Mary Symon

Mary Symon (1863 - 1938)
Photograph of Mary Symon
Mary Symon (kind permission of Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen)



Several of the best-known poems telling of the awful impact of the First World War upon the people of Scotland came from the pen of a woman from Dufftown - Mary Symon, whose 'The Glen’s Muster Roll’, and ‘The Soldiers’ Cairn’ brought her to popular notice, and remain much anthologised. 

Full Biography

Mary Symon was born in Dufftown in 1863, where her father, a saddler, had been Provost. He bought the estate of Pittyvaich which was where Mary spent most of her life. She went to school locally and then in Edinburgh, where her English master was James Logie Robertson (who wrote in Scots as 'Hugh Haliburton'), and attended classes at Edinburgh University, where she was greatly influenced by David Masson, Professor of English. She graduated from St Andrews University. 

A poem about the completion of the new parish church started Mary Symon's writing career at the age of 11; she became an entertaining writer and lecturer on Banffshire customs, language and characters, and in 1933 was invited to write a school song for Robert Gordon's College.

As her poetry developed, it was published in Aberdeen University Review, The Scots Magazine and elsewhere, and Hugh MacDiarmid included her work in his anthologies Northern Numbers. The poetry was not collected until 1933, when her single book Deveron Days appeared. It was a great success, selling out within a week. Humour and humanity abound in Symon's poetry, in her depictions of domestic concerns, and her mastery of her native dialect is apparent in the skillful adaptations of foreign-language poems - Deveron Days  contains three versions of poems by Béranger. But her talents culminated in her war poetry. The First World War elicited deeply-felt and conflicting responses from Mary Symon, as it must from all of us;  'A Whiff O' Hame' was included in a Christmas Book sent to the troops in 1916, urging the lads 'To ache, an' fecht, an' fa' '; but it is the enduring heartbreak of those left behind, bereaved, which fills 'The Glen’s Muster Roll’, and ‘The Soldiers’ Cairn’ and makes them her most effective and memorable poems. 

Mary Symon died in Dufftown on 27 May 1938.