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

Cardinal Richelieu’s Scottish Poet

Amongst the many remarkable things preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives is a small, richly-bound manuscript book:


SCA MS CB57/12 (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is the album amicorum or friendship book of George Strachan, a young Scot from the Mearns, who travelled to the continent for his education at the end of the sixteenth century.  Strachan’s story is a remarkable one – he had a gift for languages, journeyed across Europe and Asia, was possibly the first Scottish convert to Islam, and was last seen in Isfahan in 1624 – and I hope it return to it eventually.  Today, however, I’ve been looking at forty-two leaves of manuscript which were added to the album decades after it was used by Strachan.

These leaves are in the hand of another Scottish Catholic living on the continent: Thomas Chambers.  Born near Aberdeen, Chambers had been educated at the Scots College in Rome and spent his life, in the sarcastic words of his cousin George, “still in hope to become greit”.  He didn’t do too badly.  First he become almoner in the household of none other than Cardinal Richelieu, subsequently serving “son eminence” as a diplomatic agent and intermediary between the French government and the Scottish Covenanters.  After Richelieu’s death he seamlessly took up the same post in the household of Cardinal Mazarin and died wealthy, perhaps even content, in 1651.  His fellow Aberdonian Gilbert Blakhal remembered him as “a very good friend wher he professed frindshippe, and [one who] scorned to flatter any body great or smal”.

What Chambers’s public life doesn’t reveal is that he was also a poet.  His addition to Strachan’s manuscript consists of thirty-four poems to the memory of a variety of colleagues, friends, and kinsfolk who died between 1625 and 1648.  His work has been described as a “necrology”, but it’s better to think of it as a collection of paper epitaphs, a sort of virtual graveyard in which Chambers commemorated the people who mattered most to him.  Richelieu is there, but so is Chambers’s mother Christian Con, “most loving of parents” and a small party of soldiers, scholars, and clergymen who had done their best – rarely successfully – to survive the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War.


The opening of Chambers’s epitaph to his mother, Christian Con (1639), SCA CB57/12, fol. 173v (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is what I’m studying at present and I’m hoping to write an article exploring the manuscript and its contexts fairly soon.  Like any good research topic, though, it’s been taking me down byways and alleys I never expected, into the lives of Richelieu’s horse guards and the poetic output of Chambers’s cousin, a Paduan classics professor, whose 1627 Emblemata amatoria contains an epitaph on his father which may have inspired Thomas’s own productions, placed alongside an oddly moving engraving of old Patrick Chalmer’s funeral.


George Chalmer weeping at his father’s bier, from George Chalmer, Emblemata amatoria (Venice, 1627), p. 195.

This sort of project reminds me – if I were in any danger of forgetting – just how much there is still to learn about the early modern world.  Who knew that Cardinal Richelieu’s household included a poetically-inclined young Scot who turned a previous generation’s album amicorum into a repository for his own elegiac verse?

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams