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About Fred Urquhart

Fred Urquhart (1912-1995) is widely considered to be the finest Scottish short-story writer of the 20th-century, known for his ear for the spoken language and sensitive depiction of female experience.

Beginnings

Urquhart was born in Edinburgh but spent much of his early childhood in Fife, Perthshire and Wigtownshire, where his father worked as a chauffeur to a succession of wealthy families. On returning to Edinburgh, he attended Broughton Secondary School, leaving at the age of fifteen to work as a bookseller’s assistant for several years. He began writing at this time and from the early 1930s onwards, had short stories published in journals and broadcast on the radio. By 1935, he was sufficiently encouraged to take up writing full-time. His first published volume was Time Will Knit (1938), a novel of working-class Edinburgh life. It was followed in 1940 by his first collection of short stories, I Fell for a Sailor. At the outbreak of war, Urquhart’s pacifist convictions led him to become a conscientious objector. He was first sent to work as a farm labourer at Laurencekirk in the Mearns, which was to inspire many of his finest short stories. He was later assigned to Woburn Abbey, the estate of the Duke of Bedford where he got to know George Orwell and the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. At war’s end, Urquhart moved to London where he met his life-partner, the dancer Peter Wyndham Allen (1908-90). The post-war collapse of the magazine market for short stories led Urquhart to take up a number of overlapping and time-consuming jobs as literary agent, editor, reviewer, reader for a number of publishers, script-reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and scout for Walt Disney. For the rest of life, he would combine his own writing career with extensive freelance work in the world of books.

The Short-Story Writer

In the immediate post-war years, Urquhart published five acclaimed collections of short stories: The Clouds are Big with Mercy and Selected Stories (both 1946), The Last G.I. Bride Wore Tartan (1947), The Year of the Short Corn (1949), and The Last Sister (1950). Often with a wartime setting, these tales portrayed the cruelty and violence of the life of ordinary people, showing particular sensitivity to female experience. They were dialogue-driven, with Urquhart showing an extraordinary ability to capture accent and dialect and a willingness to take liberties with grammar and syntax to preserve the flavour of spoken language. In the 1950s, the market for short stories declined rapidly. Urquhart’s tales continued to appear in periodicals, and selections appeared of his best stories, but publishers were reluctant to bring out new collections devoted to single authors. Only in the 1980s was Urquhart able to publish three new books of short stories: Proud Lady in a Cage and A Diver in China Seas (both 1980), and his final collection Seven Ghosts in Search (1983).

The Novelist

Urquhart’s reputation as a short-story writer has overshadowed his achievements as a novelist, but his longer fiction is also highly regarded. Urquhart’s debut Time Will Knit (1938) was praised by both Edwin Muir and Neil M. Gunn, who described it in a letter to Urquhart as ‘one of the finest surprises for many a long day’ (MS 2834). The Ferret Was Abraham's Daughter (1949) and Jezebel's Dust (1951), both set in working-class Edinburgh, are among Scotland’s major novels of the Second World War. Urquhart’s last novel, The Palace of Green Days (1979), drew on childhood memories of Perthshire and was his first published novel with an overtly homosexual theme. There are also other complete novels, in the collection of Edinburgh University Library and the National Library of Scotland, which remained unpublished due, at least in part, to their more explicit depiction of homosexuality.

Other Writings

Besides writing a number of unpublished poems and plays in the 1930s (many in Edinburgh University Library), Urquhart edited a number of books including No Scottish Twilight: New Scottish Short Stories (1947; with Maurice Lindsay), Scottish Short Stories (1957), Modern Scottish Short Stories (1978; with Giles Gordon), and The Book of Horses (1981). Edinburgh University Library also has working materials for Scottish Signposts (1943-46), an unpublished anthology of Scottish fiction, prose, and criticism, which Urquhart co-edited with Maurice Lindsay.

Recognition

Although critically acclaimed, Urquhart suffered from a low public profile. This was largely due to two factors. Firstly, the post-war collapse in the short-story market effectively kept new works by Urquhart out of bookshops for three decades. Secondly, he was distanced from the Scottish literary scene. Never a ‘joiner’, he lived for three decades in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, only returning to Scotland in the 1990s after the death of his partner. Nonetheless, four anthologies of Urquhart’s works appeared in his lifetime: The Laundry Girl and the Pole (Arco, 1955), two volumes of Collected Stories (Hart-Davis, 1967-68), and Full Score: Short Stories, ed. Graeme Roberts (Aberdeen University Press, 1989). A fuller reappraisal of Urquhart’s fiction is now being made possible by Kennedy & Boyd, who are reissuing his works as The Fred Urquhart Collection (2011-), under the editorship of Colin Affleck. Mr Affleck, Urquhart’s literary executor, is also working on a biography of Urquhart. Translations of Urquhart’s short stories have appeared in Chinese, Czech, Croatian, German, Hungarian, and Polish.

Further Reading

Colin Affleck, 'Fred Urquhart', in British Short-Fiction Writers, 1945-1980, ed. Dean Baldwin (Detroit; London: Gale Research, c1994), pp. 278-93.

H. Macpherson, ‘Scottish writers: Fred Urquhart’, Scottish Book Collector, 3.3 (1992), 27-30.

Isobel Murray, 'Fred Urquhart', in Scottish Novels of the Second World War (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2011), pp. 57-74.

Fred Urquhart, 'My Many Splendoured Pavilion', in As I Remember: Ten Scottish Authors Recall how Writing Began for Them, ed. Maurice Lindsay (London: Robert Hale, 1979), pp. 157-74.

Fred Urquhart, ‘Forty-Three Years: A Benediction’, in New Writing Scotland, 11 (1993), 135-46.