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Mary Symon

Mary Symon writer of school song

Mary Symon writer of school song

For many today the war poets mean writers like Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen or Scotland’s own E A Mackintosh – men who fought and in many cases died in the carnage of the trenches. Those war poets that we admire today did not necessarily have their works published or widely known until after the war ceased.

And yet, in Dufftown, Banffshire, there was a spinster in her fifties, whose verse, written during the war and in Scots, caught the public’s imagination and is among the finest war poetry in capturing the grief and loss of that period. Her name was Mary Symon. Her war poems were and are of national importance.

Mary Symon was born on 25th September 1863 in Dufftown, the elder of two daughters of John Symon and Isabella Duncan.

Her father, provost of Dufftown in the 1880s, started as a saddler, diversified into farming and helped to establish the Pittyvaich Distillery. He had purchased Pittyvaich House which was Mary’s home for most of her life.

Mary was educated first at Mortlach Public School, then the Edinburgh Institute for Young Ladies where her English teacher was James Logie Robertson, who wrote in Scots as Hugh Halliburton and clearly influenced the future writing of his protege. She attended classes at Edinburgh University and graduated from St Andrews University. Mary Symon was a woman of great knowledge, but remained firmly rooted in the local culture, customs and language.

Her poetry career started at the early age of 11 when her poem about the restoration of Mortlach Church was published. By the early years of the twentieth century her work was appearing in the Scots Magazine, the New Century Review, The Century Illustrated Magazine and other magazines under a variety of names including Mary Duff and Malcolm Forbes.

She had many interests outside poetry, writing articles on a wide variety of topics and was a valued and entertaining speaker on local customs and language. She also wrote the school song for Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen.

But it was the Great War that brought out her best work, with that work being written in Scots.

“After Neuve Chapelle”(1915) is a call to arms but it also depicts conditions at the front honestly, its opening a telling description of the terrible loss suffered by the Gordon Highlanders. “A Whiff O’Hame” was included in a Christmas Book sent to troops in 1916, urging the lads “To ache, an’ fecht, an’ fa’.” The Soldier’s Cairn” and “A Recruit for the Gordons” stand testimony to her ability to express the feelings of those who fought and the sense of loss of those at home. All demand to be read.

But it is “The Glen’s Muster Roll; the Dominie Loquitur”, published in February 1916, which stands as perhaps the finest vernacular elegy to come out of the Great War. No other poem evokes so effectively the sense of the loss to a community of a whole generation.

An elegy of the war dead of a small community, spoken by the Dominie, it so effectively demonstrates that civilians were capable of understanding the suffering and loss that the war entailed. The voice of the Dominie is compelling. He has taught every one of the hundred or so young men whose names make up the muster roll. The poem concentrates on the fates of 8 of his loons, the detail absorbing and deeply, deeply moving, but never sentimental.

In the closing lines the Dominie has a hellish vision of the dead and wounded returning to the school room.

They challenge their old master. “Ah, Maister, tell’s fat a’ this means.”

But his only reply can and must be: “I dinna ken, I dinna ken. Fa does, oh, Loons O’ Mine.”

It is clear why this poem and Mary Symon’s other war poems struck a chord in the hearts and minds of the people. Here was a poet that the general public felt they understood and who could put into their daily language their innermost but often inarticulate feelings.

Mary Symon’s poetry was a poetry of understanding and sympathy, neither jingoistic or over sentimental. The sheer awfulness and horror is brought home to one community – and by so doing is representative of the pain of so many, many communities across Scotland. That Mary Symon’s mother came from the Cabrach, with all the sufferings that it endured during the war years, gives the poem an added poignancy, strength and resonance that can still be experienced today.

Mary Symon’s war poetry established her as a poet of national importance, her war poems appearing in many anthologies. And yet her collected poems did not appear in a published volume until 1933, when “Deveron Days” was published. It was an instant success and sold out within the week. Immediately reprinted, it immediately sold out again! A second edition, with 7 additional poems, was published in 1938.

Mary Symon died at home, Pittyvaich House on 27th May 1938. She was buried alongside her parents in the cemetery at Mortlach Old Church in the countryside she knew and loved so well. The pall bearers included Sir Charles Murray, “Hamewith”.

The Dufftown News in her obituary describes her as follows: “She was a woman of extraordinarily wide culture, familiar with several languages and a keen and discerning student of literature, philosophy and life. Old Scottish words and phrases were constantly on her lips when she was in the company of those who understood the charm of the pure vernacular. Her native countryside and its people and customs she loved with a passionate devotion.”

“Oh English speech for English yird
We ken it’s gran’ an’ fine,
But ah! It takes the dear Scots word
To grip your heart an’ mine.”

Mary Symon’s poems and writing stand testimony to a great talent and intellect. But it is her war poetry that marks her out as a poet of national importance, with a rare and rich skill of capturing the awfulness of war and its suffering on individuals and communities – and doing so in her native language.