My last book, The First Scottish Enlightenment, was published in February and since then Covid, lockdown, and their attendant upheavals have meant that I’ve had very little time to blog or write anything publicly about my next steps. Even if I’d had the time, I’m not sure I’d have known what to say. For several years I thought I was going to follow this book with a project on carved stones in early modern Scotland – a category of artefacts which has fascinated me for as long as I can remember – and I even got as far as writing the better part of a grant proposal before realising that this wasn’t, in fact, what I wanted to do.
Instead, in the best possible way, my last project caused me to consider new questions and think about different issues in ways I couldn’t have imagined before. Over and over again, I found myself turning to the editions of the nineteenth-century Scottish publishing clubs – the Bannatyne, Maitland, Abbotsford, Spalding, and their companions. There was nothing unusual in this. Indeed, from undergraduate dissertations through doctoral theses to innumerable articles and monographs, the publications of the literary clubs appear across the spectrum of modern Scottish scholarship, even nearly two hundred years after their heyday.
What struck me, though, was how little we really know about the historical moment which produced these clubs and their works. Marinell Ash’s classic Strange Death of Scottish History (Ramsay Head Press, 1980) briefly and problematically addresses their output as do a small handful of more recent articles, but to a great extent they represent a blank spot in the Scottish historical and literary psyche – surprising given that the energies of a dozen or so poets, advocates, booksellers, and landed gentleman of the first half of the nineteenth century have defined the pool of printed texts available to the next eight generations of scholars.
And so I realised that it wasn’t carved stones I wanted to study, but these nineteenth-century editors and their editions of medieval and early modern texts. That’s my new project and I’ll look forward to writing more in the near future. Already I’m full of ideas about the incredibly important place these scholars occupy in the intellectual history of Scotland and how they provide a key bridge between pre-Union Scotland and the present.
© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams