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David Wilson MacArthur

From: "thorsten sjolin" <thorsten.sjolin@btinternet.com>, October 2000.

I came across David Wilson MacArthur many years ago when I found a book with the title Auto Nomad in Sweden in an antiquarian bookshop. It was an interesting account of the differences between the UK and Sweden in 1947, seen through the eyes of a seasoned traveller. A number of years later, again by pure chance, I came across another couple of his books in his River Series: The River Fowey (1948) and The River Doon (1951), and I realised that he must have been quite a prolific author. I decided to find out more about him, which proved to be slightly difficult. Eventually, with the help of various reference books and the blurb on the dust jackets of some of his books, I managed to get at least part of the picture.

David Wilson MacArthur was born on 29 August 1903, probably in Ayrshire as he refers to his boyhood in his book on the River Doon. His father was Dr Alex MacArthur, MB, CM, but he does not mention his mother in the listing in Who Was Who. He was educated at Ayr Academy and Glasgow University (MA Hons Eng. Lang. and Lit.). He must have decided at an early stage that he wanted to be a writer because he published his first novel while still at university (Yellow Stockings (1925)).

There was a literary tradition of a sort on his mother's side. His great grand uncle was a Major General Sir Archibald Galloway, who was in the service of the East India Company and died in 1850. Sir Archibald wrote a number of books of which A Commentary of the Moohummuddan Law seems to have been the most important.

His uncle, Judge David Alec Wilson, was born in Glasgow in 1864 and served in Burma and India. He is best known for his biography of Carlyle of which the last part, Carlyle in Old Age, was unfinished when he died in 1933. David Wilson MacArthur undertook to finish it and it was published in 1934.

MacArthur ended up in London in 1935 where he was fiction editor at the Daily Mail and the Evening News. He travelled widely in Europe, America and Africa and wrote "over 500 short stories and innumerable articles" (to quote Who Was Who).

He seems to have been a restless character, but apparently ended up on a farm in what was then Rhodesia. He cannot have spent a lot of time there, judging from the number of travel books he wrote both before and after the Second World War and it is not clear when he acquired this farm. Together with his wife he drove from Benghazi to Alexandria (and presumably from there down to Rhodesia), as described in his book The Road to the Nile (1941) . (Apparently also published under the slightly misleading title The Road to Benghazi the same year).

When war broke out he managed to get back to Britain and spent the war years in the RNVR. This resulted in a number of books about the Royal Navy and related matters.

After the war he and his wife started travelling again in their faithful Flying Standard 12, first to Sweden and then through Spain, along the north coast of Africa and all the way down to South Africa. (Auto Nomad in Barbary (1950) and Auto Nomad Through Africa (1951). They also crossed the Sahara, which almost ended up as their last journey and which is vividly described in The Desert Watches (1954).

He settled in Rhodesia in 1947  and, according to himself,  "engaged in tree-farming as well as writing". Write he certainly did because in all he wrote over 40 books, the majority between 1945 and 1981: a number of travel books, adventure stories for boys and murder stories, some under the pseudonym of David Wilson. Most of the other books were written under the name of Wilson MacArthur.

He spent some time in Canada (probably together with his wife) and was a passenger on the first ocean-going freighter that called at the new seaport of Churchill in Manitoba. This resulted in a book called Traders North which was vetted by knowledgeable people at the Hudson Bay Company and pronounced an excellent account of the earliest traders back in the 17th century.

David Wilson MacArthur died in Richmond (probably) in South Africa on 13 November 1981. He had married Patricia Knox Saunders in 1956 and they had two sons. So what happened to the wife he travelled with extensively in Europe and Africa (and probably America) and who originally came from South Africa? How much time did he actually spend on his farm in Rhodesia? Did he eventually end up in Richmond, SA? There are many question marks and the information given in Who Was Who and on the blurbs on various dust jackets seems to conflict.

I think David Wilson MacArthur was an interesting writer and that he is worth more attention than he is receiving these days. But to be able to write a more comprehensive biographical article, I need more material to fill in the many gaps. He was a good sportsman, photographer (many of his books are illustrated with his photographs) and yachtsman. He also filmed some of his travels, but I have only found one reference to that. If anyone knows more about him, please let me know.

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