Ronnie Jack

Professor of Scottish and medieval literature

Born: April 3, 1941;

Died: December 14, 2016

PROFESSOR Ronnie Jack, who has died aged 75, was one of the foremost Scottish literature scholars of his generation and Professor of Scottish and Medieval Literature at the University of Edinburgh from 1987 until 2004. He was also known for his pioneering scholarship on JM Barrie, in The Road to the Never Land and Myths and the Mythmaker.

He was a native of Ayr, where he was born Ronald Dyce Sadler Jack on 3 April 1941, and was educated at Ayr Academy and the Universities of Glasgow (where he first studied law, then switched to English) and Edinburgh.

As a schoolboy he met the legendary Samuil Marshak, translator of Burns into Russian for Stalin, who was visiting from the USSR to get a sense of the birthplace of the heroic Scottish peasant, and recited Burns to him so that Marshak could get the feel of Burns’s Scots. Professor Jack remained an enthusiastic Burnsian all his life, and a welcome speaker at Burns events and suppers: he was a natural performer with a great sense of humour. As a student at Glasgow he remembered an early lecturer describing with great imprecision how Geoffrey Chaucer "was born between 1340 and 1342". "Pair Mrs Chaucer!" shouted out a Glasgow voice from the back row to an audience of 300, with that sense of egalitarian irreverence that Professor Jack himself appreciated and was never to lose.

Moving from Glasgow to Edinburgh to research his PhD, he was appointed to a lectureship in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in 1965. He spent the rest of his career there, his uncompromising and exhibitionist west coast style in lectures alternately fascinating and puzzling Edinburgh’s increasing cosmopolitan student body.

He was a passionate advocate of Scottish literature at a time when it was unfashionable to be so, but Professor Jack's view of Scottish literature was far from parochial and self-congratulatory, for he saw it as a national literature in relationship to other literatures across the world. Scottish literature for him was literature by Scottish writers: he did not have much time for a definition of it limited to those texts which explicitly promoted Scottish identity.

His brilliant PhD thesis was published in much truncated form as The Italian Influence on Scottish Literature in 1972, which remains the standard work on the subject. Professor Jack also produced the only book-length study of Alexander Montgomerie (1985) and edited the 1660-1800 volume of the Aberdeen History of Scottish Literature in 1987 as well as books on mediaeval drama and a student guide to William Dunbar, among a welter of editions, collections (such as The Art of Robert Burns, edited with Andrew Noble in 1982) and anthologies.

However, his reputation will chiefly rest on his pioneering scholarship on J.M. Barrie, in The Road to the Never Land (1991) and Myths and the Mythmaker (2010) among extensive other work. Professor Jack was very much of the view that Barrie was a major Scottish writer, largely marginalized in the national canon because of his establishment wealth and status, extensive residence in London and Kailyard associations. Some of Professor Jack's scholarly work is perhaps prophetic: the work on Barrie may in years to come seem even more definitive and important than it does now.

Professor Jack's career flourished at Edinburgh, where he moved through the ranks to a personal chair in Scottish and medieval literature in 1987, serving twice as head of department and also as associate dean; Glasgow awarded him a D.Litt., the highest degree available in arts and letters, in 1990, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2000.

He was also prominent in external positions, being director of the Universities Central Council on Admissions, governor of Newbattle Abbey College and a member of the Scottish Universities Council for Entrance, among many other bodies. He was a scholarly leader too, jointly directing the immensely important and valuable Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation from 2000, a major project which demonstrated beyond doubt to all but the determinedly ignorant the global footprint of Scottish writing.

Professor Jack was also internationally recognized, holding visiting appointments at the Beinecke Library at Yale, as Neag Distinguised Chair of British Literature at Connecticut, at the University of Virginia and as Roy Fellow in the University of South Carolina.

Besides being a formidable scholar, Professor Jack was a deeply sensitive man who was a paradox. While he could seem on the surface an absent minded, even eccentric professor in a long tradition of Scottish intellectuals, he was also a very acute judge of character and an efficient, effective and astute administrator. His complex personality also occasionally showed great chutzpah as a side order to informality, efficiency, anxiety and uncertainty. He was a deeply sensitive man who was profoundly aware of his own feelings and the needs and feelings of others.

The support of his family meant a very great deal to him: his wife, Kirsty, a head teacher in Edinburgh, and his daughters Fiona and Isla. They alone know his true worth, but Ronnie Jack was also deeply appreciated by many in the universities of Scotland and beyond (an appreciation has already appeared in the United States) and for generations of students for whom he could be a memorable, charismatic and even addictive figure. Our wider society owes him something too, for his championing of Scotland’s literature over many years and his defence of it from both external criticism and internal parochialism.