter of abstract landscapes and survivor of a dead rebellion." He was also a novelist, idealist, arts promoter, editor, community activist, publisher, mentor and singer.

David was born in Glasgow in 1941 and educated at Glasgow High School for Boys and Hamilton Academy. At the age of 18 he became an assistant librarian before attending Glasgow College of Commerce and Strathclyde University to qualify as a professional librarian.

He spent, in his own words, an unhappy year as principal assistant librarian at Edinburgh College of Art before he and his wife Edna moved to Caithness in 1965. Here, he found his spiritual home in a land which inspired his art and amongst people who fired his poetry and passions.

He was first principal assistant librarian and then county librarian, setting about revolutionising the provision of books in the far north, and laying the foundation for what became the North Highland Archives.

But at the same time he fizzed into the life of Wick, with the aim of placing the town firmly at the heart of Scotland’s cultural landscape. He started Scotia Review, a radical literary magazine publishing new local writers alongside established world renowned names. David was its editor for 34 years. He started Pulteney Press, publishing new local writers. He began Wick Folk Club, and the Wick Festival of Poetry, Folk and Jazz.

The list of writers he brought to Caithness is remarkable: Sorley MacLean, Fionn Mac Colla, Iain Crichton Smith, Liz Lochhead, and Norman McCaig. What he did was create a unique opportunity for burgeoning writers to hear and mingle with established names — in a town far removed, geographically, from Edinburgh and Glasgow. National newspaper coverage followed and blossomed.

My own memories include Sorley MacLean asking me, then a naïve 18-year-old, what I was writing now. As if it was of consequence, as if it mattered. But it did matter by making it seem possible that you could write for a living.

David brought The Battlefield Band to Wick, and James Simmons, who stilled the Assembly Rooms to silence by singing his self-penned "The Ballad of Claudy" about a terrorist atrocity visited on a small town.

And throughout all this promoting and organising David and Edna, his life-long companion, raised a family: Ewan, now a successful novelist, and Glenna an accomplished and experienced actor. Ewan and Glenna grew up in an open house, a venue for true ceilidhs, where often they would wake up to find the living room littered in sleeping bodies.

David published 13 collections of poetry and various pamphlets and they were gathered into The Cutting Edge: collected poems 1966-2003, published by the University of Salzburg in 2006.

David’s large presence sometimes hid the fact that he could be a beautiful writer with a clear eye for the individual in the landscape.

He was a community activist. He was a member of Wick Community Council and Wick Players and was a vital part in setting up the Save Our Library Action Group. Thrawn and sometimes difficult, he could fall out with people. He and I did many times, and sometimes didn’t speak for months. But we always made up. There are many writers, me included, who are forever in his debt for opening our eyes to what is possible, and starting us on our way.

The fact that David would sing down the phone tells you music was in his soul. He may not have become a professional singer but he sang in so many other ways. He sang in his words and actions of this town and this county and of Scotland. He sang of its richness and its potential and its heart.

My life, and the life of countless others, is the richer because of the rebel David Morrison. He was a big man and he leaves a big space.

Colin MacDonald

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