William Topaz McGonagall, 1825-1902 poet and tragedian.

Robbie Burns aside, Scotland's best known contributor to the field of poetry could be claimed, justifiably, to be William McGonagall. The awfulness of his poems have ensured that his work has endured while many of his contemporaries in rhyme faded into the mists of time.

McGonagall, a weaver from Dundee, discovered his talent late in life, penning his first work at the age of 47. This passion seems to have stemmed from a love of Shakespeare, a love brought to fruition on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Dundee, playing Macbeth. His acting seems to have been pursued in the same manner as his poetry, preferring energetic jousting to subtle nuances. In the climatic duel with Macduff, McGonagall infuriated his co-star by refusing to die. This rewritten ending went down well with the Dundonian audience earning McGonagall a standing ovation, but unfortunately not a second night.

McGonagall was certainly prolific, writing over 200 poems, with his first collection published in 1878, and was able to eke out an existence with assistance from certain broadsheets and bars and holstereries willing to host public readings. Convinced of his talents, McGonagall set out to display to Queen Victoria a poem he written in her honour, walking the 50 or so miles to her Royal Deeside residence at Balmoral. Upon arrival he was turned away by the lodge keeper who maintained the Queen already had one poet and had no need of another. The trip was not in vain as McGonagall was inspired by sights such as the Spital o'Glenshee which were soon commemorated in verse.

Audiences in Edinburgh, London and later (thanks to a forged invitation) New York were treated to McGonagall's live readings, which were performed in full highland dress accompanied with a broadsword for dramatic florish. Such theatrics would earn McGonagall nothing but ridicule and derision occasionally augmented by the odd stone-throwing and quickly became a target for student pranks and other pisstakery. On one occasion McGonagall received a letter informing him he had been granted the title of Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah from a 'King Theebaw of Burma'. Oblivious to the mockery, McGonagall adopted the title for the remainder of his life, including it in all correspondence.

Fame and success continued to elude McGonagall, but upon his death in 1902 he did receive obituaries in several Scottish newspapers. His poetry remained, thanks to an ever increasing army of fans and English teachers, and in 1962 fifty more previously unseen works were uncovered. In 1974 a film about McGonagall's trip to Balmoral was released - The Great McGonagall - starring Peter Sellers with Spike Milligan playing McGonagall.

By this time the Scottish tourist industry had started to respond to the growing number of McGonagall fans across the globe. Edinburgh erected a plaque by his graveside at Greyfriars Kirkyard, while Dundee has etched the first verse of Silvery Tay on the walkway by the edge of the river.

The Book of Heroic Failures, Stephen Pile
Scotland Magazine, Issue 5, William McGonagall: White Elephant