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.


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.


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

The Canon Industry

Several years ago I went to a lecture in Cambridge given by Norman Davies, the historian of Central and Eastern Europe.  The most memorable part of that evening was when my wife and I – both starving students at the time – ate so many canapés at the reception afterwards that a grim-faced member of college staff pointedly removed the tray from our vicinity.  Aside from that, though, I was struck by some observations Davies made on how particular academic viewpoints are perpetuated.  They began, he said, with individual scholars doing good, original work.  In a few years’ time, that work filtered down through the field.  A decade later it became naturalised into major overviews of the subject.  Two decades later it was incorporated into textbooks.  Three decades later it was probably obsolete, but we were still teaching it to students because the juggernaut of canonicity had reached critical velocity.


The joke never gets old (or does it?).  Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle (public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia).

I was reminded of this relationship between the canonical and the tools of teaching and research a few weeks ago.  A couple of colleagues and I were having a chat with a very nice representative from one of the major producers of textbooks for English Literature undergraduate teaching and he was showing us an all-singing, all-dancing student edition, complete with online apparatus that would allow you to flick back and forth between the edited page and facsimiles of the original printed texts.  It was a fine piece of scholarship and a fantastic teaching aid, but it reminded me of Davies’s comments; the canonical isn’t just what we attach cultural value to, it’s also a complex edifice of student editions, anthologies, textbooks, critical readers, and so on and so forth.  In some ways it’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of the publishing impetuses which William St. Clair has identified as central to the development of the literary canon in the nineteenth century.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If anything, it’s encouraging.  Thirty years ago or more, a few scholars started challenging the older canon and demanding the study of more women authors; now we have Cambridge Companions to Aphra Behn and Norton Critical Editions of Margery Kempe.  While real gender parity in literary studies is still a long way away, there’s no doubt that progress has been made, not least because, as Davies said, once the stone begins to roll, it develops a momentum all of its own.  As someone who spends quite a lot of his time championing the value and importance of non-canonical texts, that gives me hope, hope that with enough articles and lectures and blog posts and hallway syllabus discussions I might one day see a Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Melville or a Norton Critical Edition of Alexander Montgomerie.  One can always dream!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams