Murray, Alexander (1), Dd
Murray, Alexander (1), D.D.
an eminent Scotch divine, noted as an Orientalist, was born at Dunkitterick, October 22, 1775, of very humble parentage, and therefore enjoyed scarcely any educational advantages in early life. It was not till he had reached his sixth year that he was taught the alphabet of his mother- tongue. "His father" (a shepherd), says his biographer, "in that year laid out a halfpenny in the purchase of a catechism, and from the letters and syllables on the face of the book he began to teach his son the elements of learning. It was however emphatically 'a good book,' and only to be handled on Sundays or other suitable occasions; it was therefore commonly locked up, and throughout the winter the old man, who had himself been taught reading and writing in his youth, drew for his son the figures of the letters in his written hand on the board of an old wool-card with the black end of a burned heatherstem. In this way young Murray was initiated into literature; and working continually with his board and brand, he soon became a reader and writer. The catechism was at length presented, and in a month or so he could read the easier parts of it. In the summer of 1782 he got a Psalm-book, then a New Testament, and at last a Bible, a book which he had heard read every night at family worship, which he often longed to get hold of, but which he was never allowed to open or even touch. He now read constantly, and having a good memory, he remembered well and would repeat numerous psalms and large portions of Scripture. In 1783 his reading and memory had become the wonder of the rustic circle in which he lived, and a wish began to be generally entertained that he should be sent to school." An uncle of the boy, attracted by the precocity of the youth, finally sent him to Galloway school in his ninth year. He remained there for a while only, and was then obliged to return home to help his father in the fields. In 1790, however, he found means to resume his studies, and he made his way rapidly thereafter. In 1794, being then already master of the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French, which he had mainly acquired without an instructor, he was brought to the notice of the Reverend Dr. Baird, of Edinburgh. This learned gentleman interested himself in Murray, and his subsequent progress was made comparatively easy. In the course of two years he obtained a bursary, or exhibition, in the University of Edinburgh; and never relaxing in his pursuit of knowledge, he soon made himself acquainted with all the European languages, and having formed the design of tracing up all the languages of mankind to one source, he began a work by which he will be known in the literary world. But though it is distinguished by profound and various learning, it is both imperfect and posthumous. It appeared under the auspices of the Rev. Dr. Scot of Corstorphine, and is entitled A History of the European Languages, or Researches into the Affinities of the Teutonic, Greek, Celtic, Sclavonic, and Indian Nations (1813). An extensive acquaintance with these languages convinced Murray that all the European languages were closely connected; and in the work now named it was his object to show that they all derive from and may be traced to nine euphonic primitives, which primitives he states to be "ag, bag, dwag, gwag, lag, mag, nag, rag, and swag." "By the help of these nine words and their compounds," he says, "all the European languages have been formed." The work was, however, nothing but a most desperate and unsuccessful attempt at generalization. Dr. Noah Webster says that "it presents one of the most singular medleys of truth and error, of sound observation and visionary opinions, that has ever fallen under my (Webster's) notice" (Pref. to his Dict. [ed. 1852], page 74). By the advice of his friends he prosecuted the studies necessary for the Church; was finally ordained; and in Dec., 1806, Murray was appointed assistant and successor to Dr. Muirhead, minister of Urr, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, a charge to which he in 1808 succeeded as full stipendiary. He still, however, continued his philological pursuits. In 1811 an incident occurred which brought him into prominent notice as a linguist: on the recommendation of Mr. Salt, envoy to Abyssinia, he was applied to by the marquis Wellesley as perhaps the only person in the British dominions qualified to translate a letter, written in Geez, from the governor of Tigre to his Britannic majesty; and he performed the task in the most satisfactory way. The following year a vacancy occurred in the chair of Oriental languages in the University of Edinburgh, and, as suited to Murray's tastes and habits, he was invited to fill it in order to bring him to Edinburgh, where his literary labors could be both estimated and enjoyed. He was elected on the 8th of July, 1812; on the 15th the university conferred on him the degree of doctor in divinity; and on the 26th of August he was formally inducted to the chair. He began to lecture on the 31st of October following. Soon after that he published, for the use of his students, a small work entitled Outlines of Oriental Philology (1812), which is known to have been both composed and prepared for publication after his arrival in Edinburgh: the subject indeed was perfectly familiar to him. He continued to teach his class with little interruption till the end of February or the beginning of March, his health then failing him; and he lived but a little while to enjoy the distinctions which had just come in recognition of his industry and talent. He died April 15, 1813. His body was interred in the Gray Friars' church-yard, at the north-west corner of the church. His acquirements as a linguist pointed him out to Constable, the well-known publisher, as a fit person to superintend a new edition of Bruce's Travels; and in the preparation of that work he was employed for about three years, from September 1802, Murray residing during that time chiefly at Kinnaird House, where he had access to the papers left by the traveller. He was also at different times employed in contributing to the Edinburgh Review, and other periodicals, evincing by his writings not only a superior linguistic knowledge, but also much reading and study in other fields of learning. It has been well said that, laboring under so many difficulties in early life, his acquirements were simply preparatory to the work which he might have accomplished, and that he was taken away just as he had completed the preparation for valuable work. See Chambers, Biog. Dict. of Eniment Scotchmen, div. 6, pages 72-77: Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties, vol. i; Scot.
Magazine, July 1812; Engl. Cyclop. s.v.; Lord Cockburn, Memoirs of his Own Time (1856), chapter 4.