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William McGonagall, Dundee Poet

Dundee has produced many illustrious men and women, yet few are held in more popular affection, and not only in Scotland, than the most unlikely of them all, William McGonagall, poet and tragedian.  He was born in Edinburgh, probably in March 1825, the youngest child of Irish immigrant parents. His father was a handloom weaver, and the family moved often to find work, finally coming to Dundee, where young William was first sent to work at a mill in Scouringburn, and later trained as a weaver. Then 'I began to take a great delight in reading books, as well as to improve my handwriting, in my leisure hours at night.' The penny editions of Shakespeare were his particular pleasure, 'more especially Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello; and I gave myself no rest until I obtained complete mastery over the above four characters'.

It was not long before he felt the desire to perform publicly, and he probably began in the penny-gaffs that were displaced when the Albert Institute, Museum and Art Galleries were built. This was followed by a one-night stand in three performances of Macbeth at Giles's Theatre in Lindsay Street. For this he had to pay the proprietor one pound in cash, which he succeeded in raising among his workmates. And for the next 20 years he eked out his modest wages by performances 'in country towns and villages with pleasure and profit to his audiences'. He had married in 1846, and eventually had four children to support.

It was 1877, when he was 52, before the idea of writing poetry himself came to him, 'in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room. I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, and I felt so happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance. I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying "Write! Write" . . . then all at once a bright idea struck me to write about my best friend, the late Reverend George Gilfillan':

"Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
   There is none can you excel;
You have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
  And defended your cause right well.
The first time I heard him speak,
  'Twas in the Kinnaird Hall,
Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,
   As loud as he could bawl..."

It was, indeed, in Reverend Gilfillan's castoffs, his wide-brimmed hat and frock coat, that the poet McGonagall was to appear before the world for the next 25 years. With him, they endured heat and cold, drenching rain and furious winds, he walked the weary miles to Balmoral, there to be turned away at the gate: or boarded the coastal steamer Britannica, on a  fruitless visit to London three years later, and even, in March 1887, on an equally
unsuccessful trip to New York.

The truth of the matter is that such success as William McGonagall enjoyed during his lifetime was a result of the hilarity he provoked as he strutted about some rickety stage, roaring his verses and brandishing his cudgel or, with two handkerchiefs tied about his waist to represent a kilt, laying about him with a broadsword in the character of Macbeth.

And the fame that has followed his death due to the fact that, as the Times Literary Supplement has put it, 'he is the only memorable truly bad poet in our language.'

McGonagall died in Edinburgh, exiled from Dundee, in 1902, at the age of 77.His wife Jean, who was illiterate, gave his name as McGonigal and his age as 62. But in the memories of lovers of bad verse all over the world William McGonagall lives on, immortalised in his verses on the Tay Bridge Disaster, which took place on the last Sabbath day of 1879, which will be remembered for a very long time.

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