Mairi Robinson, lexicographer and editor

Born: January 21, 1945;

Died: June 17, 2020.

WITH the death of Mairi Robinson after a short illness, Scotland, and all with an interest in her tongues, her cultures and her history, have lost a devoted friend and scholarly ally. She was a leading member of that band of dedicated lexicographers and editors who have for centuries put Scotland in the forefront of this field.

From 1966, she worked as an editor and senior editor on the Scottish National Dictionary (Scots from 1700 onwards) in the team directed by editor David Murison.

The SND and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, which covered Scots from the earliest period to 1700) and whose editor was A J (Jack) Aitken, shared premises and library resources with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies, making 27 George Square a powerhouse of Scottish lexicography and ethnology.

These two multi-volume dictionaries, along with the Scots content of the Oxford English Dictionary, provided the lexical sources for the first edition of the one-volume Concise Scots Dictionary. Mairi headed the team for this project as Editor-in-chief from 1973 to its publication in 1985.

Long desired by scholar and lay person alike, it was, as outlined in its introduction, “intended not only as a record of the copiousness and variety of the resources of the Scots language but also as a contribution to the self-assurance of the Scottish people about that language, which enshrines their past and lives in their daily speech”.

Mairi’s career in dictionaries spanned the age of written paper-slips for individual items to that of the computer and she embraced the new technology. For this she was well placed, as the University of Edinburgh was a leader in developing computer applications for linguistic and related purposes, and help was close at hand.

She went on to be both lexicographer and Project Manager for Chambers’ Twenty-first Century Dictionary and the Scots language consultant on another major project, the first complete critical edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels (published by Edinburgh University Press), for which planning commenced in 1984, and whose 30 volumes appeared between 1993 and 2012.

It delighted her to be photographed outside James Thin’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, standing between two magnificent window displays filled with each of these major publications.

Helen Mairi Johnstone Robinson was born in Dennistoun, Glasgow, on January 21, 1945, the daughter of Church of Scotland minister, the Rev. John Macnicol and his wife, Elma Kennedy. At the age of three she sailed with her parents to Australia, where her father had been appointed as chaplain and lecturer at Ormond College in the University of Melbourne.

Her life, however, took a new direction with the death of her father when she was just seven. Her mother, who was by then expecting Mairi’s brother Duncan, brought her back to Scotland, where they settled in Edinburgh.

She showed academic promise and versatility, first at Liberton Primary School and then at George Watson’s Ladies’ College, as it was known then. At the age of 16 she was both dux of the school and a fearsome goalkeeper on the hockey pitch. She studied Classics at the University of Edinburgh from 1961 to 1965 and there met her husband,Greek philosopher David Robinson, there. Her studies and her alert ear proved ideal grounding for the career in which she was to make her name.

A scrupulous scholar who could be stern at times, Mairi had a characteristic vivacity and a smile which would break out readily, a generous spirit along with a keen sense of mischief and fun.

Musical all her life, she sang alto in the Edinburgh University Opera Club, in the Sine Nomine Singers, conducted by Alfie Sefton, and in the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. She enjoyed the company of friends at operas, concerts and plays and at performances during the Edinburgh International Festival.

Her interests in Scottish history, architecture and archaeology were furthered by membership of the Conference of Scottish Medievalists, to which she was secretary for several years; the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, the Scottish Local History Forum and the Damned Rebel Bitches Scottish Women’s History Group.

Mairi had a strong social conscience and commitment throughout her life and put this into practice in a second career in adult education, training to become a community education specialist. She worked in a family learning programme in Edinburgh’s Craigmillar as well as in Falkirk and in Stirling, where she managed the adult learning centre ACE Cornton. Latterly she was a volunteer with HomeStart in Leith and north-east Edinburgh.

Mairi and David separated in 1984. Their children, John and Nicola, remember her as a mother who encouraged and supported them in their activities and travelled with them the length and breadth of Scotland.

She took great pleasure in being the grandmother of Eleanor Mairi, daughter of Nicola and her late husband, the composer Alan Charlton (1970-2018). They, John and her brother Duncan survive her.

Margaret A. Mackay