IN the second part of our trilogy on Scottish eccentrics as portrayed by Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) we approach with some trepidation one of the most famous – or should that be infamous – figures in all of Scottish literature. Well, if you can call William Topaz McGonagall’s output literature …

Championed by such comedic geniuses as Spike Milligan, who starred as McGonagall opposite Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria – yes, you read that correctly – in the 1974 film The Great McGonagall, the man renowned as the world’s worst poet was basically a man who wrote funny poems. What made him even funnier was the fact he didn’t think they were funny – he took himself so seriously that he really did think he was up there with Rabbie Burns.

MacDiarmid does him the justice of trying to take McGonagall seriously, beginning his essay thus: “William McGonagall was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet. He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.

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There is so much that is bad in all the poetry that Scots people know and admire that it is not surprising that for their pet example of a good bad poet they should have had to go outside the range of poetry, good, bad, or indifferent, altogether.

“McGonagall is in a very special category, and has it entirely to himself. There are no other writings known to me that resemble his. So far as the whole tribe of poets is concerned, from the veritable lords of language to the worst doggerel-mongers, he stands alone, ‘neither fish, flesh, nor good red-herring,’ and certainly his ‘works’ will be searched in vain for any of those ludicrous triumphs of anti-climax, those devastating incongruities, which constitute the weird and wonderful qualities of bad verse.”

McGonagall was not the first and certainly not the last of a long line of “Scottish bad poets”. Born in 1825, we know precious little about his early life as he appears to have faked his birthplace as Edinburgh when it is more probable that his Irish parents brought him to Scotland as a youngster.

The family moved to Dundee when McGonagall was about 14, and he was apprenticed into the textile industry to follow in his father’s footsteps as a handloom weaver. He was an autodidact, reading reams of literature and entertaining his fellow weavers with recitations of Shakespeare – he paid a theatre owner to let him play the role of Macbeth and refused to die in the final scene as he had a grudge against the actor playing Macduff.

He married a fellow mill worker, Jean King, and they had seven children in all. It was the eldest daughter’s misfortune to have an illegitimate child – then an event which brought opprobrium on an entire family – in 1877, and it provoked a mid-life crisis for McGonagall who suddenly announced he was going to be a full-time poet.

He was soon printing his execrable verses and took to the stage where audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and hurled abuse and fruit and vegetables at him.

We know what he looked like as Dundee bookseller Lowden Macartney, who edited McGonagall’s poetry collections, tells us: “He was a strange, weird, drab figure, and suggested more than anything else a broken-down actor. He wore his hair long and sheltered it with a wide-rimmed hat. His clothes were always shabby, and even in summer he refused to discard his overcoat. He had a solemn, sallow face, with heavy features and eyes of the sort termed fish-like.”

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MacDiarmid is even more scathing about the poet and his home city blaming his delusions on “his laziness, his peasant conceit (carried, of course, to an absolutely abnormal length), and the fact that he lived in Dundee”.

He adds: “Dundee was then and has since been the great home and fostering centre of the cheapest popular literature in Scotland, and huge fortunes have been built up there on precisely the chief ingredients of McGonagall’s art – mindlessness, snobbery, and the inverted snobbery of a false cult of proletarian writers.

“So far as literature has been concerned, the idea of Burns as a ‘ploughman poet’ has been fatal. Scotland has suffered since from an endless succession of railwayman poets, policeman poets, and the like. The movement was in full swing when McGonagall was caught up in it.”

McGonagall often simply rewrote newspaper stories in a kind of verse. Thus we have The Famous Tay Whale.

“Twas in the month of December,

and in the year of 1883,

That a monster whale came to Dundee,

Resolved for a few days to sport and play,

And devour the small fishes in the silvery Tay …

And my opinion is that God sent the whale in time of need,

No matter what other people may think or what is their creed…

Mr John Wood has bought it for two hundred and twenty-six pound,

And has brought it to Dundee all safe and all sound;

Which measures 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail,

So I advise the people far and near to see it without fail.

Then hurrah for the mighty monster whale,

Which has got 17 feet 4 inches, from tip to tip, of a tail;

Which can be seen for a sixpence or a shilling,

That is to say, if the people are all willing.”

His most famous, or infamous poem concerned a disaster when the Tay Railway Bridge collapsed in a storm.

Here’s an excerpt, but seek out the full length version to appreciate its awfulness.

“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,

And the wind it blew with all its might,

And the rain came pouring down,

And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,

And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-

‘I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay’.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,

Until it was about midway,

Then the central girders with a crash gave way,

And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!

The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,

Because ninety lives had been taken away,

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

McGonagall compounded the felony by penning a tribute to the re-built bridge:

“Beautiful new railway bridge of the silvery Tay,

With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,

And your thirteen central girders, which seems to my eye

Strong enough all windy storms to defy.

And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,

Because thou art the greatest railway bridge of the present day,

And can be seen for miles away,

From north, south, east, or west, of the Tay.”

AT one point he wrote to Queen Victoria, to whom he was devoted, to present her with some of his works. A flunkey wrote back thanking him for his interest, which was all the excuse McGonagall needed – he walked from Dundee to Balmoral, presented himself at the door as “the Queen’s poet” only to be sent away and told she already had one – Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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The “poetry” flowed out, and McGonagall kept on performing them, MacDiarmid concluding that he was “genuinely incapable of realising or being persuaded that his poems were not at least as good as any ever written – with the possible exception of Shakespeare’s – and he did not hesitate to proclaim the fact.”

Moving to Edinburgh, he was taken up by a group of friends who supported the increasingly penniless McGonagall in forays to London and New York. Needless to say, his works did not travel well and he was soon back in Scotland performing and being heckled and abused.

He had cruel tricks played upon him – a fake “Order of the White Elephant” knighthood was conferred upon him, purportedly by “representatives” of the King of Burma. He took it seriously, of course, and called himself Sir William Topaz McGonagall thereafter. William Power, in his book My Scotland, described a performance in Glasgow: “He wore a Highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy’s size. After reciting some of his own poems, to an accompaniment of whistles and cat-calls, the Bard armed himself with a most dangerous-looking broadsword, and strode up and down the platform, declaiming ‘Clarence’s Dream’ and ‘Give me another horse – Bind up my wounds’.

“His voice rose to a howl. He thrust and slashed at imaginary foes. A shower of apples and oranges fell on the platform. Almost before they touched it, they were met by the fell edge of McGonagall’s claymore and cut to pieces. The Bard was beaded with perspiration and orange juice. The audience yelled with delight; McGonagall yelled louder still with a fury I fancy was not wholly feigned.”

MacDiarmid wrote that McGonagall became “a national joke”, adding: “His claims to be superior to every other poet, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, were in all the papers – with samples of his indescribable doggerel.

“Ludicrous incidents were invented – like his attempted interview with Queen Victoria at Balmoral; and most of his alleged sayings and poems ... (certainly all of these which show the slightest wit or advance his claims in a super-Shavian fashion) were invented by his baiters.

“The way in which McGonagall’s effusions were thrown off in penny broadsides makes anything like a collection of authentic examples at this time of day impossible. But the genuine McGonagall article is fairly easily distinguishable from the far too farcically funny efforts fathered upon him. There is nothing superficially funny about his authentic productions at all – they are all dead serious.”

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Like this one: The Attempted Assassination of the Queen.

“God prosper long our noble Queen, And long may she reign.

Maclean he tried to shoot her, but it was all in vain.

For God he turned the ball aside, Maclean aimed at her head, And he felt very angry because he didn’t shoot her dead.

Maclean must be a madman, which is obvious to be seen,

Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot our most beloved Queen.”

In his 70s, McGonagall’s health declined and his poetry got even worse. He died penniless in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

William Power later wrote: “He added to the gaiety of at least one nation, and, as the Ossian of the ineffably absurd, he has entered upon immortality.”