By Dr Pauline Mackay and Dr Ronnie Young

FROM Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from the Highland landscapes of Walter Scott’s Waverley to the Edinburgh streets of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Scottish literature has been at the forefront of world literature for centuries.

Since the medieval era, Scottish writers have produced poetry, song and prose of global renown, beloved characters and stories with mass appeal that continue to inspire a worldwide readership in the 21st century. The Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation (BOSLIT) records more than 32,000 translations of Scottish works into 100-plus languages from the medieval era to the present day.

Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns has inspired countless intellectuals and artists, among them American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Bob Dylan. Burns’s version of Auld Lang Syne (a song whose roots can be traced back to the earliest recorded collection of Scottish literature, the Bannatyne Manuscript) is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language, alongside Happy Birthday and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

This rich heritage continues in the present day as contemporary Scottish writers contribute to the international success story. Douglas Stewart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize.

Yet, as Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow celebrates its 50th anniversary this academic year, it remains the only academic unit in the world dedicated entirely to studying Scotland’s rich literary tradition.

Plans to teach Scottish literature as a university subject came in the late 19th century when moves to establish a chair in one of Scotland’s ancient universities for the study of Scottish history, literature and language led to the eventual formation of the Chair of Scottish History and Literature in 1913. It was founded with funds raised from the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry in 1911, which attracted millions of visitors to Kelvingrove Park.

The teaching of Scottish literature was initially secondary to Scottish history at Glasgow, until the 1960s saw a momentous drive to establish Scottish literature as a distinct subject. The new department was formed during session 1971-72 with poet Alexander Scott as the inaugural head.

Since then, Scottish literature at Glasgow has amassed a unique concentration of scholarship and teaching expertise, with experts researching and introducing students to every era of the national literature, from the medieval Makars Robert Henryson and William Dunbar to contemporary poets Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay and Kathleen Jamie (currently Scotland’s Makar), surveying literature and culture spanning the Reformation, Jacobite, Romantic, Renaissance, inter-war and contemporary periods.

Scottish literature at Glasgow does not, however, exist in isolation, but as part of a vibrant and growing international network of scholars. Over the years, their cognate but varied approaches to Scottish literature have given rise to and been promoted by societies including the Association for Scottish Literature (established in 1970) and the International Association for the Study of Scottish Literature (IASSL), inaugurated at the first ever World Congress of Scottish Literatures at the University of Glasgow in 2014.

Much else has changed in the past 50 years. In 1971-72 the Department of Scottish Literature taught a traditional curriculum filled with exclusively male writers. Scottish literature today has a diverse curriculum that exposes students to a far wider range of voices and experiences than the canon of our forebears.

In first year, students are introduced to Jenni Fagan and Jackie Kay alongside such mainstays as Walter Scott, James Hogg, and Robert Louis Stevenson. They are encouraged to contemplate different representations of Scottish culture and history in a wider global context, analysing (for example) the image of modern Scotland as an open nation presented in Jackie Kay’s Threshhold, a poem which ends on a note of welcome rendered in different languages including Scots, English, Gaelic, Syrian, Ukrainian, and Igbo, the latter a reflection of Kay’s African heritage.

Kay’s wider poetic oeuvre also reminds us that Scotland is not always as inclusive as our self-regarding rhetoric about "Jock Tamson’s bairns" would suggest. Through teaching Scottish literature, we interrogate a chequered national history, which includes links with Imperialism and slavery.

In spite of such forces, Scottish literary history also tells a story of Scotland’s connectedness with the world. Our literary history reveals exchanges with most areas of the globe, including Ireland, continental Europe and America, as well as other parts of Britain and its former Empire. The works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Muriel Spark have an international audience, and characters from Robert Louis Stevenson and JM Barrie are part of the global popular imagination. When we talk about Scottish literature, we are in many ways talking about Scotland’s contribution to world literature. That contribution is worth studying as well as celebrating.

A degree in literature remains one of the best whetstones for sharpening critical faculties. When literature departments are closed, as is happening right now across higher education in the United Kingdom, we lose some of our ability to equip the next generation to meet injustice with an intellectually honed, ethically and socially aware voice.

Current moves against literature departments elsewhere reminds us of the precarity of Arts disciplines, and we cannot be complacent in the face of such general vulnerability. In 1983, The Herald ran a weekend feature which celebrated the then still relatively-novel Scottish Literature department at Glasgow, yet within a couple of years, pressures to rationalise almost closed down the only such unit in the entire world. The cultural importance and international success of this unit might encourage us to think carefully about what may have been lost, or never fully realised, had that happened.

And so, this year we celebrate the fact that Scottish Literature is now well-established at Glasgow and – we hope – will still be flourishing in 50 years’ time.

Dr Pauline Mackay & Dr Ronnie Young are lecturers based in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow

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