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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

The Life and Very Hard Times
of William McGonagall

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2008

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L History collection as well.]
[Click here to read Thomas Mc Rae’s own poems in McGonagall’s style!]

A  single man makes Scotland unique among the nations of the world. Great poets are ten a penny but Scotland alone produced a native son whose verses are so bad they are totally unique. A man who may well have published more poems in the English language than any rival. A man in fact whose poetic anthologies have sold more copies than even Burns, Shakespeare, or Kipling. Largely ignored or persecuted in life, buried in a pauper’s grave on death, yet whose descendants live fat on posthumous royalties. Allow me to introduce Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah.

Who was he? Well, he was born to parents of Irish origin who had moved to Edinburgh in search of work. There is some doubt about his birth year as he wrote two autobiographies giving 1825 in one and 1830 in the other. A third account has him saying, “Like most men I was born at a very early age” but this is in fact a forgery which also has him saying his parents were “poor but bibulous.” His wedding certificate survives and, being dated 1846, I’ll opt for the former as I doubt he married at 16.

1830 was the year of Burke and Hare who murdered at least 18 derelicts and sold the corpses for dissection. The McGonagall family lived near the site of those atrocities and five year old William, like all local children, would have received the warning … “If Ye dinnae behave Yersel Burke and Hare will come fur Ye.” The children chanted,

“Burke and Hare fell doon the stair,
Wi a boady in a boax,
Gawn tae Doactor Knoax.”

Maybe this was Our Hero’s first display of genius?

It was an era when the poor and unemployed starved, a period when only the rich and powerful had the vote, yet a time when diseases like cholera spread their horrors free from Class distinction. When cities were cess pits and poverty and drunkenness dominated the lives of working people. McGonagall Senior was a skilled handloom weaver and travelled around Scotland to obtain work. He even took the family to Orkney for a couple of years where he was a pedlar and it was there that William received his scant education. The family moved to Dundee where William also became a weaver, here he lived out most of his life, and developed his astounding talents. He was a prolific reader of Shakespeare's works and worked part time assisting in local theatres where he got the occasional walk on part. Thus began that obsession with the stage which lasted until his death. A classic Ham actor, he gave recitals from Macbeth and Hamlet to his workmates during lunch breaks. They egged him on and eventually clubbed together to raise money so he could perform in a real theatre with a professional cast. The play was Macbeth and it ran to three crowded houses. The truly memorable moment was when Macbeth was scheduled to die.

Instead of collapsing on Macduff’s sword William danced wildly round the stage stabbing and slashing with great gusto. “Lie doon McGonagall, Ye’re deid” whispered Macduff, “Naw ah’m no!” yelled William prancing on. The fiasco only ended when the other actor knocked him to the floor, or did it? The audience demanded no less than seven encores of this death scene. Word of the show spread around Dundee and mounted police had to control crowds rushing to the other performances. McGonagall’s career as a Tragedian had begun.

During a slump in the jute industry he and most of his workmates, were laid off. Here Australia had a very narrow escape as some of those weavers took ship to Queensland, I wonder if they helped set up the Ipswich mills? Luckily William decided to take up acting full time and began travelling on foot to villages around Dundee displaying his Shakespearean exuberance in halls and smithies. Sixpence here, a shilling there he and his family lived from hand to mouth, dodging creditors, striving to find rent money, often hungry. Poverty became the companion that never forsook him. Sometimes he found work at his trade but he still gave dramatic recitals to raise a wee bit more money for his family. Respected Dundee citizens wrote him testimonials which he proudly displayed. Here is an example from a distinguished clergyman, author, and orator. I certify that William McGonagall has for some time been known to me. I have heard him speak, he has a strong proclivity for the elocution art department, a strong voice, and great enthusiasm. He has had a great deal of experience too, having addressed audiences, and acted parts here and elsewhere.

George Gilfillan

Remember that name as he has a key role to play in our saga.

It was not until he was 52 that McGonagall was hit by the Muse of Poetry. He tells how he discovered himself …

“… to be a poet which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee Holiday week
in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full
bloom, while lonely and sad in my room.”

(Observe how verse occurs even in his prose writings?)

He was overwhelmed with the desire to write poetry, in fact felt the pen was in his hand while a voice said “Write, write.” Wrong or not, he set pen to paper with his first work which was published in a local paper with the following apologia from the editor.

“W. McG of Dundee, who modestly seeks to hide his light under a bushel, has surreptitiously dropped into our letter box an address to the Rev George Gilfillan. Here is a sample of this worthy’s powers of versification.
Rev George Gilfillan of Dundee,
There’s none can you excel;
For you have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
And defended your cause real well.
The first time I heard him speak,
“Twas in the Kinnaird Hall,
Lecturing on the Garibaldi Movement,
As loud as he could bawl.
He is a liberal gentleman
To the poor while in distress,
And for his kindness unto them.
The Lord will surely bless.
My blessing on his noble form
And on his lofty head,
May all good angels guard him while living.
And hereafter when he’s dead.”

He never fell below the standard set by this first epic where his prophetic talents also first manifested. After preaching about sudden death. Gilfillan died unexpectedly the following year, McGonagall then wrote a poem about the funeral with which he raised a little ready cash. He was now having his poems printed as broadsheets which he sold in the streets, a full time poet at last! Let us pause here for reflection. Gilfillan along with many other distinguished men of his age now roams in the gloaming of forgotten VIP’s. Lots of other Powers of the Time wander with him in obscurity, living on only in the pages of McGonagall’s “Poetic Gems.” Pompous politicians and other Powers of our Age should remember this as there is no poet of McGonagall’s calibre around to perpetuate their memories.

What did our hero write about? Among other topics there was Queen Victoria, Colonial battles, Minor Scottish health resorts, Queen Victoria, Funerals, Queen Victoria, and most important of all … Disasters!

The uninitiated claim he wrote

As I was walkin doon the road,
Ah met a coo, a buhll by Goad!

This is not McGonagall’s work just local kids’ doggerel,

As for …

The hen’s a nice bird but the cow is forlorner
Standing in the rain with a leg at each corner.

Ogden Nash wrote that one. He states in a booklet he wrote on Willie … “Brevity was never one of McGonagall’s virtues.” Nuff said.

Let’s experience the real Mc Coy, or should I say McGonagall?

In 1878 the world’s most amazing bridge was completed across the Tay Estuary and William produced his first major hit,

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave His home far away,
incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox,
who has given Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting the Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

The original Tay Bridge seen from the north.

This must be the only poem in the English language to commemorate the Emperor of Brazil,one of the world’s last major Slave Economies. McGonagall waxes diplomatic by eulogising Provost Cox who was determined to suppress our hero’s public activities. This was his sop to Cerberus but Cerberus, as we shall see, was not hungry.

Prophetic powers reappear in the second last verse. This mighty looking bridge actually had major weaknesses. The design was full of technical errors and there were irregularities in work done by contractors. Bees wax was put in cracks in the steelwork and painted over. Much of the work fell far short of specified standards yet was passed by bribed Inspectors. We will soon learn how the prophecy was fulfilled but first McGonagall made his famous journey to Balmoral.

Queen Victoria did not attend the bridge’s opening so he resolved to attend the Queen. After all had he not sent her a bundle of his poems written in her honour? Had not the Lord Chamberlain returned them in an official envelope stating she was not allowed to receive gifts of this nature? Surely this signified Royal Patronage?

Just prior to starting this adventure he appeared before the magistrate for non payment of a grocery account which he was ordered to pay off at 3/- a week, Undaunted off he set on a long footslog to visit his Sovereign. Not a penny in his pocket, no food, and no accommodation arranged. Perhaps he mentally recited his poems to Vicky on her throne as he struggled through the rain, imagining himself performing before her …

It took him three days to reach Balmoral, travelling via Glensidhe, the Fairy Glen, in a raging storm. He was looked after by caring locals, what a contrast to Dundee! At last he strode in triumph to the Palace gates telling the lodge keeper “I have come to see Her Majesty.” “Who do you want to see?” roared the official. McGonagall asked if he was hard of hearing, he had distinctly said he wanted to see Her Majesty.

When asked to identify himself he stated he was the Poet Laureate. “Tennyson’s the Poet Laureate,” said the keeper. “Aye but I have an official letter from the Lord Chamberlain confirming my position.” “Show me!” demanded his inquisitor. When shown he said, “This is a forgery.” William got upset at being called a liar but the man replied …

“This does not have Sir Thomas Biddulph’s signature on it.” “It’s on the envelope,” responded Willie, “Show me. Why did you not tell me this before?” “I forgot.”

The keeper made him wait while he enquired further then returned to tell him to get lost guaranteeing him instant arrest if he ever returned. “It cannae be helped said McGonagall as he left for to Dundee, the visit was written up by the local Press and he became an impoverished celebrity for a while. 1879 was a dramatic year for William, first the Queen officially visited the Bridge in the Royal Train and McGonagall waited at home for the regal summons that never came. Next he made an epic tour of the surrounding area only to return penniless as usual. but he covered lots of ground on foot and even raised enough money to pay his fare across the Bridge”

In July a statue of Robert Burns was officially dedicated in Dundee. William tried to gate crash the ceremony wearing “most improbable Highland Dress” but was run off by the police. Most dramatic of all was the event that took place on the evening of 28th December. The bridge he had immortalised proved mortal when fierce rain and tremendous gales raged through its High Girders. A train approached the small station on the far side and railway staff watched it pass into the tunnel approaching the bridge. They saw the train’s lights as it started towards the High Girders … The lights went out!

In a house overlooking the Tay a man and his daughter looked out to see the train crossing the bridge in the raging storm. Its lights created a flickering effect as it passed between the steel uprights which the child compared to lightning. THEN! A shower of cometic sparks shot from the locomotive’s funnel, trailing behind until the train hit the water far below! The Tay Bridge was down and all 75 passengers and crew on the train were killed, the world was shocked. McGonagall gained poetic immortality with his account of this horrendous event. His estimate of the casualties was, fortunately, wrong. Many of the bodies were never found but the locomotive was raised and remained in service for another 40 years. Railway staff nicknamed it “The Diver.” Mr Bouche received full blame for his bridge’s collapse but he was not prosecuted as it was felt he had suffered enough. Soon afterwards he died from guilt, final casualty of the tragedy. Evidence in a forthcoming BBC documentary may well exonerate him. By now McGonagall was dedicated absolutely to the Muse and the unwitting butt of the local population. Literary societies sprang up to con him into attending so they could pull his leg. He took it all seriously most of the time, having no sense of humour. Being totally honest himself he assumed everybody else was the same. Thugs hassled him with trumpets and football rattles during his performances, even worse showered him with dried peas. and barrages of rotten eggs and vegetables. Our hero carried on undaunted as spoiled hams flew around and into him. On one such occasion he is said to have spontaneously generated the couplet …

“Gentlemen please.
Refrain from throwing peas!”

Many’s the prank played on him. Students sent a letter, purportedly from King Thibault of the Andaman Islands, that gave him the exalted titles subsequently printed on his letterhead.

Ruffians threw stones to knock off his hat when he walked the streets, children yelled abuse at him, yet he continued the Quest for his personal Grail. Riots in the course of his presentations led to Council bans. Given a permanent spot in a circus at 15/- a night outrageous behaviour from the audiences led to a Council decree, “No More McGonagall.” Penniless again but undaunted he soldiered on. As Baden Powell would have put it, he had “stickability”

The following year a particularly malevolent “joke” had him meet with someone posing as a great London stage producer. When the real producer heard of this shameful event he sent the victim 5 guineas in recompense, this inspired William to visit London where he was certain the Great Man would make him famous. Locals raised the £1 steamer fare and in June off he sailed to seek his just reward. As usual nothing came of his journey. The Great Man would not receive him and the stage door keeper at the Drury Lane Theatre chased him off when he demanded to see Sir Henry Irving. There being no work in London back he went to Bonnie Dundee.

Home again a sadder, but in no way wiser man, he continued his efforts to reform Scottish literature. A staunch advocate of Temperance he produced several works on the evils of strong drink despite the fact that most of his recitals were given in pubs … 

(Ironically he attended court on at least one occasion when his daughter was “had up” for drunken brawling.) Poor McGonagall was now showing signs of his age. Stomping around Scotland in all weathers looking for engagements did not help and pubs full of foul tobacco smoke did nothing for lungs already affected by jute dust. In 1884 he consulted a Dr Murison, commemorated in a poem which tells us his problem.

“He told me at once what was ailing me;
He said I had been writing too much poetry,
And from writing poetry I would have to refrain.
Because I was suffering from inflammation of the brain.”

Did he pay the doctor with this poem? Did the Dundee City Council bribe the Dr to make this diagnosis? In fact, after an initial scare, McGonagall’s poetic output increased brain storms or no.

Despite his illness he soon embarked on another adventure. In the Spring of 1888 an ex Dundee weaver and his wife in their tenement in New York City heard a knock at the door. “Who’s there?” “It’s meeee.” and in walked an Auld Acquaintance Best ForgotSir William Mc Gonagall! Undaunted despite ten years of poecy he had talked a patron into paying his steerage passage to the USA and here he was “Seeking the Bubble Reputation” even in The Bowery’s mouth. Same old story, in three weeks the poor man was on his way back home every bit as unsuccessful as he’d ever been.

Back home, in June of the same year a better designed, better constructed bridge spanned the Tay. The engineers made use of our Poet’s recommendations but of course he received no credit. Undaunted he wrote … …

“Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your numerous brick piers and BUTTRESSES in so grand array”

But enough of Tay Bridges!

There was a major breakthrough when he moved on to commercials. Aye he may be the one who created the first jingles. He received a new suit from the owner of a tweed mill after creating a poem eulogising his products. Inspired by this he received two whole guineas for …


We know he also produced one praising Beecham’s Pills but nobody seems to know if it raised any money.

Persecution from the Council and citizenry of Dundee and worsening health finally forced him to leave the City. He gave the ungrateful people ample warning when he wrote …

Welcome! thrice welcome to the year 1893,
For it is the year I intend to leave Dundee.
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I go out,
The ignorant rabble they do shout.
“There goes Mad McGonagall”
In derisive shouts as loudly as they can bawl.

Despite this threat he stayed on until October and only left then as he and his family were evicted due to “Family Disturbances” that disturbed not only the neighbours, but also religious services at a local church. After a few months in Perth he returned to his birth place, and mine, Edinburgh.

His rival Tennyson had died in the month of the McGonagalls” Exodus and William lived in hope that he would gain the honour. He wrote a poem about Tennyson’s death and sent a copy to the Marquis of Lorne who replied …

“Sir, I thank you for your enclosure, and as a friend would advise you to keep strictly to prose for the future.”

Ignoring this advice his production remained unchecked. In Edinburgh he was treated more kindly than he had been in Dundee. People had fun at his expense but there was neither violence nor dirty tricks. In fact in November Sir Henry Irving and Eilleen Terry paid him a courtesy visit. You will be surprised to learn that one Alfred Austin received the Laureateship, Austin was regarded as even more of a buffoon than Mc Gonagall and his awful verse was widely parodied. I’ll bet nobody can quote any of his work. William apparently wanted to move away even further and Australia had another lucky escape. There is a letter among his papers from a Melbourne cleric who advises him not to emigrate due to scant employment and empty shops.

Just imagine if he’d written … 

“Oh lovely Victoria most beautiful to see,
Yet you look at Queensland with great envee”

Shortly before his death he wrote his final work. It starts …

“Twas in the year of 1902 and on August ninth; a beautifull (sic) day,
That thousands of people came from far away.
All in a statement of excitement and consternation,
Resolved to see King Edward the VII’s coronation
Fortunately only fragments survive. A classic couplet ….
Then robed in purple and velvet, they prepared to make their departure,
The Queen goes first and the King follows after.”

… proves the maestro never lost his touch even in old age, Alas this was his Swan Song, two weeks later, aged around 77, William Mc Gonagall died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Not a bad innings for that time but maybe I owe Dr Murison an apology.

Had he only lived another year and stayed in Dundee he might been instrumental in proving an important event really took place. Recent evidence indicates that the first powered flight did not take place at Kitty hawk but near Dundee. Preston Watson allegedly made this flight several months before the Wrights and most Scots aviation experts back the claim. Surely this would have been commemorated by McGonagall so serve them all right!.

All hail to Preston Watson a man beyond compare,
As in your wondrous flying machine you hurtle through the air.

No obituaries were written in McGonagall’s memory, no honours accorded him, just an unmarked pauper’s grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars churchyard. Dundee City Council blocked moves in the 1980’s to have a statue erected in his honour but eventually agreed to have a street named McGonagall Crescent. For some years there was a pub, McGonagall’s, where he was commemorated by a soft drink and milk shake bar for the children, I believe even that is gone. In Edinburgh a brass plaque on a bench outside the graveyard is his sole memorial. Several anthologies of his poems have been published which sell well. A movie “The Great McGonagall” featured Spike Milligan as Our Hero while Peter Sellars played Queen Victoria. On his knees! One wonderful exchange has Prince Albert ask his wife “Tell me, Vicky, vy are you alvays vearing black?” Vicky responds pensively, “You’ll see, Albert, you’ll see.”

The movie was too surrealistic for the average cinema goer but I loved it During attacks of manic depression Milligan wrote a series of crazy books about McGonagall, the last was “William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin.” The Scottish playwright James Bridie wrote a work based on McGonagall called “Gog and McCog” featuring Willie McCog, an itinerant poet who creates chaos in a small town. Duncan Macrae played the title role at its Edinburgh Festival premiere.

I did my own bit to commemorate him by reciting his works during EXPO 88 and on many other occasions. I found both young and old enjoyed his poems; adults laughed at the tortured verse while kids loved his stories. He also has a soporific effect on crying babies, either that or they’re frozen by terror. While gathered here to remember Sir William Topaz McGo­na­gall let us imagine him hassling St Peter and the angels with his latest cosmic verses while Queen Victoria cringes behind long dead poets. McGonagall, a virtuous man who pursued his Star regardless of adversity or persecution. A man who still gives joy to many. May he be remembered “For A Very Long Time.”


P.S.: Since my visit in 2004 a handsome memorial stone has finally been laid near the Master’s unmarked grave complete with portrait.

“Oh William, let me gladly rave,
They’ve finally marked you pauper’s grave.
And it appears,
Your memorial is better than Shakespeare’s.”

[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]
[Click here to read Thomas Mc Rae’s own poems in McGonagall’s style!]

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