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Dr Hugh Marwick OBE

The following biography has been compiled from the article "An Orkney Scholar : Hugh Marwick 1881-1965" by Bruce Dickins (The Saga Book, Vol 17, Part 1, Viking Society for Northern Research) and the obituary and tributes which appeared in The Orcadian on 27 May 1965. The information about Dr Marwick's father is from W P L Thomson's book The Little General and the Rousay Crofters, chap 17 (John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1981). Reference was also made to The Orkney Story, chap 13, by Liv Kjörsvik Schei and Gunnie Moberg (B T Batsford Ltd, 1985).


Hugh Marwick Picture

Hugh Marwick, from a
portrait by Stanley Cursiter.

Courtesy Orkney Islands Council.

Hugh Marwick was born on Rousay on 30 November 1881. His father, Hugh Snr., had settled in the cottage of Guidall, in Sourin, after spending much of his early life abroad. Hugh Snr. had lived in New Zealand for a while and had served an apprenticeship as a shipwright. On returning to Rousay he found employment as a shopkeeper, cabinet maker and carpenter.

Hugh Marwick Jnr. attended the Sourin school where, in order to continue his education, he eventually became a pupil-teacher hoping to obtain a certificate. In 1900 he was a candidate for a place in the Free Church Training College for Teachers in Aberdeen and was fortunate to gain entry only after someone dropped out at the last moment leaving a vacant place. Two years were spent there before he was appointed to the primary school at Newbattle, near Dalkeith, in Midlothian. Still without a secondary school education, however, he could not gain admittance to university. He therefore devoted his evenings to study, of mathematics in particular, and passed the Preliminary Examination which would allow entrance to university. During this period he managed to save £30 a year from his primary teacher's annual salary of £100. By 1905, after three years teaching, he felt he could afford to give up his primary school work and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh.

In spite of gaining two small scholarships in the Physics class which between them added £75 to the £100 he had saved during his time at Newbattle primary school, and performing extremely well in the university examinations for three years, he had neither the money, nor was well enough to attend the final (fourth) year of his honours degree classes in Edinburgh and remained in Orkney. He was, however, helped by one of his more fortunate friends, Gordon Hislop, who loaned books, sent lecture notes and many stimulating letters which enabled him to return to Edinburgh in 1909 and sit the Final Honours Examination. In spite of all the hardship Hugh Marwick was one of only three candidates who gained First Class Honours in English that year.

He subsequently obtained a post as Chief English Master at the Grammar School in Burnley, Lancashire where he met his wife Jane Barritt. They were married in 1914 just after he had been appointed headmaster of the Burgh (now known as the Grammar) School in Kirkwall. Their only child, a third Hugh, was sadly killed in an accident while still a schoolboy.

During his time as headmaster of the Burgh School Marwick completed his Edinburgh D.Litt. The thesis he presented in 1926 was the original form of The Orkney Norn which was later published (at his own expense) by the Oxford University Press. After fifteen years as a headmaster Marwick was appointed Executive Officer to the Orkney Education Committee -- ie Director of Education for the County. It was for his services to education in Orkney that he was admitted Companion of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1938. He retired at the age of sixty-five in 1946.

The Orkney Antiquarian Society was founded in 1922. Among those responsible for its inception were Marwick and three other prominent Orkney men of the time: Archdeacon James Brown Craven (1850-1924, not a native of Orkney but he lived in the islands from 1876 until his death) author of the four volume History of the Church in Orkney; Joseph Storer Clouston (1870-1944) a well-known novelist turned historian; and John Mooney (1862-1950), historian, who is best remembered for Eynhallow: The Holy Island of The Orkneys, St Magnus, Earl of Orkney and The Cathedral and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall. Archdeacon Craven was appointed President (replaced after his death in 1924 by Storer Clouston) and Marwick Secretary -- a post he held throughout the whole lifetime of the society. During the seventeen years of its existence the Orkney Antiquarian Society did much to shed light on every aspect of the archaeology and history of Orkney. Marwick contributed many papers of his own on archaeology, history and place-names. Fifteen volumes of Proceedings were published, the last in 1939.

It is difficult now to appreciate the impact that these seventeen years of sustained research made -- it was during this time that many of the more important excavations were first carried out in Orkney: Skarabrae, The Broch of Gurness, many sites in Rousay and many other lesser sites etc. The Society also established wide and influential scholarly links between experts throughout Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and the Faeroes. The Society was not revived after the end of the Second World War. Orkney Miscellany was started in its place in 1953 and to this Marwick contributed papers on family history.

In addition to his many papers for the Orkney Antiquarian Society Marwick also contributed papers, again mainly about finds in Orkney, to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. In total he had eight books published, seven during his lifetime and one posthumously. Of these eight books perhaps the two considered of greatest worth nowadays are The Orkney Norn (1929) and Orkney Farm-Names (1952). The former, as mentioned earlier, was the work which in its original form gained him his D. Litt.

The Orkney Norn is a wide ranging and detailed survey of the Norn language in Orkney. To this book Marwick prefixed a valuable introduction on the history of the Norn language in Orkney, discussed the scanty fragments of rhymes, riddles etc that he had noted, and traced the phonological development of the language from Old Norse. Moreover in Appendix I he dealt with the forms of the twelfth-century inscriptions from Maeshowe. In Appendix II he printed specimens of the Orkney Norn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Appendix III he collected literary references to the Orkney Norn and in Appendix IV he tabulated the variations in vowel sounds he had noted in different parishes. When considering the vast changes which have happened in Orkney since Marwick published The Orkney Norn it becomes all the more apparent how valuable it was that he was able to collect the last surviving fragments of this ancient dialect.

Orkney Farm-Names is a most thorough work. The approach he took was to analyse the farm-names from linguistic, historical and topographical angles comparing information he found about the farms and what they paid in tax in the old rentals with conditions prevalent during his research. He considered where the most fertile soil was and how the farms were placed in relation to the sea and each other. Modern scholars may question some of the conclusions he reached, but the main results of his research will probably not be refuted. Both of these detailed and analytical books remain as standard works of reference today.

He did not lack honour in his own country: in 1936 he was appointed Honorary Sheriff-Substitute of Orkney, and was later awarded the Freedom of Kirkwall in 1954 -- an honour he particularly prized. His considerable contributions to archaeology, history, dialect and the place-names of Orkney were recognised by the University of Aberdeen which conferred on him an Honorary LL.D. in 1956, and also by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland which awarded him an Honorary Fellowship. His achievements were recognised in Scandinavia too, by the Knighthood of the Norwegian Order of St Olaf in 1946, by the Honorary D. Phil. of the University of Bergen in 1964 (the first person from outside Norway to be accorded this honour), and by his election as a Corresponding Member of Norwegian and Swedish learned Societies. Shortly before his death in 1965 he was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Viking Society for Northern Research.

Dr Marwick died in the Eastbank Hospital on the 21 May 1965, a few days after suffering a stroke. He received a civic funeral in St. Magnus Cathedral.

Throughout his life Dr Marwick retained a deep affection for Rousay, his native island. Robert Rendall in a moving tribute published in The Orcadian of 27 May 1965 suggested that "In boyhood he must have wandered much among its hills and along its shores" and goes on to say "Little did his fellow-isles folk know at the time that that young lad was to bring distinction to their island, and to give it a unique place in the archaeological pattern of Orkney as a whole." To these few lines it is not possible to add very much at all, except to draw attention to what is, perhaps, the most striking feature of Dr Marwick's life -- also a quotation from Robert Rendall's tribute -- "But what to the writer is the most outstanding feature of Dr Hugh Marwick's career is the fact that its dedicated aims were all achieved in Orkney itself. We are rightly proud of our galaxy of island 'professors' but Dr Marwick has shown that a full life can be lived here among our own people. For when he had completed his formal education, he returned to his native islands and found in them sufficient scope for the exercise and development of his remarkable gifts and talent".