Teaching Older Scottish Literature

This afternoon I found myself filling out paperwork with a lighter mood than usually attends such activities.  Why?  I was writing the course description for a new fourth-year module I’ve been wanting to teach for a very long time: Scottish literature from Renaissance to Enlightenment.  My own exposure to the period as an undergraduate was one delightful week on the Makars in the midst of an otherwise uneventful medieval survey course and I’ve been keen to do everything I can to create a module which is both accessible and fully representative of the amazing texts produced by Scots during this period so that my own students won’t have to rely upon fortuitous library forays to discover Arthur Johnston or William Drummond or Elizabeth Melville.

The wishing is easy, the doing, I’ve found, is rather more difficult, although not for the reasons I initially thought.  When I first began designing the module I anticipated that the main problem would be access to texts.  After all, there was no Norton Anthology of Scottish Literature to provide a single easy-access core text.  Instead, the authors I wanted to teach were scattered across a wide variety of obscure and expensive editions, most of which were almost certainly not held by the local university library, and much as I liked and respected Jack and Rozendaal’s Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature, I wanted to run a course with different emphases and different writers than their work allowed for.

Mercat

My own – by now rather battered – copy of the Mercat Anthology.

I really needn’t have worried.  The funny thing about early modern Scottish literature is that the vast majority of standard editions were published in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.  That’s a problem in and of itself, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, but it’s also an advantage: most of the authors I wanted to teach existed in at least reasonably decent critical editions which were long since out of copyright and available on archive.org or Google Books.  Beyond that, the National Library’s outstanding Publications by Scottish Clubs digitisation project has made a wealth of valuable teaching material freely accessible.  With the Scottish Text Society’s publications open access through the 1940s, I could count on good editions of Drummond, Alexander, Montgomerie, Mure, Stewart of Baldynneis, the Maitland Manuscripts, the Bannatyne Manuscript, and a host of others.

STS

The iconic maroon and green covers of the old STS publications.  Also the iconic red rot on the spines!

In the end, the difficulty lay not in securing editions of the texts, but in finding ways of making those texts accessible to my students.  Early modern Scotland was a nation of four languages – Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and English – of which I’ll be lucky if my students speak two (to be fair, I have more Scots speakers in my classes at Stirling than at some of my previous institutions, so I can’t complain too much).  The problem I came up against was negotiating the process of finding decent translations or – for Scots material – finding ways of glossing and making accessible texts which would otherwise be a challenge even for the most determined student.  Jeremy Smith’s Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader will be one crucial tool for making the teaching of older Scots a reality, but I’m still not satisfied with the options available for teaching sources originally in Gaelic and Latin.

Johnston snip

Even the work of Arthur Johnston, one of Scotland’s best Latin poets, is not yet available in a satisfactory English translation (text here from his Poemata Omnia, published at Middelburg in 1642).

Ultimately, I suppose it comes back to the question of canonicity and the canon-industry which I discussed last month.  The apparatus simply isn’t there to do everything I’d like to do.  Still, I plan to do what I can.  Older Scottish literature is becoming more accessible every year and I’m looking forward to making the most of that access by opening up for my students at least a selection of the wonderful texts which were produced in this period.  If even one comes away with a new-found love for the rhythm and flavour of Dunbar or Buchanan or Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, that will be victory enough.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s