William Montgomerie was born in Parkhead, Glasgow, in 1904, son of John Montgomerie and Rachel Sinclair. His childhood was spent in the eastern area of Glasgow. He went to the local Newlands Primary school, then, when the family moved house, to Whitehill secondary school where he passed in a wide variety of subjects, including German and Chemistry. On leaving school he wrote a natural history column for a Glasgow newspaper, earning enough to travel to Berlin, visit Heidelberg and walk through the Harz mountains, alone.
Montgomerie’s upbringing in a strict Vernalite background was not easy because he could not accept his evangelist father’s religion. (John Montgomerie had been imprisoned in Dartmoor as a Conscientious Objector during the First World War.) School friends were not allowed to visit his home and he was never invited to their houses. An entry in his teenage diary explains his reticence as an adult: invited to a friend’s party at the age of 19, he wrote that this was the first time he had been invited to a party since he was two years old. But his unpublished autobiography describes a typical Glasgow schoolboy’s life, free to roam and fight, albeit often against his father’s orders.
Montgomerie took a General MA at the University of Glasgow, then moved to Dundee, where he taught in schools, including the Morgan Academy, and later at the Dundee College of Commerce. Several of his adult students there became good friends.
While working in Dundee, Montgomerie embarked upon the investigations into folk poetry which eventually led to a PhD from Edinburgh University. In the 1930s and 40s he pedalled around Angus, Perth and Fife on his bicycle, recording songs and lore on an old-fashioned wire machine, not graduating to the use of a car and a reel-to-reel tape recorder until the 1950s, when, along with Hamish Henderson, he worked with American folklorist Alan Lomax. His PhD was awarded in 1954. (Dundee Education Authority disapproved of his spending a year, on a very small grant, writing up his doctoral thesis, and demoted him.) His thesis was entitled Bibliography of the Scottish Ballad Manuscripts 1730-1825; unpublished, in typescript form, it is a source still used by researchers. It was published in abridged form in Studies in Scottish Literature, 4 (1966-7).
When Montgomerie first moved to Dundee he met Norah Shargool, an artist working as an illustrator for D. C. Thompson. They married in 1934, set up home in Broughty Ferry, and had two children, Dian in 1935 and Ian in 1940.
Bill and Norah shared a passion for Scottish folklore, and worked together throughout their marriage on collecting, recording and publishing rhymes and stories, preserving oral tradition for the children (and grown-ups) of the future. Scottish Nursery Rhymes was first published by The Hogarth Press in 1946, followed in 1948 by an enlarged version, Sandy Candy, and other Scottish nursery rhymes, which was illustrated with line drawings by Norah. The collection was re-issued by Chambers in the 1980s. The Montgomeries’ anthology of Scottish folk tales, also illustrated by Norah, The Well at the World’s End (Hogarth Press,1956) is still in print with Birlinn under the new title The Folk Tales of Scotland: the well at the world’s end and other stories.
Montgomerie’s fascination with both folk tradition and written literature came together in his theories of the influence of European mummers’ plays on Shakespeare. His poem, ‘Prince Hamlet’s Play-Within-the-Play’ is the last item in From Time to Time: selected poems.
Once retired, Montgomerie took on the editing of the magazine Lines Review, from 1977 to 1982. He had edited a pioneer collection of six essays onRobert Burns in 1947, and the Burns Chronicle in 1950. During his life Montgomerie also published short stories, several of which were broadcast on BBC Radio.
Montgomerie’s first book of poetry, Via, was published by Boriswood in 1933, shortly after he graduated from Glasgow. It was followed by Squared Circle: a vision of the Cairngorms in 1934.
His poems were published widely in many Scottish, British and American literary magazines from the early 1930s until his death, and were included in anthologies, including Hugh MacDiarmid’s Albannach, Maurice Lindsay’s Modern Scottish Poetry, Kenneth Rexroth’s New British Poets, and virtually all the major anthologies of 20th century Scottish poetry, and into the 21st century. Despite this widespread inclusion he did not publish a further collection of poetry until From Time to Time: selected poems in 1985, which was timed to celebrate his 80th birthday.
In a letter to Edinburgh Review 72, 1986, J.B. Pick wrote:
William Montgomerie is a writer who specialises in the precise observation of fact; strong emotion controlled to objectivity; and a rigorous intellectual balance.
The control of emotion is most strikingly seen in the short poems ‘Glasgow Street’ and ‘Epitaph’ (for Montgomerie’s brother) and in the long poem ‘Lifeboat Disaster’, about the tragic loss of the Broughty Ferry lifeboat in December 1959.
Bill and Norah had moved to Edinburgh in 1973, though they spent several months of the year in France (near Marseilles) and in Spain (house-sitting for Gerald Brennan).They loved visiting Spain but refused to go there while Franco was in power.
William Montgomerie died in Edinburgh in 1994, and Norah in 1998.
In his Scotsman obituary of Montgomerie, John Pick summed up his subject thus:
He was a treasure house of information and a master of sharp perception. He shared light, not darkness, and his scholarship was meticulous.
With thanks to Dian Montgomerie Elvin