High above the wonderfully scenic A712 from New Galloway to Newton Stewart, in the Scottish Lowlands, stands this granite monument. After a stiff climb up the hillside the views are breathtaking in both senses: the ascent will leave you short of breath, but you will gasp in awe at the views.
The monument commemorates Alexander Murray (1775-1813), the son of a local shepherd, who ‘by his genius and industry […] raised himself to unrivalled eminence’. From childhood he was fascinated by languages, and without teacher or tutor soon mastered the classics and modern European tongues. He was ordained a priest, but philology (the study of the history of language) remained his greatest love, and apparently following the advice of that darling of Dumfriesshire, Robert Burns, he won a scholarship to attend the University of Edinburgh. His ‘intimate knowledge of the Abyssinian language’ brought him to the attention of the king in 1811, when he translated a letter to the monarch from the prime minister of Ethiopia. He was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Edinburgh in 1812, but sadly his health failed, and he died the following year.
Looking along the valley towards the spot where Murray was born.
His first memorial was in verse, when the poet William Nicholson composed ‘On the death of the Rev. Dr Murray’, celebrating his achievements:
… Twas his the depths of language to unlock,
What every tongue in every clime hath spoke.
But curiously, for one who was so lauded, it took over 20 years for a more substantial monument to his memory to be erected. In 1833 a committee was formed in Edinburgh, and an appeal for subscribers to a monument was published in the papers. A prospectus was issued with an account of Murray’s life and a lithograph of the proposed design signed ‘J. Henderson, Archt’. This was probably John Henderson (1804-1862), a protege of Lord Panmure, then in the early stages of his career.
The prospectus made it clear that the design might be ‘modified or altered’ if the requisite funds were not found. The simplified design of the obelisk, as eventually constructed in 1835, suggests that there was indeed a shortfall. The monument was erected on land owned by the Stewarts of Cairnsmore, and the inscription records James Stewart’s ‘exertions and skill’ in getting the monument built. Presumably his exertions were not as strenuous as those of the builders who carted the materials up the steep hillside.
Murray had been buried in Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh, but the grave was not marked and an 1867 guide to the memorials in the graveyard noted that Murray had ‘no monument’. In 1876 a ‘committee of gentlemen’ launched a second appeal to raise funds to erect a memorial over his burial place in Edinburgh. A smaller granite obelisk now commemorates the ‘Shepherd Boy who rose to be the most Eminent Linguist and Oriental Scholar of his day’.
The appeal also raised funds and to add an inscription to the earlier hilltop obelisk:
ALEXANDER MURRAY, D.D.
MINISTER OF URR 1806 TO 1813
PROFESSOR OF LANGUAGES
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH 1812-1813
BORN AT DUNKITTERICK 22ND OCTOBER 1775
DIED AT EDINBURGH 15TH APRIL 1813
REARED A SHEPHERD BOY ON THESE HILLSIDES
ERECTED BY HIS COUNTRYMEN IN 1835
MAINLY THROUGH THE EXERTIONS AND SKILL OF
JAMES STEWART ESQ. OF CAIRNSMORE
ON WHOSE PROPERTY IT STANDS
The obelisk near Newton Stewart was damaged in a gale in November 1929, and once again a subscription was raised to enable its restoration. This was completed in 1931 when a crowd of 600-700 people gathered to mark the occasion. The obelisk is now owned by the Forestry Commission and there is a small car park at the foot of the hill. It’s well worth the climb.