Picture the scene.

It is a Victorian Christmas Eve and a mother has gathered her large brood around the fire, as if to tell them a bedtime story.

"There is a rod for every age, from the child of a year old, to the man of fourscore," she says, before really getting into her stride. "A child is punished with a birch rod, and a dunce's cap; and a boy who is older with a stick, or a whip; but when schooldays are passed, there are rods in abundance for all sorts of errors. The trespasser is imprisoned; the thief is flogged, or transported; the highway robber is hanged; and the murderer is sometimes suspended on a gibbet, after he has died on the gallows. These rods are prepared by men to deter people from committing crime; but what I wish most of all to impress on your minds is, that God has prepared a rod for every sinner. He that sins must suffer, whether he be young or old, rich or poor."

A happy Christmas that must have been. Yet this grim tale is "fairly typical of the tone of material for children" in this period, according to Dr Valentina Bold, of the University of Glasgow's Dumfries campus, who is Director of the Solway Centre for Environment and Culture, and Reader in Literature and Ethnology. She also reflects that, unforgiving though the mother's words are, they are not without compassion, since she is explaining to her children why she must hit them, rather than merely lashing out and leaving them to work out the reasons themselves.

This morality tale, titled The Rod, is only one of many Victorian chapbooks and other works for young readers that have caught Bold's attention, and piqued her interest in what she and her fellow academic, Dr Sarah Dunnigan, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, have recognised as a glaring gap in Scottish literature from the 18th and 19th centuries: namely the near complete absence of children's books.

Eager to resurrect as many lost texts as possible, Bold and Dunnigan are also keen to see if they can trace a distinctive Scottish character in children's writing from these centuries. Dunnigan, who began her career as a Scottish medievalist, is particularly interested in the fairytale tradition. "I began to wonder when children's literature in Scotland began," she says, over a coffee in Edinburgh. "The idea of the hidden history and the hidden voices of Scotland's past."

The project was too big for her to tackle herself, and she spoke to Bold, with whom she had discovered a shared interest in children's literature. The outcome is a unique two-day conference in Dumfries, next weekend, to discuss various aspects of children's literature. The Scottish Children's Literature Symposium is open to the public, and promises not only to be fascinating, but to act as an impetus for the academic fraternity to discover more about the "missing link" in children's literature.

As Bold says, "I don't think J K Rowling comes out of nowhere, and there's a genealogy that needs to be more specifically identified... We need to get to the source of where this burgeoning of fantastic writers, like Jacqueline Wilson, comes from. Even if they're not aware of it." For Dunnigan, quite simply "It's about recovering Scotland's lost heritage of children's storytelling, which is a vital part of our culture."

Although most of us have heard of the giants of 19th-century Scottish children's fiction - George Macdonald, Robert Louis Stevenson and J M Barrie - other writers of books for younger readers, such as the Victorian poet Violet Jacob and Shetland folklorist Jessie Saxby, are either largely forgotten or ignored. Jacob gathered and retold fairy stories after the death of her eight-year-old son, while Saxby was unusual for drawing on Viking history for her adventure stories for boys, and for setting her stories on the "cultural margins", on remote islands. A further question, about the nature of the north in children's literature, is raised by Saxby's work, among others, suggesting fruitful fields of inquiry for decades to come.

Since many of the writers and illustrators of children's books were women, the problem of neglect appears to have been compounded. Dunnigan believes there is a deep gulf of lost material between these writers and those of today. "Peter Pan," she says, "is the one text that's the lynchpin, that holds it together... Even so, Barrie himself tended to be seen as an isolated figure."

How appropriate, then, that the first day of the conference will take place at Moat Brae, in Dumfries. A beautiful Georgian town house, it has been dubbed "the birthplace of Peter Pan", because this was where J M Barrie played with his school friends Stewart and Hal Gordon. As the playwright later wrote, "these escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work - Peter Pan." The house's restoration will not be complete for another two years, but it is still accessible for limited use before its official opening in the summer of 2017 as a National Centre for Children's Literature and Storytelling.

The second day will be held at the Crichton campus, and topics discussed will range from Maureen Farrell on The Beginnings Of Scottish Children's Literature and Linden Bicket discussing "Seals, witches, truants [and] sailors": George Mackay Brown's Orcadian Tales For Children, to Rob Dunbar on Scottish Gaelic Children's Literature Of The 19th Century and Rhona Brown on Educating The Female Child: Debates From The Scottish Periodical Press, 1750-1800. Not to mention Bold on children's chapbook literature and Dunnigan on fairy tales and women writers.

Among the lost treasures of the past are a wealth of children's chapbooks, and collections of fairytales. Some, says Bold, are mere retellings of well-known European tales, such as Cinderella or Old Mother Hubbard. But she is hopeful that serious digging would reveal books published in Scotland - perhaps in Glasgow's Saltmarket, where publishers and printers abounded - which have a marked Scottish flavour. She is also aware of another angle that has been overlooked: while work has been done on some of these books in terms of their printing history or educational significance, little attention has been paid to them as literary texts in their own right. And yet, she says, "some are very good and entertaining and very beautiful".

Here, for example, is a passage at the conclusion of a scary tale about a real-life Jamaican, an escaped slave renowned for murdering hundreds of travellers. Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack, is the story of this villain, who makes Hannibal Lecter look cute. Works such as these made few concessions to children's fears or anxieties, nor did they patronise their intelligence. Of this killer, who ended up with his head cut off, the author writes: "A man perhaps of as genuine courage as ever existed, had he been left unmolested he in all human probability would have lived happily... Those bright prospects were all blackened by the worst of traffics, the Africa Slave Trade, a system long vindicated in the British Senate by numbers of its members..."

Children's literature has come a long way since those harsh days, and yet the parallels are evident. There is a didacticism at the heart of much children's fiction, as much today as in yesteryear, though in more appropriate form. And there is a love of fantasy worlds and dreaming, which Dunnigan's fairytale studies reveal as a powerful force in Victorian fiction.

"One of the fascinating things about children's literature is that it's a barometer of the times. You can use it to take the cultural temperature." She looks perplexed. "I can't understand why no-one's been interested in this before!"

One reason may be to do with the marginalisation of Scottish literature in general, until relatively recently, and another because within that, children's literature is also deemed less important. Added to which, it was mainly written by women, "so you have a double marginalisation". Yet as she and Bold are quick to stress, children's literature is a crucial part of our culture, and one that we have all experienced.

"It's a transient form," says Bold, "but it needs to be valued as an entity in itself, and not something that's forgotten as soon as you turn 16."

Scottish Children's Literature: Forgotten Histories, New Perspectives and J M Barrie, Friday June 26 and Saturday June 27 in Dumfries. For details contact on katie.nairn@glasgow.ac.uk or 01387 345 371