Teaching Scottish literature in Irish universities

Author: Crawford Gribben

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010

Crawford Gribben


Like many other beginning academics, I did not make an auspicious entry into university teaching. I had been out of academia — and out of Scotland — for some time before my appointment as a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and was bursting with enthusiasm when I met my colleagues to discuss plans for a new programme in Scottish literary studies. I remembered back to my undergraduate days at the University of Strathclyde and mentioned the name of a particular creative writer. ‘We could get him do to a reading’, I said; ‘he’s very entertaining.’ Others nodded enthusiastically, but one colleague began to pale. ‘Perhaps you know something I don’t’, he said, ‘but I wrote his obituary last year’.

Of course, I have several lines of convincing explanation for this appalling demonstration of ignorance, but I sometimes think of that moment as iconic. We were talking about one of the most significant twentieth-century Scottish writers, whose writing had seriously engaged with Irish themes, who had an Irish publisher, whose work had been translated into Irish, and who had taken more interest than most in the cultural life of the sister isle. But only one of us at the table knew he was dead. Maybe there is much less Celtic camaraderie than we suspect. News can travel slowly in Ireland.

The title of this article begs a number of questions about the singularity of ‘Scottish literature’ and ‘Irish universities’. I will answer some these questions by drawing on the experience of my four years of teaching at Trinity College, Dublin, and by referring to my occasional forays into extra-mural teaching at the Queen’s University of Belfast. It goes without saying that it meant quite different things to teach Scottish literatures in each of these Irelands.

Trinity students were often urbane and privileged, as befits the social equivalents of an Oxbridge college, but with hardly any previous exposure to Scottish literature they were often fairly disinterested in the subject; classes were small and, on one occasion, were entirely composed of visiting Ivy Leaguers. The extra-mural students at Queen’s, by contrast, were on average much older, with a much greater variation in intellectual ability, but they had a much more sustained knowledge of and interest in the literature of Scotland. In Dublin, I had to introduce students to the basic concepts of Scottish history and culture.

In Belfast, where I twice found myself teaching eighteenth-century poetry to the President of the World Burns Federation, Scottish history and culture were already heavily politicised. Travelling up and down the Dublin-Belfast railway, I began to realise that Scottish-ness could mean quite different things, and not just on either side of the border. Northern villages flew saltire flags to evidence their support for traditional unionism; BBC Northern Ireland broadcast an evening of Ulster Scots music from the new Waterfront Hall that concluded with the passionate singing of ‘Flower of Scotland’ — hardly a unionist manifesto. But whether the political momentum was provided by the Ulster Scots revival, or by an attempt at Celtic federalism and occasional discussion of a ‘council of the isles’, Scottish-ness, whatever it meant, was very much on the agenda in Ireland.

One aspect of the political significance of this Scottish revival was powerfully signalled by the Irish government’s largest ever grant in support of Arts research. This funding, provided to Trinity to establish its Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies, demonstrated that much of the interest in the historic cultures of ‘these islands’ was linked inexorably to contemporary political concerns.

But the atmosphere inside the Centre transcended any kind of explicitly political interest. The creative fusion of its multi-disciplinary research consortium provided the foundation for a dynamic reinterpretation of Scottish culture in a deliberately comparative project. The project advanced on several levels and across several disciplines — among academic colleagues, through a series of conferences and other professional activities; and among students, through the provision of literary teaching at levels two and four of the undergraduate degree, in what I think were the first courses devoted in their entirety to Scottish literature in the history of higher education in Ireland.

The two literature courses developed in tandem. The level two course, ‘Introducing Scottish literature’, drew together existing staff interests to provide students with a basic orientation into Scottish writing from the medieval period to the present day. The lectures ran over nine weeks, without tutorial support, and students were motivated to develop their own readings of Scottish texts within established critical or theoretical perspectives.

These perspectives were then deliberately challenged in the level four course, ‘Scottish literary traditions’, which systematically complicated some of the ideas inculcated at the lower level. This course ran for a full year, and was taught in small group sessions in two-hour seminars. As many of its students had not taken the level two course, it provided in the first couple of weeks a basic orientation into Scottish studies, providing access to the accepted canons of its critical orthodoxy before offering a significant challenge to them.

All students were encouraged to read Marshall Walker’s fine survey of Scottish Literature since 1707, as one of the best of the critical overviews, but early lectures emphasised the need to interrogate many of his assumptions. Students were therefore provided with the best expression of the received wisdom, while seminar discussions attempted to open up and problematise many of its claims.

The benefit of the critical distance this encouraged was apparent from the beginning of the course. Early classes began with a reading of Knox’s History of the reformation, and traced the development of a Scottish literary consciousness throughout the seventeenth century. This was somewhat iconoclastic, at least insofar as Edwin Muir’s thesis went, in reclaiming neglected early modern texts, but students enjoyed the challenge of identifying primary sources, and particularly approved of the opportunity to recover some of the women’s texts that had been marginalised by the critical orthodoxy’s apathy towards all things Reformed.

This early concentration on the literary cultures of the reformation introduced students to the ethical judgements that lie behind formations of canon, and provided the theoretical apparatus required to appreciate later texts that returned, however critically, to the reformation tradition — texts like Hogg’s Private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner and Buchan’s Witch wood.

This kind of tinkering with the canon was made significantly easier by my status as lone teacher of the level four course. Nevertheless, the deliberately oppositional nature of the lectures guarded students from some of the dangers that might have attended the lone teacher’s excessive influence as the Oracle of Scottish culture. Students knew there was a critical orthodoxy; and they sensed very quickly that lectures were often challenging some of its most widely-shared conclusions.

The shape of the course was then discovered to be deliberately provocative. No-one could have argued that Scottish literature was being deliberately re-shaped to be marketed to an audience schooled in the traditional theoretical models of Irish studies. The tradition — as it was presented in class — was presented as distinctive and complex. The comparative project promoted by the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies was certainly not being used to present the Scottish canon as a variety of the Irish.

The outcomes from this course were certainly encouraging. Student essays demonstrated the opportunities for critical thinking encouraged by this deliberate distance from critical orthodoxy. Many of the best submissions developed the course’s challenge to the canon.

One particularly good essay, for example, mixed the student’s earlier exposure to postcolonial theory with his existing interest in the history of the ‘Plymouth’ Brethren. The student wrote a fine Honours-level extended essay on the African literature of Dan Crawford, a nineteenth-century Brethren missionary, which appeared, with only minor modifications, in the autumn 2006 edition of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, published by Cambridge University Press. This student, like others from each of the four years the course ran, has since gone on to postgraduate study.

It is remarkable that these level four classes, which never attracted any more than eight students in any year, should have produced so many able postgraduate recruits in such a consistent manner. The fact that many of these students have since engaged in Scottish projects at postgraduate level is indicative of the extent to which Scottish literature is increasingly seen as offering wide scope for innovative and theoretical readings of texts. The conservatism of the Scottish literary orthodoxy is finally meeting its nemesis — and that challenge is increasingly obvious in Ireland.

The success of this project suggests that Scottish literature now has the opportunity to flourish in Ireland. The consolidation of Irish studies highlights the fluidity of opportunity in its Scottish counterpart. It is significant, therefore, that some of the most innovative projects in literature departments in Ireland have deliberately highlighted a Scottish connection.

The recent establishment of several research centres at the University of Ulster has indicated this concern. The Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages and the Centre for Ulster-Scots Studies are both interested in mapping senses of ‘Scottish-ness’ in Ireland. In fact, the consolidation of this interest on the Magee campus has been signalled by the recent establishment of a first-year undergraduate programme in Ulster Scots studies, a programme that leads into history and literature degree streams and which establishes a clear pathway into a MA programme in Ulster Scots culture.

It is instructive to note that the Scottish literature that seems to confound students in Dublin is so popular in the north that it can be used as a vehicle to widen university access. Scottish literature, in its several Scottish and Irish varieties, seems to be offering a new opportunity — not least because of the strong international links of the University of Ulster’s Scottish programme.

But this revival cannot disguise the fact that Irish literature and culture are more important in Scotland than Scottish literature and culture are in Ireland. Throughout the twentieth century, Irish writing has provided a template for political activism in Scotland, and a paradigm by which the success or failure of nationalist cultural strategies has been measured. Rumours of the Easter Rising activated an intense period of cultural reflection among artistically-orientated Scottish soldiers during the First World War. The Irish rebellion provided the model for a wide range of subsequent cultural initiatives.

Perhaps the most surprising was Hugh MacDiarmid’s tale of urinating in a Dublin street with W.B. Yeats, a story that hints at the depth to which Scottish writers have stooped to indicate their engagement with the sister culture. There is no escaping the fact that the story meant far more to MacDiarmid than it did to his friend. Scottish writing has not only engaged with its Irish counterpart — it has regularly demonstrated subservience to it. The effect of this junior status is that Scottish students will know far more about Irish literature than Irish students will know about Scottish literature.

The Scottish revival in Ireland has also worked to the marginalisation of Scottish Gaelic. In a bizarre twist to earlier debates about the constituent elements of ‘authentic Scottish-ness’, the Scottish revival in Northern Ireland has tended to pay little more than lip-service to engaging with the variety of traditional languages in Scotland. The Scottish-ness this movement celebrates is clearly defined in terms that consolidate its construction of a wider (and broadly Anglophone) British-ness. Scottish Gaelic writers tend to be more regularly patronised by Irish Gaelic activists than by the advocates of Ulster Scots.

The result of these rival engagements is the dismembering of the Scottish literary past. The attempt at bridge-building between north-east Ireland and south-west Scotland has found a parallel in the attempt to revivify the older Celtic crescent that stretched from the west of Ireland to the north-west of Scotland until the mid-seventeenth century. The recovery of Scottish writing in contemporary Ireland has therefore had the effect of pushing Scotland back into the cultural divisions that only began to heal in the aftermath of the Union — though some might argue for a much later date. The challenge to teaching Scottish literature in Ireland is to present the tradition in its entirety, and to resist the attempt to market the literature by projecting onto Scotland the political and cultural borders that have marked the history of Ireland.

It is especially important, therefore, that the teaching of Scottish literature in Ireland is not informed or shaped by the political expectations of its many different kinds of audiences. An unrevised Irish studies may offer an attractive method of presenting Scottish writing as a narrative of nation-building in the face of resistance from a metropolitan centre. At one level, that might explain an important series of cultural differences — not least, I would argue, the startling self-confidence of Irish writing and the often apologetic and defensive literature of Scotland.

But perhaps the most obvious danger of this situation is the possible politicisation of Scottish studies in Northern Ireland. Various Ulster Scots groups have begun to celebrate Scottish-ness as a buttress for a distinctive political paradigm. Ulster Scots evenings in village halls frequently combine recitations and traditional dancing with items of a more political flavour. The problem with this approach is that it corrals Scottish-ness into a particular political stereotype, and underplays the political flexibility and variety of many who have embraced that very Ulster Scots culture. The very media significance of the Ulster Scots movement can also act to damage the credibility of the wider teaching of Scottish literature. On the one hand, the historical longevity of Scottish literature offers cultural activists the opportunity to deny that the Ulster Scots revival is simply an attempt by out-manoeuvred unionists to redress a cultural balance that has swung too far in favour of Irish Gaelic; on the other hand, it is possible that the credibility of this kind of literary study will be impaired by its appropriation by this movement.

I found that my extra-mural classes in Belfast were almost entirely populated by supporters of this kind of cultural activity. The interest in Scottish culture that has pervaded traditional Ulster unionism is evidenced in the longevity of Belfast’s Burns Club, the popularity of the Highland Games at Glenarm Castle, the various enterprises of tartan kitsch that take place around the province, and the comparatively huge numbers of people who attended my classes on Burns on repeated Saturdays in successive Januarys. It is significant, surely, that the 80 or so who attended these two years of extra-mural classes in Belfast outnumbered threefold my four years of students in Dublin. The fact that these Belfast students were largely drawn from one of the divided communities suggests that Scottish literature is still seen as somehow ‘Protestant’ or unionist in orientation. Much less of a case had to be made for Scottish writing in the north — largely because a significant proportion of the population already knew whether it was something that fortified or denied their cultural aspirations. Rightly or wrongly, the verdicts were already in. But that is not to claim that the verdicts were properly obtained.

I would like to close this article, as I began, with an anecdote. In Carrickfergus, a town ten miles from where we lived in the Ulster Scots heartland of county Antrim, the local council adopted a policy of celebrating local culture and organised the installation of a series of street name signs in the ‘hamely tongue’. Within hours of their installation, they had been torn down and dumped in the front garden of a local councillor. Local opinion was baffled as to the reason for this violent rejection of Ulster Scots culture — until, that is, it was revealed that the vandals had acted on a deliberately political motive. They had thought the signs were in Irish. It is not just in the Republic that Scottish language and writing are misunderstood.

It is possible, as these opening and closing anecdotes suggest, that Scottish writing and writers are not so well known in Ireland as we might expect. It is certainly the case that Irish writers and writings are often better known in Scotland than are Scottish texts in Ireland. The Irish-Scottish connection is still more important for scholars in Scottish studies than for those in Irish studies. Nevertheless, these two national literatures enjoy a unique creative fusion, modelling similar resistance to the same kind of metropolitan centre, the same kinds of Anglo-Celtic hybridity, and the same notions of inter- and intra-national difference and cultural and linguistic variation.

As Scottish studies grows in confidence and international reputation, its proximity to and distance from Irish studies will grow increasingly marked. Eventually, scholars of Irish studies will realise its importance. Carrickfergus vandals will recognise the language they purport to defend, and Dublin intellectuals, like this teacher of Scottish literature, will know whether the authors they respect are still in the land of the living. There are many Irelands, and many Scottish literatures, but increasing engagement between these cultures suggests that Scotland’s day will surely come —though news can travel slowly in Ireland.



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