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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Murdoch, John (1747-1824)

Born at Ayr, Murdoch, when a youth of eighteen, was engaged by William Burnes and some of his neighbours at Alloway, as teacher for their children. When Burnes and his family moved to Mount Oliphant,

Robert and Gilbert went on attending Murdoch's school for a further two years. Murdoch then moved out of the district, but returned to Ayr in 1772, where Burns had some further weeks of instruction from him.

Gilbert Burns later recorded for Dr Currie his memories of the instruction he and his brother received from Murdoch: 'With him we learned to read English tolerably well; and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar; but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character; as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had an opportunity of reading while he was at school.'

Gilbert also recorded Murdoch's farewell visit, when his school was breaking up because his principal employer had moved: 'Murdoch came to spend the night with us, and to take his leave when he was about to go into Carrick. He brought us a present and memorial of him, a small compendium of English Grammar, and the tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and by way of passing the evening, he began to read the play aloud. We were all attention for some time, till presently the whole party was dissolved in tears. A female in the play (I have but a confused recollection of it) had her hands chopt off, and her tongue cut out, and then was insultingly desired to call for water to wash her hands. At this, in an agony of distress, we with one voice desired that he would read no more. My father observed, that if we would not hear it out, it would be needless to leave the play with us. Robert replied that if it was left he would burn it.

My father was going to chide him for this ungrateful return to his tutor's kindness, but Murdoch interposed, declaring that he liked to see so much sensibility; and he left the School for Love, a comedy (translated I think from the French) in its place.'

Of Murdoch's subsequent return to Ayr, Gilbert wrote: 'About this time, Murdoch, our former teacher, after having been in different places in the country, and having taught a school some time in Dumfries, came to be the established teacher of the English language in Ayr, a circumstance of considerable consequence to us. The remembrance of my father's former friendship, and his attachment to my brother, made him do everything in his power for our improvement. He sent us Pope's Works, and some other poetry, the first that we had an opportunity of reading, excepting what is contained in the English Collection, and in the volume of the Edinburgh Magazine for 1772.

'The summer after we had been at Dalrymple School, my father sent Robert to Ayr, to revise his English grammar with his former teacher. He had been there only one week, when he was obliged to return, to assist at the harvest. When the harvest was over, he went back to school, where he remained two weeks.... During the two last weeks that he was with Murdoch, he himself was engaged in learning French....'

Murdoch later set down his views on the relative abilities of his two pupils: 'Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert's ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert's countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert's face said, "Mirth with thee I mean to live"; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.'

Murdoch's career at Ayr came somewhat abruptly to an end on 14th February 1776. A complaint had been lodged against him that he, in the house of Mrs Tennent, inn-keeper in Ayr, as well as in the house of Patrick Auld, weaver in Ayr: 'did utter the following, or such like, unworthy, base, reproachful and wicked expressions--viz. that he, Dr William Dalrymple, was as revengeful as Hell, and as false as the devil; and that he was a liar, or a damned liar...'

Murdoch thereafter went to London, and for a time did well as a teacher of French. But the French Revolution resulted in a flood of refugees arriving in London, cutting into his income. He seems to have tried to keep a shop. He saw Burns's young brother, William, in London shortly before the youth's death, and assisted in the funeral arrangements, an account of which he sent to Burns, his last communication with his famous pupil.

Murdoch died in extreme poverty.

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