A civil servant and Professor of Political Economy, Sir Alexander Gray’s reputation abides not only in his own field, but as a Scots poet – the author of one of the most-quoted lines in modern Scottish poetry. He progressed through the universities of Edinburgh, Göttingen and Paris, started his career as a civil servant, and went on to hold a prominent position in the academic and public life of Scotland. He was made CBE in 1939, and knighted in 1947.
Alexander Gray was born on 6 January 1882 in Lochee, Dundee, the son of a teacher. He attended Dundee High School, then the University of Edinburgh, from where he graduated with first class honours in mathematics in 1902; in 1905, after studying abroad, he graduated in economic science, again with first class honours. He was a civil servant for sixteen years, working for the Local Government Board, the Colonial Office, and the Insurance Commission before taking the Chair of Political Economy at Aberdeen University in 1921. A professorship at Edinburgh followed, from 1935 to 1956. Sir Alexander Gray died in Edinburgh on 17 February 1968.
He was greatly admired as a professor, as one who did his utmost to engage and nurture his students, and in his teaching emphasised the human element above mere mathematical manipulation in political economies. His reputation as a lecturer was matched by that as an after-dinner speaker, renowned for wit. Dozens of commissions and committees benefited from Alexander Gray’s able grasp of business matters and administrative gifts; he was, for example, a member of the Royal Commission on National Health Insurance in the 1920s, and served on many boards dealing with employment disputes; he was Chairman of the Scottish Schools Broadcasting Council, and was involved with the Youth Hostels Association in its early years.
Despite his brilliance as an economist, teacher, broadcaster and public servant, it is as a poet that Sir Alexander is perhaps most widely remembered today. Words from his poem ‘Scotland’, striking chords with Scots at home and in the diaspora, ring round the world:
‘This is my country,
The land that begat me,
These windy spaces
Are surely my own …’
Early poems were published in the third series of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Northern Numbers in 1922. Two collections followed, and a Selected Poems in 1948. As a native of Angus, he used the dialect of that area both for his own poetry and for the many translations of European folk poetry he created. He had early discovered an aptitude for translation (he was proficient in Dutch and other Germanic languages) and continued to translate poetry and balladry for his own amusement, finding, as have many others, that the verses went more naturally into Scots than English.
The clarity and directness which lit up his prose style and engaged generations of students is apparent in the best of his poetry; even more so is his sharp sense of humour, and his instinctive concern for the welfare of the common man.