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Urquhart, Frederick Burrows (1912–1995), writer, was born on 12 July 1912 at 8 Palmerston Place Lane, Edinburgh, first among the three sons of Frederick Burrows Urquhart (d. 1958), a chauffeur, and Agnes, née Harrower. His father was unfit for war service and became in turn chauffeur to a series of wealthy men. Urquhart's childhood was spent in Edinburgh, Granton, Perthshire, Wigtownshire, and Wardie. He thus attended the village schools of Torryburn, Styx, Perthshire, and Kirkcolm, before progressing to Stranraer High School and Broughton Academy, Edinburgh. The last he disliked, and he left school at fifteen to work in an Edinburgh bookshop, thus beginning a lifelong professional connection with books; he claimed that this was the best university for an aspiring writer. An avid film and theatre fan, he nourished ambitions in both these directions, as he related in his memoir of his early days, ‘My many splendoured pavilion’ (1979), but above all, in his seven years in the bookshop, he wrote. His first two novels, aside from being handwritten and betraying inexperience, were marked by a strong homosexual interest and were repeatedly refused by publishers; they remained unpublished, in manuscript, in the National Library of Scotland into the twenty-first century. His first published novel was Time will Knit (1938). This was followed by The Ferret was Abraham's Daughter (1949) and Jezebel's Dust (1951). The first of his novels to deal with a homosexual theme was Palace of Green Days, not published until 1979. It was in many ways autobiographical and the first of a projected series that did not materialize. It treats the childhoods of a young girl and her brother, the children of a chauffeur. The sister is film- and theatre-crazy, and the brother notably drawn to sewing doll's dresses rather than to toy trains and guns—definitely ‘feminine’ in his tastes. The book treats this apparently cross-gender feeling—and a fair amount of child sexual abuse—unsensationally, even matter-of-factly. The promised sequel, with the boy reaching puberty, was never published; Urquhart felt that an audience was not yet ready.

Fred Urquhart is best known and most widely admired among a small body of critical cognoscenti for his short stories. Short-story writers are too easily overlooked, and Urquhart was very seriously neglected by the larger book-reading public. He was successful from the thirties to the sixties and prominent in all the fashionable literary magazines of the time, excelling both in pathos and comedy, but almost none of his stories remained long in print. Alexander Reid described him as ‘Scotland's leading short story writer of the century’ (Roberts, vii). Stevie Smith and others drew attention to the unusual understanding and effectiveness of his treatment of women and to the polish of his ‘diamond style’ (ibid.).

It was early in his career that Urquhart earned tributes to his understanding of unhappy or frustrated women—the girl dying of TB, deserted by her lover, in ‘We never died in winter’; or ‘Sweat’, where the girl tries to disguise the effects of working in a basement sweatshop only to disgust her admirer by the crudity and ineffectiveness of her cheap perfume.

Urquhart was living in Cupar at the start of the Second World War, and his observations of relations between the local girls and incoming Polish soldiers informed his subject matter in ‘The laundry girl and the Pole’ and a number of other works. But the war, in which both his brothers served, clarified for Urquhart his (non-religious) conscientious objection to fighting. As a result he was sent as farm labourer and secretary to Bent Farm, Laurencekirk. He lost 3 stone over four years there, no small matter for a man of his slight build. Auchencairn was his fictional name for the town in the Howe of the Mearns where he set his fine stories of the agricultural north-east of Scotland—such as ‘The prisoners’, ‘The red stot’, and ‘The last sister’—which have borne comparison with Grassic Gibbon and Jessie Kesson. In 1967–8 Rupert Hart-Davis published a two-volume ‘collected’ edition of the stories (in fact generously selected) entitled The Dying Stallion and The Ploughing Match.

As Graeme Roberts has pointed out, later treatments of the theme of romantic yearning tend to be more ‘robustly comic’ (Roberts, ix), like the wall-eyed servant lass in ‘Beautiful music’ with her dung-splashed legs and fingers like ‘red rationed sausages’. But Gillian Ferguson points out how completely Urquhart could capture both admirable and unattractive sides of Scottish womanly submissiveness: ‘He raises what might seem the surrender of the ego, or unattractive acquiescence to powerlessness, to nobility, wisdom’ (Macpherson, 29). The same is true of his treatment of children, old people, the desperate, and the lonely. He supplies an important documentary insight into the mid-twentieth-century period and especially civilian life during the war, whether writing about pub life or family life, Polish soldiers or the brides of American servicemen, the impact of the new National Health Service, the Co-op, the pictures, or the erring milkman. Despite his long residence in England, Urquhart told Hugh Macpherson: ‘On the whole I still think in Scots, and very often what I have done is I've found a situation in England and transferred it up to Scotland for the story’ (ibid., 28).

After the war Urquhart gravitated to London's Soho, where he met and enjoyed a sexually more liberated society than he had known in Scotland. He resumed his career in the world of books, he was a scout for Walt Disney and a reader for a literary agency, for MGM, and for a number of publishers. He also edited a number of books on varied subjects, from a cartoon biography and a book of horses to several collections of short stories.

In 1946 Urquhart met his life partner, Peter Wyndham Allen (1908–1990), who had been a dancer. In ‘Forty-three years: a benediction’, written after Allen's death, he finally felt able to speak about their love, celebrating their life together in a ‘happy homosexual marriage’, first in London and latterly in a cottage in the middle of Ashdown Forest. This was an idyll in which Urquhart was writer, editor, and earner, and for the most part Allen was carer and kept house. Early in the 1990s Urquhart, now diabetic and subject to minor strokes, returned to Scotland to live in Musselburgh, near his brother Morris. But undaunted he proceeded to write more stories, add polish to the autobiography that he had been long composing, and at last attempt a mature, open, and sexually complex novel; this he developed from a short story that he had published, ‘Robert/Hilda’, which can be found in Carl MacDougall's anthology of Scottish short stories, The Devil and the Giro (1989). It begins: ‘After she died Robert Greenlees took to dressing up in his wife's clothes’. Robert and Hilda had led an apparently harmonious married life but ‘he'd been dominated enough all his life by women, and he wanted a change’. Recapitulation of the marriage involves a masterly compressed social history, after which the narrative returns to a present where Robert, now regularly dressed and made-up as a woman, persuades his son to take him out to a pub. There a contemporary, George, admiringly buys Robert/Hilda a drink, and by the end of the story the two are planning to set up house together. Once Urquhart felt free to write about eccentric sexual preference he did so convincingly, although again unsensationally and matter-of-factly.

Urquhart died in Roodlands General Hospital, Haddington, East Lothian, on 2 December 1995. On his death his papers were deposited in Edinburgh University Library, and it is to be hoped that among these will be found a final version of ‘Robert/Hilda and George’, the novel. Its publication would be an important vindication of a very neglected Scottish fiction writer.

Isobel Murray

Sources  

F. Urquhart, ‘Forty-three years: a benediction’, The ghost of Liberace: new writing Scotland, ed. A. L. Kennedy and H. Whyte, 11 (1993) · F. Urquhart, ‘My many splendoured pavilion’, As I remember, ed. M. Lindsay (1979) · J. G. Roberts, ed., Fred Urquhart: full score (1989) · A. Bold, ed., Scotland: a literary guide (1989) · I. Murray, ‘Fred Urquhart at 80’, The Scotsman (11 July 1992), 9 · H. Macpherson, ‘Scottish writers: Fred Urquhart’, Scottish Book Collector, 3/3 (1992), 27–30 · personal knowledge (2004) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

NL Scot., MSS and unpublished material · Ransom HRC, corresp. and literary papers · U. Edin. L., corresp. and papers |  NL Scot., letters to Alexander Reid · U. Edin. L., letters to R. Greacen · U. Edin. L., corresp. with John Ryder and Herta Ryder


Likenesses  

photographs, repro. in Macpherson, ‘Scottish writers’