KINTYRE'S ADDER KING - Dr Norman Morrison

Hamish Mackinven MORRISON — At Beith Place, Campbeltown, on Sunday 3rd April, 1949, Norman Morrison, D.ès S.c., F.Z.S. (Scot.), aged 79 years, beloved husband of Elizabeth McKay. Here, Hamish Mackinven, who can remember sitting on a summer seat at Beith Place, sandalled legs too short to reach the ground and playing with some of Dr Morrison's de-fanged adders, recalls the life of 'The Adder King'. Dr Morrison's passing, just two years after his golden wedding anniversary, removed a most remarkable personality and figure then well-known to townspeople at home and abroad and, indeed, to many more with no connection with Campbeltown. Dr Morrison spent most of his working days as a country police constable, rising to the rank of sergeant, but it was as one of Britain's leading authorities on snakes that he was known to a very wide public. Besides being the recognised authority on adders, he was a learned zoologist and naturalist, with a list of publications on these subjects to his credit and the honour of having addressed many of the country's leading scientific organisations and yet, Dr Morrison was a self-educated crofter's son who had led the uneventful life of a country policeman ! Morrison was brought up on the family croft at Shawbost, on the west coast of the island of Lewis in The Hebrides and, with what must, in those days, have taken a great strength of character and courage, decided to rent himself from his family and join the Glasgow Police. Being fully six feet in height and of muscular build, he was, no doubt, a most suitable candidate but, after one year's experience in the city, he joined The Argyll Constabulary and was stationed first in Campbeltown, then in Port Ellen, Dunoon, Kinlochleven and again in Campbeltown. He was promoted sergeant and retired from the force with that rank. It was while he was in the police that he met and struck up a friendship with Patrick McGill, the Irish poet, whom he brought to Campbeltown for a short sojourn. Morrison was a man of strong personality and was outspoken, almost to the point of pungency, in his convictions, which he expressed both in conversation, in articles and letters to The Press. It was this characteristic that brought him into sharp conflict with the police authorities of his day. Appointed as the first chairman of The Joint Central Committee of The Scottish Police Federation, his presence in the chair at the Edinburgh meeting was remembered for his "plain speaking". Morrison's pioneering work, to set up a trade union for policemen, was unfortunately timed because, in 1919, London's Metropolitan Police had gone on strike, causing a frisson of apprehension among 'The Establishment' and Morrison's activities indeed were to lead to his dismissal from the police force, though he was later reinstated and his principal assistant in the affair, Constable John Glenday, an uncle of the writer Hamish Mackinven, was 'baninished' to Tiree, for 13 years, for having the temerity to aid and abet Morrison. Being a keen golfer and having little o do on the island, Glenday laid out and single-handedly built Tiree's nine-hole course, it long included in the list of Scottish courses recognised by St Andrews' Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Morrison, possessed of unfailing courtesy and charm and always anxious to suggest improvements for the lot of his fellow men, was a Past Master of Lodge 552 Kildalton, Islay and founder of a Lodge in Kinlochleven, which he called Lodge Glencoe. Morrison, who began had begun studying natural history and science after coming to Campbeltown's police force, was to become something of a kenspeckle figure around Carradale as he hunted for adders, eels and grass-snakes along East Kintye and, though not a university graduate, he would lecture to The London College of Physiology and, at Sheffield, to the police, on the subject of heredity and environment. Morrison also lectured to The Natural History Societies of Paisley, Perth and Greenock and to The Royal Philosophical Society in Glasgow, the most learned organisation in Scotland and, at the end of that season, his lecture was adjudged to be the best and was published in the proceedings of The Society. 1

He was honoured by The University of Pennsylvania by being invited to write a treatise on snake poison for an encyclopedia which they were in the course of compiling. The Editor of 'The Zoological Magazine' in Washington also asked him to contribute an article to his journal. The Anti-venom Institute of America sought his permission to publish some articles on adder poison in their journals. In addition to being selected a Fellow of The Zoological Society of Scotland, France gave him a Doctorate of Science, after British universities had refused to consider his thesis, because he was not a graduate. Morrison published seven books, one of which, entitled "The Life Story of the Adder", being described as a "classic upon one of the sub-orders of vipera" by the late Sir Thomas Oliver, Professor of Medicine at Durham University, who also wrote in a foreword "Mr Morrison has probably the largest experience of adders of any person in Great Britain". In this book, illustrated with fourteen of his own photographs, Dr. Morrison records several interesting conclusions that adders have no ears; are not susceptible to music; they will not feed in captivity; that there was a possibility of adder poison being a cure for cancer and that the adder, like the wild cat, is untameable. Dr. Morrison also reveals in his book how he exploded the myth that poisonous reptiles will not live on the sacred soil of Iona, "a charming legend, hallowed by age, association and more or less connected with the advent of Christianity into Scotland". To disprove the theory, he took an adder to Iona, set it free for some time, collected it and packed it off with Iona grass to the Edinburgh Zoo, where it lived for two months. He was reputed to be the only man known to have taken the respiration of the adder, twenty-nine heart beats to the minute and the heart beats of the common eel. Dr Morrison carried adders around in his pocket, slept with them in his bedroom and he was never seriously bitten. Once, as an experiment he cooked and ate an adder and found it extremely palatable ! Many years ago he made a survey of the fauna, flora and geology of The Flannan Islands, lying eighteen miles off the west coast of Lewis. It was the first time such a survey had been made. He received the permission of The Commissioners of The Northern Lighthouses, Edinburgh, to visit the islands in their own steamer, the "Pole Star". Commenting on his life's work, Dr. Morrison was wont to say "The ideal course for a student of Natural Science to follow is to acquire an elementary knowledge of science and, from that point, to specialise in one or two subjects and exploit these to the death. "This is what I did. I specialised on the snake and common eel and have been studying these for over forty years. It is the specialist who will always come to the front. Know something about everything and know everything about one thing" ! Dr. Morrison successfully devoted his long and full life to this aphorism and revealed how a self-taught man, his schooling did not amount to much more than two years, could not only acquire knowledge but, by dint of study, could become a specialist, capable of speaking to and writing for the experts. In failing health for some time, he was survived by his wife and his two daughters, a Mrs Currie and a Mrs Gray, both of whom were married to doctors of medicine - Dr Morrison's funeral took place on Wednesday, April 6, 1949 and he was buried at Killean, the couple having been married there just over 50 years before.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful