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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: This Man Barclay

Looking Back

Friday August 7

Looking Back: This Man Barclay

A profile of the great theologian, writer and broadcaster from August 1966



Based on material kindly provided by GUM (Glasgow University Magazine).


DR. WILLIAM BARCLAY was born in Wick in 1907. His ancestors on his mother’s side were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, his maternal grandfather being at one time Lochiel’s factor. His other grandfather was a joiner, and Dr. Barclay still speaks proudly of a jetty built by him at Lochgoilhead and still called “Barclay’s jetty”. His father was a bank manager in Wick, and in 1912 the family moved to Motherwell, and it is Motherwell that Dr. Barclay regards as his home town.

His school was Dalziel High, where he was ultimately school captain and runner-up for dux. He also became sports champion, playing for the school cricket and football teams, an activity he was to continue in his university days.

Studies at Glasgow and at Marburg in Germany completed, on his return he received a call to Renfrew Trinity, where he remained until 1946, this being his first and last charge.

At Renfrew Dr. Barclay found a congregation of 1400, the vast majority being working class. Over five hundred attended his evening service during the war years. Of this he says modestly, “Well, they had nowhere else to go”.

After the war, in 1947, he returned to Glasgow University as Lecturer in New Testament. Later he became a Senior Lecturer, being appointed Lecturer in Hellenic Greek, and finally in 1963 becoming Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism, following G. H. C. Macgregor, who had held the chair for thirty years. This year saw his appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Divinity.

Outside the university Dr. Barclay is known for his television broadcasts and his writings. His popularity on television was remarkable. Appearing in his academic gown on a rostrum with a blackboard at his side, he proceeded to lecture. People watched him who normally avoided religious programmes.


Regarding writing, his output is prodigious; over thirty books and most of them still in print; 18 volumes of “The Daily Study” Bible, selling over a million copies in this country alone. In addition a full page in the British Weekly every week (for over ten years), and a full page in the Expository Times every month (for over thirty years!).

His first book was in 1933 for the Sunday School Union, followed by “New Testament Studies”, and then a Bible class handbook entitled “Ambassador for Christ”, still in print and still being used. It was after this that he was asked to start what was later to be known as “The Daily Study Bible”. The Church of Scotland had been using a series of Bible readings published by the International Bible Reading Association. Losing money, the series had to be discontinued. Dr. Barclay was asked rather hurriedly to produce something in its place, the request being, “Would you do it for us till we get someone decent?”

How many books has he sold? He did know that the best seller has been the volume called in this country “Prayers for the Plain Man”. At present this book has sold over 300,000 copies.


He rises at 7.15, and arrives at the university at 8.30. He works at his desk until 11 a.m. then lectures from 11.30 until 1.15. In the afternoon he sees his research students. The evening he spends reading, writing or entertaining. At 11 p.m. he falls asleep, but only for one hour. At midnight he wakens and then works until 2 a.m. Only then does he go to bed.

“Ministers waste the morning”, he growls, “a man should be at his desk at half-past eight”.


Barclay is no cloistered theologian, and has very definite views which he is not afraid to express. What he would like to see is not one uniform church, but a situation where Communion was open to all, where the pulpit was open to all, and where the Churches recognised each other’s ministries.

“University discipline should be a family discipline, not legal discipline”. A summing up of a position, which, if fairly administered, could cause little complaint.


Barclay is also a very human man. Busy as he is, he always has time to talk and listen. He is vice-president of the B.B. and chairman of the Y.M.C.A.

His deafness, he claims, is a help rather than a hindrance. “I can shut this thing off whenever I like”, he grins, tapping his hearing aid.

And Dr. Barclay is a very happy man. He was married in 1933 to Katherine, the daughter of the late R. J. H. Gillespie, minister of Dundonald Parish for over forty years. His wife is a vivacious person, keenly interested in his work and also in his students. Yet life has not been without tragedy, one of their daughters being drowned in a yachting accident when she was only 21. Their family now consists of a son (married with a family of his own), and a younger daughter, Jane.

What of the future? “I’m working on the Old Testament”, he says cheerfully. Even when he completes that mammoth task, one feels that his work will not be done.

Barclay retires - tribute from 1974

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