The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography just published Timothy Neat’s lyrical description of Stephanie Wolfe Murray. This is a draft copy.
The publisher as minstrel. Elfin, beautiful, passionate, courageous, driven by a wish to serve – the life of Stephanie Wolfe Murray reads like a ballad.
She died on Midsummer Day 2017 amongst the hills of Traquair in the Scottish Borders where she was buried in a wicker basket bedecked with wild flowers, close to the grave of Thomas the Rimer.
A war baby, Stephanie was born 27th April 1941, at Blandford Forum, in the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset. Her father, Major Hadden Todd (Royal Artillery), was killed in the Allied breakout from Normandy in August 1944. In peacetime he had worked as a solicitor in Liverpool. Her mother, Louisa May Robins (Wendy), came from a wealthy Cheshire/Liverpool family linked to the Bibby Shipping Line.
After remarriage and divorce from New Zealander, Wendy settled into lifelong marriage with Henry George Villiers Greer, a Northern Irishman with family connections to the Far East. Captured at Singapore, in 1942, Greer became a Japanese P.O.W. and worked on the Burma Railway.
Stephanie grew up conscious of the energies and sense of service that drove the British Empire story (the actor Richard Todd who starred in film Rob Roy and played Wing Commander Guy Gibson V.C. in ‘The Dam Busters’ was a relation). Romance, poetry, steely determination, and self-sacrifice were part of her nature.
With her older sister Virginia, Stephanie grew up in Shropshire. Relations with their stepfather were good. Both were sent to boarding schools. Stephanie, artistic, musical and rebellious gladly left Overstone School (Northampton) at the age of sixteen. Setting out for Paris she immersed herself in the French language: in Florence she studied art; good connections got her secretarial work at the Savoy Hotel, overlooking Brunelleschi’s Duomo.
In England, she joined the debutante circuit and was featured on the cover of Queen magazine. A whirlwind romance with Angus Wolfe Murray (a journalist on the Yorkshire Post) saw her sent to New York, to cool her heels. Mother thought ‘Gus’ under-financed. She returned unbowed; determined to shape her own destiny.
At twenty she married Wolfe Murray, quickly became the mother of four sons, and found herself – living a spartan life – in Highland Invernesshire. Angus published a successful novel, ‘The End of Something Nice’, and, thrilled by life amidst primaeval nature, Stephanie blossomed as a high-spirited and very Celtic young woman.
Braulen Lodge in Strathfarrar looks out on Sgurr na Lapaich and the Wolfe Murray house became an exotic, bohemian gathering place, a modern Ceilidh house. Privations were real but exhilarating and the boys enjoyed idyllic rural childhoods.
Stephanie now knew her husband’s family connections were as good and useful as her own: he carried not just one of the grand names of Scotland but also General Wolfe’s: victorious, on the Heights of Abraham, knowing he would die without issue, Wolfe famously asked his dear comrade and Second-in-Command James Murray, to promise to give his children his Name.
Entering her thirties, Stephanie felt impelled to address public as well as domestic issues. At thirty three, her father had given his life in the fight against Nazism: what could she offer her adopted country, Scotland? She had literary interests, a brilliant eye for artistic quality, ‘a genius for friendship’…
Suddenly, in 1974, she and Angus decided they would set up a publishing house, in Edinburgh – in partnership with an aspirant American writer Bob Shure. Within days, cheap premises were bought in Jeffrey Street and the company was named: Canongate Books.
The name was old-hat but the trio had a contemporary vision, not just to revive the great tradition of Scottish publishing but to help conjure a new and better Scotland into being. Within a year, Bob Shure was back in America, Angus had returned to journalism, the Wolfe Murray marriage was in tatters – and Stephanie was left holding a very fractious baby! Undaunted, she arranged a new, professional partnership with Charles Wilde and, against the odds, the desert of Scottish publishing burst back into bloom.
For fifty years Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scottish Renaissance had rumbled in the wings of Scottish life, now, various unruly step-children leapt centre stage. Hamish Henderson had nurtured an international Scottish Folk Revival, the Edinburgh Festival (plus the Fringe and Richard Demarco) was a becoming many-faceted cultural phenomenon; huge changes were underway in Scottish politics – and Canongate gathered things together in books…
Early success came with Antonia Fraser’s anthology ‘Scottish Love Poems’ but the cultural breakthrough was publication of Sorley MacLean’s collected Gaelic poems, “Spring tide and Neap tide (Rethairt is Contraigh)” in 1977. Next came the prison autobiography of Glasgow gangland killer Jimmy Boyle, “A sense of Freedom’. Then, in 1981, Alasdair Grey’s novel Lanark was published. Highly original, it was hailed by Antony Burgess as “the best Scottish novel since Sir Walter Scott”.
A level of Scottish Arts Council support was now assured but, financially, things would always remain difficult. Stephanie, however, was soon championing the totally unknown work of Duncan Williamson, a Scots Traveller and oral tradition bearer. Born in a tinker tent in Argyll in 1928, the seventh son of a seventh son of a mother born in a cave, Duncan was barely literate – but custodian of thousands of traditional stories and songs, many of high artistic quality. In 1983, ‘Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children’ brought Scots Traveller oral tradition to the printed page: it was the stone precipitated an avalanche and stirred education, theatre, film, folk-festivals, storytelling centres and cultural behaviour around the world. Stephanie, as always, enjoyed the process she was now part of – and delighted in going out into the wilds, into tents and caravans from Fife to Argyll, like a vagabond.
Stephanie’s work was rarely political but it had political consequences. The Canongate Kelpies – Scottish books for children – remain important. Her support for a generation of younger poets – Tom Pow, Valerie Gillies and Andrew Greig – was generous. Her paperback Canongate Classics series brought a hundred, largely neglected, Scottish books back into circulation. Her close friendship with Alastair Reid (a great Hispanic specialist) saw translation stimulated and his ‘New Yorker’ short stories were reclaimed as Scottish works. Mairi Hedderwick’s diary sketchbooks, ‘An Eye on the Hebrides’, were popular; William Lorimer’s new translation of the New Testament into Scots was recognised as a major scholastic achievement.
Stephanie had ‘an instinctive eye’; she was decisive but also gave her designer, Jim Hutcheson, his head. Canongate books are a delight to look at and handle. Many have become collector’s pieces: including my own book: ‘Part Seen, Part Imagined: Meaning and Symbolism in the Art if Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald’.
Stephanie rarely enjoyed administration yet she was a founder member of the Scottish Publishers Association and its first chairwoman. She was on the board that set up the Edinburgh Book Festival and, acknowledged as ‘Madame Ecosse’ at Book Fairs from Frankfurt to Moscow, to Beijing. She could be an enchanting saleswoman but managerial and financial detail, finally, overwhelmed both her and the company.
In her desperate attempts to keep authors aboard a sinking ship she was known to offer her own ‘free-range’ eggs as payments – in lieu! When amalgamations with Albany books in Glasgow, and Phaidon in London, coincided with the recession of 1990 an attenuated collapse brought Canongate to its knees. In 1994 the company was resurrected, with serious money and new ideas put forward by Jamie Byng (a former Canongate intern). Subsequently, Hugh Andrew created Birlinn Books, around Stephanie’s Scottish titles. Thus the banner was passed, flying, to a new generation.
In retrospect it is clear that neither the market, private patronage, or the Scottish Arts Council were able to provide the finances and structures the company needed. The failure of Canongate was a societal failure but it was Stephanie who felt the blow. She had created ‘a living work of art’ which put a mirror up to Scotland, impacted millions of lives and raised every kind of human awareness. Suddenly her creation was her’s no more. With pride she had stuck to her last, and Alexander McCall Smith (a Canongate author and board member) was right when he summed things up: ‘here was a person touched by something we should not hesitate to call greatness.’
After Canongate, Stephanie left the literary scene and flung herself back into the various lives of her children – who, in her footsteps, were working in the service of mankind: Kim was a Buddhist monk, Gavin, Rupert and Moona all writers and frontline Aid-workers. She went out to join them in Romania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Kenya. She worked with Scottish European Aid, the Scottish Charities Kosova Appeal and Connect Humanitarian Aid.
Always an adventurer, moral virtue was now conjoined with physical courage: Toby Gough, an Aid organiser, writes ‘Stephanie was the wisdom, the kindness, the conscience, the guru, the spirit of Edinburgh: the reality is – she was a saint…’
Always above false show, growing old, Stephanie was content to live deep in the Border hills, in the Laundry House, in the Glen at Traquair – with her dogs and, on occasion, a chick hidden (warm) in her bonnet. Her husband Angus rejoined her.
Many friends called by. Gardner Molloy noted: ‘Total Mother Earth’. Her son Gavin describes her: ‘making daisy-chains, picking elderflowers, raspberries, blackcurrants, throwing on a thin cotton dress at the first hint of summer… walking into the Sahara Desert to raise money for the Maggie Centre… singing in the Traquair choir.’
These Pre-Raphaelite images are beautiful but also hint at an underlying tragedy. Scotland’s motto, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, is fierce and, in retirement, Stephanie gathered no Honorary Doctorates and few formal invitations of any kind. She lived like Oscar Wilde’s Nightingale – with her breast pressed against the thorn: always the little boy exploring the garden of the Selfish Giant; always a woman seeking service, till the end. True vitality resides in the quest, not the prize – and there are interesting parallels between the lives of the Wolfe Murrays and those of Sir William Hamilton and Lady Emma Hamilton: and, as England failed to honour Nelson’s Emma, so Scotland failed to honour Canongate’s mistress.
“Regardless of the season, Stephanie’s bedroom window was always two inches open’,” said her friend Laurentiu Calciu. Always a smoker, Stephanie died of cancer, aged 76 on 24th June 2017. The funeral took place at Old Parish Church in the High Street, Peebles. Family members led a celebratory service.
Many of the quotations above come from ‘Stephanie Wolfe Murray: a Life in Books’, edited and published by Rupert Wolfe Murray in 2017. Only 500 copies were printed and it was out of print within days. You can download a PDF version here.
By Timothy Neat