My utmost thanks to the
University of Glasgows Rhona Brown for volunteering to write a brief piece
on the recent World Congress of Scottish Literatures held in Glasgow. When
looking at our websites Index, youll find that Rhona has been a faithful
supporter of Robert Burns Lives! with this being her fourth article. It is
an easy task to recognize good people, and Rhona certainly fits that
category. The Congress featured two fields of study - Scottish literatures
and that of Robert Burns - and both were introduced by worldwide scholars. I
cheered when I learned that other such congresses will be held every three
years in various international cities so maybe more of us will be able to
attend. Im also hoping that perhaps some of the participants of the recent
congress will agree to submit their papers to Robert Burns Lives!, thereby
giving more people access to their writings. This is how Robert Burns
learned so much about Scotland and the world by reading the papers and
books of scholars before and during his time. Thanks in advance to those who
would be so kind as to share their work with us. (FRS: 7.23.14)
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong
Learning, Mike Russell, MSP; Sir Kenneth Calman, Chancellor of the
University of Glasgow; Prof. Murray Pittock, Head of the College of Arts and
Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow; and James Robertson, author and
provider of the opening plenary. This was taken at the opening of the
World Congress of
Scottish Literatures University of Glasgow, 2-5 July
2011 By Rhona Brown, University of Glasgow
The first ever World Congress
of Scottish Literatures was held on 2-5 July 2014 at the University of
Glasgow. This inaugural event, which attracted around 250 international
delegates and speakers, was convened by Professor Murray Pittock and Dr.
Rhona Brown, alongside a steering group gathered from the Universitys
College of Arts and a group of international colleagues. The Congress was
sponsored by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies; the Robert Burns
World Federation; Burns Scotland; the Scottish Historical Review Trust;
Studies in Scottish Literature and the Universities Committee for Scottish
Literature. The event was further supported by various international partner
institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley; Charles
University, Prague; the University of Guelph; Johannes Gutenberg University,
Mainz; the University of Otago; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver; the
University of South Carolina; the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies
Society and the International Society for the Study of Irish Literatures.
It was organised under four
main themes: Authors; Theorising Scottish Literature; Gaelic, Medieval,
Musical and Artistic Scotland; and Scotland in Global Culture and Context.
Although the Congress featured over 200 speakers and performers, the
steering group had to turn down some seventy proposals at the initial Call
for Papers stage, demonstrating the immense academic interest in this event.
The Congress was opened by
the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mike Russell, MSP,
and Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chancellor of the University of Glasgow. It
featured three plenary lectures: author James Robertsons Shall there be a
Scottish Literature?, Ann Rigneys (Utrecht) How Scott met the Mahatma:
Reflections on World Literature and Ted Cowans (Glasgow) Patriotism,
Public Opinion and the Peoples Chair of Scottish Literature and History
at Glasgow. Delegates came from all corners of the world: from Australia
and New Zealand, North and South America, China and Japan, and all over
Europe. It is real proof that Scottish literature is a truly international
James Robertson delivering his opening plenary
As well as the full academic
programme, which involved six parallel panel sessions at any one time, the
Congress offered some stimulating side and evening events. On the first day
of the proceedings, delegates were treated to a musical performance by
Kirsteen McCue and Gilbert MacMillan (both Glasgow), accompanied by David
Hamilton, as well as a book launch of new publications by Murray Pittock
(Glasgow) and Robert Crawford (St. Andrews). On the second evening,
delegates enjoyed a wine reception and official Glasgow welcome at the City
Chambers, while the third evening offered an exhibition of the University of
Glasgows book and manuscript treasures in the University Librarys Special
Collections department. A lunchtime poetry reading was provided by Jackie
Kay and current Scots Makar (Scotlands national poet), Liz Lochhead.
Although the programme was
inclusive in its appeal to scholars working on any aspect of Scottish
literature, research on the work of Robert Burns was particularly well
represented. Fiona Staffords (Oxford) panel on Burns featured contributions
from Glasgows Gerard Carruthers and Nigel Leask, as well as by the artist
and photographer Calum Colvin (Dundee). A panel entitled Robert Burns
Revisited included papers by Elizabeth Kraft (Georgia), Joseph Du Rant
(South Carolina) and Bob Irvine (Edinburgh), while Scotching Welsh Song?
Cambrian Contexts for Robert Burns and George Thomson presented discussions
by Kirsteen McCue (Glasgow), Elizabeth Edwards and Mary-Ann Constantine
(both CAWKS, Wales). Liam McIlvanneys (Otago) paper was entitled Robert
Burns in the South Seas, and Pauline Mackays (Glasgow) Sex and Scottish
Literature: Popular Bawdry in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries also
largely focused on the work of Burns. The Burns Federation Panel featured
papers by well-known Burnsians Bill Dawson, Clark McGinn and Mike Duguid.
Finally, Glasgow Universitys Editing Robert Burns for the Twenty-First
Century project was represented and explained by General Editor Gerard
Carruthers in a panel dedicated to Editing Scottish Texts in the
The Congress was also the
launch pad for a new International Association for the Study of Scottish
Literatures (IASSL), an international network of academics working on
Scottish literature, which is dedicated to the global promotion of Scottish
literature in higher education. While boosting Scottish literatures
international profile, it also aims to facilitate research exchanges and
further collaboration between universities at home and abroad. The
organisers were also delighted to announce two new postgraduate scholarships
for students from any Commonwealth country outside the UK to undertake a
taught MLitt programme at the University of Glasgow.
This is not an end, but a
beginning in Scottish Studies. World Congresses of Scottish Literatures will
be held every three years at various international institutions, and IASSL
plans to be at the forefront of new developments in Scottish literary
studies. In 2014, when the eyes of the world are on Scotland, this event
showed that Scottish literature is an important force and thriving
discipline in its own right.
Kirsteen McCue and Gilbert MacMillan accompanied
by David Hamilton, at the Congresss musical event on the first evening.
I would like to congratulate Murray and others at this university for their
work in bringing together this first World Congress of Scottish Literature.
In recognising the value of such a congress they and their six partner
institutions and organisations pay a great service and tribute not just to
this country but also to the universal cause of literature, free expression
Many of you have travelled far to be with us for this congress. On behalf of
the Scottish Government I would like to extend the hand of welcome to you
all. As international scholars working in university departments around the
world, Scotland is indebted to you for your protection and promotion of our
We are doubly fortunate to have you here at this exciting time.
This is, an auspicious year for Scotland. Only last month we celebrated the
700th anniversary of Bannockburn. In a mere 20 days from now, a possible
television audience of a billion will watch on as this city plays host to
the Commonwealth Games. And, of course, this September our nation will
decide on its constitutional future and the significance of that debate
and decision will not be lost on an audience such as this.
It is therefore more than fitting that we are also celebrating this year the
200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scotts Waverley.
The critic, George Lukacs famously venerated Waverley as the prototype of
the historical novel in modern times. This might be a slight overstatement
of the case but it is certainly true that Scott popularised historical
fiction and established it as a genre in its own right.
Waverley marks a break from the eighteenth century novel of manners where
social realities are described with little attention to historical change.
There is no escaping history in Waverley - just as there is no escaping
history in our own lives. In Edward Waverley we are afforded a window onto
the struggles and antagonisms of Scottish and indeed English history.
For a time it was fashionable to dismiss Scott as irrelevant, verbose and
But I have never forgotten reading ,with enormous excitement as a young
student ,of Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, Old Mortality
which warns about circumstances in which faithfulness can degenerate into
fanaticism but which also respects belief and integrity. It remains with me
as a powerful message just as Scott remains to me a writer who always repays
study and who has probably done more to advertise Scotland to the world than
any other, save Burns.
That fact is celebrated in the form in the Scott Monument the so-called
Gothic Rocket in the heart of our nations capital.
The monument is the largest to any writer anywhere in the world.
And, befitting of Scott, it has its own history of controversy and
Indeed, there are parallels with construction of our own Parliament building
in Edinburgh in that it was built following a competition; its architect
George Meikle Kemp - tragically passed away before it was completed; and the
construction costs a little over £16,000 were far in excess of the
Scott was 12 when he first began studying at the University of Edinburgh a
year ahead of his contemporaries. While that would be inconceivable to us
now, there are some elements of the education system that would be
Hume called that period the historical age and, by the time Scott was
attending his first Greek classes under Professor Dalzell, Scotland had
already started to reap the benefits of a highly developed university
system. Our universities were looking to France and the Enlightenment to
forge a uniquely Scottish and uniquely practical branch of humanism.
Scotland, was well on the way to becoming a nation of the mind and, we can
be proud that we are continuing with that heritage.
No other comparable small country has 5 universities in the world's top 200.
Indeed, the latest report from the Office of National Statistics shows that
Scotland is the best educated country in Europe in terms of the proportion
of the working age population with a higher qualification.
For its part, this university has consistently occupied a place among the
top 40 universities in Europe. It has been at the forefront of our efforts
to extend our global reach and I am pleased to see that, in conjunction with
this congress, two Commonwealth Games 2014 Studentships will be made
available to commonwealth students from outwith the UK for any aspect of
Along with our other universities, Glasgow has also been working hard to
open its doors to students from a much wider range of backgrounds. Today,
around one in four of the Scottish domiciled students at the university come
from 40% of the most deprived areas in Scotland.
That is important. And, for an international audience, it is worth pausing
on just for a moment because it is where I think that Scottish education
most differs from the UKs.
In Scotland, there are two fundamental principles which underpin our
These will not be lost on scholars of Scottish literature or history.
The first principle can be traced back to our first national parliament and
the very inception of public education in Scotland.
It is the belief that education should always always be based on the
ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. Universal free education was
born here in Scotland and because of the decisions of this current
Scottish Government of which I am proud to be a part - university education
remains free for Scottish students.
The second is that education is a societal, not an individual, good.
In other words, when we invest in education, we are not merely investing in
individuals for their own personal gain but in the future of our society and
the future of our nation.
These principles are doubly important because they reinforce our cultural
It is true to say that, historically, we have not always celebrated our
literary achievements as we might.
In Scotland, Scottish literature, despite its global reach, has in the past
been undervalued as a national literature.
The Scots are not unique in this.
Other national literatures in countries which have emerging political
consciousness have struggled to various extents, with the idea of cultural
legitimisation and cultural dispossession.
Scotts writing itself tells of an identity crisis engendered by the
experience of union and empire.
Repeatedly in his writing, national identity struggles to assert itself
against the experience of cultural dispossession. Memorably, in Scotts
novel, Guy Mannering, the travelling people become the custodians of the
Scottish folk tradition and, the Scots are left dispossessed of what
should have been theirs.
In our popular culture, the same themes can be at play.
At its worst, this has swung between riotously emphatic national clichés and
One impact of this has been that we have been left with a legacy of thinking
that other stories are more important or more valid than ours. That somehow
culture is always happening elsewhere.
But, there is progress.
Politically, the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament after a 300 year
absence has had a profound impact on every aspect of the life of our nation.
We have reconnected with ourselves democratically and have gained confidence
as a result.
Our culture is flowering and this conference is itself a sign that we are
reconnecting with ourselves.
It celebrates a national literature that is wide ranging in its diversity
and of the highest quality.
14 years ago just a year after our Parliament was reconvened - a watershed
was reached when the MLA recognised Scottish literature formally as a
distinct literature. Some of you perhaps many of you will have been
among the 12,000 delegates at that first session on Scottish literature in
That fact reminds me, momentarily at least, of another watershed moment in
the modern Scottish story. When Winnie Ewing won the ground breaking
Hamilton by-election in 1967 to become not only the second SNP MP in history
but also the start of continuous Parliamentary representation for the party,
she told the waiting crowds outside Hamilton Town Hall Stop the world,
Scotland wants to get on, words that I used as the title for the book when
I edited her biography.
Because, since that MLA conference, Scottish literature has been steadily
getting on, in and on to, the world. .
In 2006, there was a major three day event on Scottish Romanticism in World
Literatures at the University of California at Berkeley again some of you
will have been there and heard papers delivered by such scholars as Cairns
Craig, Robert Crawford, and yourself, Murray (Pittock).
In 2009, there was a conference in Prague on Burns and, a growing number
of important Scottish Studies collaborations are appearing around the globe.
Indeed in March, I was lucky enough to visit the University of Otago in New
Zealand to speak and to see at first hand the work that Liam McIlvanney, who
is here today, and other scholars are doing as major Scottish Studies
Closer to home, there are other signs that Scotland and its distinctive
literary voice is getting on.
A generation of Scottish children and young people are finally reconnecting
with Scottish history and literature.
Through the Scottish Parliament, we have been able to take the crucial step
of promoting Scottish Studies and Scottish texts in our schools and, this
year, our first pupils will gain the new Scottish Studies qualification. We
have also been able to make changes to the Higher English exams to ensure
that every pupil taking them will study Scottish, as well as other, texts.
For an international audience such as this one, that might seem
Indeed, it might seem inconceivable that we would do otherwise.
Yet, in the current political context, some have seen the teaching of
Scottish literature and Scottish history in our schools as tantamount to
preaching sedition. Indeed my attempts to have a Scottish text taught to our
Higher Pupils was described at the time by my Labour shadow as brain
But in fact to fail to teach Scottish literature and Scottish history in
schools, is to risk having a generation of Scottish children and young
people who are strangers in their own country.
The point was put well by an alumnus of this University, Robin Jenkins, in
his novel Fergus Lamont
At one point in the book, the teaching protagonist of the novel, John
Calderwood is taking his class through the history of the Clearances, in a
school where the teaching of Scottish history is forbidden. Ultimately, he
is found out. The headteacher, Mr Maybole, turns up at the classroom and
says to him:
I must warn you. You are filling these childrens minds with poison. You
are under-mining their confidence in legally constituted authority. Its a
mistake to study the history of ones own country. It divides us instead of
uniting us. Why bother with stuff so out of date?
Before John Calderwood has the chance to respond, a child from the slums of
Gantock the fictional town in which the novel is set speaks up
immediately to say:
It isnae out of date Mr Maybole. People are still being pit oot o their
I am passionate about Scottish literature and Scottish history because I
understand as I assume that an audience such as this understands that,
to move forward as a nation, we need to know who we are and how we came
here. So that people are no longer pit oot o their hooses.
Through our literature, we not only connect with we are, were and may be
but, we also gain a window onto the world.
You exemplify that point yourselves. You illuminate our literature with
cosmopolitan critical theories and you see parallels with other literary
traditions. You are working at the frontier of knowledge about our nations
Few could deny the global reach of that literature
In 2011, when the Chinese vice-premier visited Scotland, I noted that he had
a copy of Adam Smiths The Theory of Moral Sentiments indeed, he carries
it with him everywhere.
A few years ago, when I was Culture Minister had the privilege of giving
dinner in the Scottish Parliament to the Nobel prizewinner Wole Soyinka (a
fellow member of PEN) . Afterwards, on an impulse, I walked him the few
yards up the royal mile to stand by the statue of Robert Fergusson which is
placed outside the Canongate Kirkyard. We talked of Burns admiration of
Ferguson and how a third poet - Robert Garioch - had written movingly of
both and that very place in one of his Edinburgh sonnets.
We made connections, just as his marvellous play Death & The Kings
Horseman connects the experience of cultural alienation to readers such as
myself when we think of the Highland Clearances and the old crofter at the
start of the Crimean War telling the recruiting agent of the Duke of
Sutherland who had cleared the land ;Since you have preferred sheep to men,
let sheep defend you.
Our literature reveals how our culture is interwoven with other cultures and
other histories. Some of these histories are more uncomfortable than others
but, nonetheless, they need to be understood.
James Robertson will speak to you in a short while. He has, of course,
written the great socio-historical Scottish novel of our generation. Yet,
his earlier novel, Joseph Knight, restores a vital forgotten history. Joseph
Knight was a slave who sought freedom in Scotland and who, from the Sheriff
of Perth in 1778, heard a commitment of Scottish Law that the state of
slavery is not recognized by the laws of this Scottish kingdom.
In this sense, literature therefore can provide a window on to our ambitions
for social justice and human rights for all , not just in Scotland but
Through John Galt we get access to another history - that of exile. Since it
first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine almost two centuries ago, authorship
of the Canadian Boat Song remains one of the great whodunits in Scottish
literature . I think the evidence is now on the side of those who deny
Galts authorship but what is in no doubt is the ongoing strength of that
poem in its expressing of the longing of exiles for their native land.
And in the poetry of Sorley McLean, we get access to something else - the
rich story of a three voiced nation.
A picture of McLean hangs in my office at the Scottish Parliament. In many
ways he lived two lives as a poet the first in writing the epoch-making
poems that brought Scots Gaelic poetry to life; and the second, later phase,
when he translated these poems into English.
McLean is well known for grafting a modern European intellectual awareness
onto the stem of the Gaelic oral tradition. Nuclear submarines surface in
his poetry and there are poems with such titles as Id, Ego and Super-Ego.
His work demands that we come to it as internationalists. In The Lost
Mountain, he links the experience of the Clearances on Mull the homeland
of the Clan MacLean with the ruination of other communities around the
In what eternity of the mind
will South America or Belsen be put
with the sun on Sgurr Urain
and its ridges cut in snow
In making these connections, MacLean tells us that, however local, our
history is valid and worthy of the telling and also that it can illuminate
and tell us something new about the histories of others.
And finally let us not forget that other tradition - that of understanding
others. Many Scots have helped bring the great treasures of world literature
to English speakers.
My friend Alistair Reid, who is the finest translator of Pablo Neruda.
Robert Garioch again who, in his devotion to the work of the Italian poet,
Guiseppe Belli, translated over 100 of his satirical sonnets from the Roman
dialect into Edinburgh Scots, using a language he had learned in a prisoner
of war camp.
And Edwin and Willa Muir who championed Scottish literature through the
Scottish Chapter of Pen and insisted on its independence but who also
received the highest honour from the German Academy for Language and Poetry
for their ground breaking translations of Kafka, Heinrich Mann and others.
Of course, a nations literature any nations literature does much more
than offer connections.
At their best, the greats of Scottish literature represent what we feel
because we are what they are. They hold a mirror up to ourselves and tell us
what it feels to be alive in terms we understand. Theirs is a cumulative and
tacit knowledge which spans history and a broad range of experience.
In Shelleys famous phrase, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the
world. Or to put it another way, in the words of Fletcher of Saltoun which
carved into the wall the Scottish Parliament, if a man were permitted to
make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.
For literature is the living memory of the nation.
As Aristotle observed more than two millennia ago, our literature tells us
the general truths about ourselves.
In so doing, it can challenge us all of humanity - to be better than we
As an elected politician, I am acutely aware of that challenge.
It has never been made more explicit to me than at the official ceremony to
mark the restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. There, Iain
Crichton Smiths poem The beginning of a new song - was read out so
memorably by that great actor, Tom Fleming.
The poem called on the Parliament and the freshly elected MSPs including
myself, at the time as the list MSP for the South of Scotland and founder
member of what was then the new Parliamentary Bureau to help Scotland
sing in a new world:
Let our three-voiced country
sing in a new world
joining the other rivers without dogma,
but with friendliness to all around her.
Let her new river shine on a day
that is fresh and glittering and contemporary;
Let it be true to itself and to its origins
inventive, original, philosophical,
its institutions mirror its beauty;
then without shame we can esteem ourselves
Perhaps above all else, Crichton Smith calls on us to show empathy for it
again is true to ourselves and our origins. To who we are as human beings.
Perhaps above all others in our nations literature, Burns appeals to that
same common humanity
There is no doubt that two centuries of veneration have sometimes obscured
Burns poetry and overlaid it with sentiment. MacDiarmid recognized the
problems in a typically pugnacious 1934 essay called, The Burns Cult.
There, he railed against the bourgeois orators who annually befoul his
memory and called on us to re-concentrate on the living message of Burns
The Burns scholars here will recognise that I could not do justice to his
range and variety.
Burns is nothing but multi-faceted and the particular traditions that have
accumulated around certain songs and poems give them added resonance.
I could talk about the universality of A Mans a Man which again
featured at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. I could
reflect on the friendship of Auld Lang Syne. I could talk about the
patient and long-term affections of John Andreson my Jo or the patriotic
fervor of Scots Wha Hae.
But, I would like to focus instead on a poem which was very much out of
favour for a long time but whose time has now come. The poem is The
Cotters Saturday Night and its subject has been close to my heart for all
of my political life; Scotlands place in the world.
Written at Mossgiel, the poem has in the past been described as the most
imitative of Buns works. Certainly, the influence of Grays Elegy is
conspicuous as is Fergussons earlier Farmers Ingle.
Like Scotts The Vision of Don Roderick, the poem also uses the Spenserian
Yet, in his alchemy of the constituent parts, Burns poem fuses a power and
sentiment all of its own.
MacDairmid claimed that mair nonsense has been talked in [Burns] name bar
any but Liberty and Christ and, it is true that, like other poets, he
often wore his politics to suit his mood. In the past two centuries he has
been claimed by Liberals, Tories and Labour alike.
Yet, it is surely incontestable that Burns believed that Scotland should not
have given up her independence something still that would have been fresh
in the minds of his grandparents at least. He wrote of a Scotland that had
been bought and sold for English gold.
He also wrote of the need for what lay behind that sentiment. During his
walks with his brother Gilbert, Burns spoke of his desire to return to a
simpler, more noble, more honest existence that he saw all around him. In
short, he saw a need for a better, more human, Scotland. What we would call
a social democratic Scotland - a Scotland of equality and fairness.
Many of us still believe that such a Scotland is possible. That belief
guides me and others and underpins all that we are trying to achieve.
In a little over two months from now, our independence referendum represents
the opportunity to renew our nation and our people. This shouldnt involve
looking back with nostalgia on an old, lost Scotland as Burnss
grandparents might but looking toward a new Scotland that has the
confidence to stand on its own feet emotionally, morally and, yes, in its
culture and literature too.
Our nation and our people will have the kind of opportunity that Burns never
could have envisaged. I am working as a member of the Scottish Government to
encourage all of my fellow citizens to make real this vision of a better
Scotland and a better world.
We are inspired by precisely the same vision that Burns outlines in the last
stanzas of A Cotters Saturday Night.
O Scotia, my dear, my native soil
For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with heath and peace and sweet content
And O may heaven their simple lives prevent
From luxurys contagion, weak and vile
They howeer crowns and coronets be rent
A virtuous populace may rise the while
And stand a wall of fire around their much loved isle
When Gilbert Burns first heard the poet repeat these lines, he recollected
being highly electrified the poem thrilled him with a peculiar ecstasy
through [his] soul. Reading them now I am left with a similarly powerful
vision of a transformed Scotland, and a transformed people. We can become
that virtuous populace if only we choose. We can be inspired by our country,
by the remarkable times we live in and by the wonderful future we have.
It is a vision gifted to us through our nations literature and through
our national Bard that goes on inspiring Scotland, both collectively and
That it is what we are here today to study, to promulgate and to celebrate.
Thank you for being part of that.
And many of us hope that the lesson will go wider still. Wide enough to
inspire a whole nation to be all it can be for everyone of its citizens.
Wide enough to establish that fair, equal, just, open, democratic Scotland
to which our national literatures aspires.
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