Walter Gregor (1825-97): A Life and Preliminary Bibliography

By Buchan, David; Olson, Ian A. | Folklore, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Walter Gregor (1825-97): A Life and Preliminary Bibliography

Buchan, David, Olson, Ian A., Folklore

The Reverend Dr Walter Gregor, a founder member of the Folklore Society, was one of the most outstanding men of his day, combining the life of a parish minister with that of a prolific scholar of international repute, a not unusual state of affairs in Victorian times.

Walter Gregor was born on 23 October 1825 at Fogieside, in the parish of Keith, in the northeast of Scotland, where his father James was a tenant farmer. He was educated at Keith School, a successful parochial school of the old style, gaining a bursary in 1845 to pursue a distinguished undergraduate career at King's College, the older of Aberdeen's two universities. He graduated MA in 1849 and shortly afterwards was appointed master of the Macduff Parish School in the Moray Firth fishing village of Gamrie. He spent ten successful years in this post, during which time - as was not uncommon-he underwent a course in Divinity and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Turriff in 1857 at the late age of thirty-two. A popular and well-respected man, he was ordained to Macduff Parish Church two years later, before being presented by Queen Victoria in 1863 to the Parish of Pitsligo in the farming countryside of northeast Scotland.

He spent the rest of his working life at Pitsligo before retiring to Bonnyrigg in 1895, at the age of seventy, where he died in 1897 after a short illness. He had many ups and downs during his professional life, especially in his relationships with his Presbytery (he held that his manse was insanitary and refused to live in it until it was eventually remodelled), but was held in high regard by his parishioners, especially for the courage shown in singlehandedly ministering to the sick during a severe cholera epidemic.

Gregor, a cheerful, humorous man, was more of a perpetual student than a simple minister, and soon gained an international reputation as an archaeologist and folklorist, not to mention a natural historian and expert in Scottish history, literature, language, balladry and general antiquities, drawing on Banffshire and Aberdeenshim for many of his findings. He was proficient in several languages, including Hebrew and French (he attended Renan's courses in Hebrew at Paris and was even considered for the Chair of Hebrew at Aberdeen University in the '70s). In 1885 he was honoured by the University with an LL.D.

Locally, he was a member and President of the Buchan Field Club, an active research society, and Convenor of the Archaeology Committee of the New Spalding Club, a prestigious historical publishing society which was later to initiate the great Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection. He was also a member of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland and of the Ethnographical Committee of the British Association. He helped found the Scottish Text Society, and acted as its enthusiastic Secretary and text editor for many notable years.

His research output was both prodigious and catholic, as may be seen from the bibliography, and he gained both a European and an international reputation, publishing in English and French as well as Spanish translation. Over and above his work for the Scottish Text Society he published well over eighty research papers, as well as a number of influential books, making his name first with the superb The Dialect of Banffshire in 1866, followed by that mine of historical interest, An Echo of the Olden Time from the North of Scotland.

It is perhaps for his work on folklore that he will be best remembered. To quote from the unsigned obituary in Folklore 8 (1897):188:

His name appears on the first list of members of the Folk-Lore Society; and among the early publications of the Society were his Notes on the Folk-Lore of the NorthEast of Scotland. To know this book is to recognise its value as a transcript of the superstitions and traditions of a district rich in remains of the past up to that time unrecorded. Its author, however, was by no means content to rest on the reputation its publication immediately won, for he was an indefatigable collector. …

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