Document 976

On the Study of Scottish Literature

Author(s): Ian Duncan

Copyright holder(s): Ian Duncan


As someone who teaches and researches topics in Scottish literature in an English department at a North American university, I’ve been asked to provide an ‘outside view’ of the subject in the context of current debates over its status and value in the school curriculum. It seems bizarre to me that the study of Scottish literature should require a defence in Scotland in this day and age, although I know from experience that the case needs to be made elsewhere.

I came quite late to the study of Scottish literature, through reading Scott, who would play a far more prominent part in my professional life than I ever expected. Scott confronted me as an anomaly in the development of the ‘English novel’ — a force of influence (to be sure) but of an oddly inconsequential kind; a cloudy distraction from the true path of a morally serious domestic realism, a ghost in the house of fiction. At an early stage of working on my doctoral dissertation I had the good fortune to meet Tom Crawford, who was visiting the James Boswell archive at Yale, and I asked him if he thought it made sense to think about Scott in the light of a Scottish — as distinct from an English or British — literary tradition. With what I now recognize to have been heroic forbearance, he replied that such a point of view might indeed prove quite fruitful. Mine was a symptomatic ignorance. As a category, Scottish literature did not exist at the leading centres of ‘English’ where I was a student in the mid-1970s and 1980s. My first-year supervisor at Cambridge, Helena Shire, had insisted I read Dunbar, Henryson and Gavin Douglas alongside Chaucer and other English poets in the medieval syllabus of the undergraduate English tripos. But that was an exception. There was no sign of Burns on the Cambridge curriculum, none of Scott, apart from a one-off visiting lecture by David Daiches, who (however) did manage to convince some of his audience that there might be more to the Waverley novels than tartan and tushery. At Yale, too, British literature remained resolutely English (some eminent Irish authors excepted), even though the Yale university library holdings in Scottish literature must be the richest in North America, with major caches of Hogg, Stevenson and Barrie alongside Boswell. (It’s pleasant to imagine these archives providing the basis for a future programme in Scottish studies at Yale ...)

This state of affairs still prevails, by and large, at university English departments in England and the United States, although changes are beginning to occur locally. (Canada is a somewhat different case). I do not think that the neglect of Scottish literature can very plausibly be blamed on a residual anti-Scots prejudice, or anglophiliac conspiracy, although influential acts of exclusion have certainly shaped the growth of the modern tradition of English literature: Samuel Johnson’s denunciation of Ossian in the 1770s, Matthew Arnold’s mid-Victorian complaint that Burns could not be a great poet because he lacked ‘high seriousness’, F. R. Leavis’s dismissal of Scott from the great tradition of the English novel on the grounds that he was ‘an inspired folklorist’. The problem, which is structural rather than intentional, follows from the ways we go about constructing a national narrative of cultural history. Like any narrative, it has its arcs of development, its turning points, its rhythms of greater and lesser intensity. And while the modern national histories of England and Scotland may be bound by a shared political destiny, their literary-historical contours do not match. The arcs and turning-points, the peaks and valleys, do not coincide, or if they do, they mean different things. This lack of synchrony is more visible in the centuries preceding the Union of Crowns, when the national histories are still formally separate. The high points of early modern English literature — the Age of Chaucer, of Spenser and Shakespeare — these have no corresponding achievements in contemporary Scotland. (Although Shakespeare did briefly turn into a Scottish playwright after 1604 ...) The attempt to fit the two histories together casts the dominant model, the English, as the norm, and reduces the other to its shadow. The makars, inserted into an English chronology, become ‘Scottish Chaucerians’ — mere followers.

The situation gets more complicated, of course, after 1707. Scotland’s political absorption is followed on the one hand by a brilliant epoch of intellectual modernization, the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and on the other by processes of economic and cultural integration that support the single narrative of a unified British history — one in which, all but inevitably, English developments set the pace. Recent scholarship has shown how eighteenth-century Scottish historians subordinated their own national history to the English model, while a contemporaneous ‘Scottish invention of English literature’ brought a tactical acceptance of English linguistic and aesthetic standards, at least in Edinburgh. A golden age of modern Scottish letters — the century from David Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature” (1739) to Thomas Carlyle’s “The French Revolution” (1837) — remains sunk out of sight in most standard British literary histories, submerged by that most problematic of all period categories, ‘Romanticism’. Since this is the period I work on, I’ll use it as my main example.

That century saw Lowland Scotland become one of the generative centres of European and North Atlantic literary culture. In the balance of a new, British imperial world order, Scottish innovations in moral philosophy, the social sciences, history, rhetoric, poetry, periodical journalism and the novel matched or outweighed their English counterparts. Hume, Adam Smith, and other Enlightenment philosophers developed a comprehensive account of human nature, social organization and historical process; poets and scholars invoked the national past and regional popular traditions in a series of attempts to reimagine Scottish identity in a post-national age. James Macpherson’s collections of ‘Poems of Ossian’ founded European Romanticism on a scandalous invention of lost cultural origins; Robert Burns fashioned the first modern vernacular style in British poetry; Scott’s historical novels combined those distinctively Scottish inventions, a universal modernity and a national past, to define the governing form of Western narrative for the next hundred years. At the same time, a succession of Edinburgh periodicals — “The Edinburgh Review” (1802), “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” (1817), “Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal” (1832) — established the main medium of nineteenth-century public discussion. And to name these highlights is to overlook a long list of strikingly original achievements: Smollett’s novels, Fergusson’s urban eclogues, Joanna Baillie’s theatre of the passions, the experimental fiction of James Hogg and John Galt.

Once more, though, these developments don’t fit the English narrative, in which ‘Romanticism’ bursts from the shell of a dried-up neoclassicism, cracked by the shockwave of revolution in France. The later eighteenth century is (or was, until recently) a strange twilight zone of English literary history, an ‘Age of Sensibility’ or ‘Pre-Romanticism’, its poets groping hesitantly towards the radical horizon of “Lyrical Ballads” and “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. In Scotland, though, ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ cultural forms occupy the same moment, rather than defining successive stages or periods; Macpherson’s “Fingal” is not just contemporary with the scientific projects of Enlightenment but is one of its characteristic products — as well as being the founding document of a global Romanticism. The French Revolution brings a change in Scottish cultural history, but one with different dynamics from the English case, characterized by intellectual continuity rather than rupture. As the counter-revolutionary regime of Pitt and Dundas tightens its grip over Scottish patronage, the projects of Enlightenment shift their institutional base, from the university curriculum to an industrializing literary marketplace, so that after 1800 Edinburgh becomes the British centre for innovative publishing in periodicals and fiction. A ‘Romantic’ aesthetic ideology does not formally take hold in Scotland until 1817, when “Blackwood’s Magazine” sets itself up as the Tory scourge of a Whig post-Enlightenment (exemplified by the “Edinburgh Review”) in the national struggle over electoral reform.

All of this scarcely registers in the standard literary history, which casts British Romanticism as English, a mighty handful of lyric poets grappling with a Kantian (later Heideggerian) problematic of the transcendental imagination. Never mind that this version of Romanticism is a late invention, consolidated in the North American academy after World War II. Scotland, neither English nor foreign, comes to stand for an inauthentic Romanticism: its poets and novelists manufacture nostalgic simulations, a theme-park Highland heritage, while ‘Scotch reviewers’ bully Keats and Wordsworth. Rather than being a site of Romantic production, it is Scotland’s fate to have become a Romantic object or commodity: glamorous scenery for Queen Victoria and industrial tourism; a series of kitsch, fake, sentimental ‘inventions of tradition’, from Ossian and “Waverley” to Fiona MacLeod, “Brigadoon” and “Braveheart”.

Nor, unfortunately, is this simply an English (or Anglo-American) story. In the early decades of the last century, Scottish critics devised their own compelling variant, denouncing the post-Union literary tradition as inorganic, self-divided, alienated from its vital sources — the proof of that alienation being Scotland’s lack of a genuine Romantic movement. Gregory Smith’s exotic phrase for an internally-conflicted national character, the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ (in “Scottish Literature: Character and Influence”, 1919), supplied Hugh McDiarmid and Edwin Muir with critical ammunition in their revolt (de rigueur among Modernists) against Victorian forefathers: a revolt charged with nationalist energy by, among other things, the burden of Scotland’s participation in nineteenth-century world empire. McDiarmid and co. were taking aim at the Victorian sentimental cult of Burns and Scott, it can be argued, more than at those writers themselves. Nevertheless, critics and historians in their wake took the ‘Antisyzygy’ diagnosis literally, and made it into a routine: branding some Scottish authors as more Scottish than others, carving up individual oeuvres into authentic and inauthentic tendencies, usually along linguistic lines — so that few readers, for example, now bother with the English poetry of Fergusson or Burns.

This summary is a caricature, I know, and it overlooks all sorts of crucial factors, not least the political contexts that this nationalism spoke to. Recent commentary has clarified its account of national tradition, if not always consistently. Tom Nairn, rescuing the Scottish Enlightenment from Antisyzygy proscription in “The Break-Up of Britain” (1981), develops the nationalist account of Scotland’s lack of a Romantic movement — finding what Muir (in “Scott and Scotland”, 1936) had found in Scott’s Edinburgh, ‘a very curious emptiness’. Yet this analysis ultimately derives from Scottish Romanticism: the first clear statement of the ‘Antisyzygy’, as diagnosis of a national cultural pathology, can be found, one hundred years before Gregory Smith, in John Gibson Lockhart’s (Tory, Unionist) semi-fictional anatomy of Scottish culture, “Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk” (1819). Cairns Craig has shown (in “Out of History”, 1996) how the model of a divided, deficient Scottish tradition relies on the assumption of an English ‘organic’ standard: Muir adapts T. S. Eliot’s critique of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in modern English poetry, while David Craig (in “Scottish Literature and the Scottish People”, 1961) invokes the Leavisite model of a ‘Great Tradition’.

Scott’s reputation was perhaps the most spectacular casualty of Antisyzygy nationalism, which cast the author of “Waverley” as chief Unionist collaborator, a Wicked Wizard of the North who enchanted an entire tradition into a moth-eaten museum-piece. Far from helping people to read Scott’s poems and novels, such an analysis became a means of not reading them. Recent historical developments have helped make Scott look interesting again, with initiatives such as the new Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels encouraging a fresh approach, although bad habits of reading, or rather failures of reading, linger here and there. Scott, for sure, was a key figure in the ‘invention of Scotland’ that has been analysed by Murray Pittock and less subtle scholars; but the novels themselves are far from exhausted by the uses to which they have been put — an instrumentality that may have little or nothing to do with what an attentive reading can find out. We need to remind ourselves of what, once upon a time, was obvious: the imaginative vitality and intellectual wealth of these astonishing works (not just “The Heart of Mid-Lothian” and “Redgauntlet” but, say, “Woodstock”), appreciation of which should enhance, rather than obscure, the rival brilliancies of Scott’s contemporaries — Galt’s “The Entail”, Hogg’s “Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner”, as well as their other works, and works by other hands. (The best Romantic-era Scottish novel not by Hogg, Scott or Galt? Christian Johnstone’s “Elizabeth de Bruce”, 1827.)

So there are at least two good reasons for recognizing the distinctiveness of a Scottish literary tradition. One, simply put, is that tradition’s internal strength — the originality and excellence of its constituent works, from the makars through the Romantic Enlightenment (whatever we want to call it) to the current, turn-of-the-millennium crop of rising poets and novelists, and everything and everyone else before and besides: Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, whose gifts an English literary history has been no more successful in defining than it has Burns’s; or Margaret Oliphant, whose return to currency as an English novelist (the author of “Miss Marjoribanks”) exceeds, for the moment, the rise of interest in her as a Scottish woman writer — one who, like Joanna Baillie, made her career in the south. We need to be able to read these authors: which means, in the first place, having their books available, and also, in many instances, learning how to read them, since reading habits and terms of reference change. The Edinburgh Scott, with its Penguin Classics offshoot, can serve as a model for the joint issue of high-quality scholarly and popular editions. There are, fortunately, a host of analogous projects, keeping our literary universe open: the Stirling-South Carolina edition of Hogg (also in paperback!), bringing to light works which in some cases have never been available in their original versions, and reprint series such as Canongate Classics and the ASLS’s own Annual Volumes. Literary criticism too can perform a public service in extending our reading skills — whether developing terms for a better understanding of famous authors, such as Burns and Scott, whose achievements have been distorted by an alien aesthetic standard, or recovering less familiar or downright obscure writers and movements, overlooked because of their class or gender or other contingent reasons.

Reading, we accustom ourselves to the rhythms of change and continuity that make up a Scottish literary history, its successions and combinations of models, forms and topics. We find surprising illuminations along the way. Humean empiricism, Cairns Craig has argued, generates a socially constructive model of the imagination that is quite different from the transcendental model associated with English Romanticism, and no less consequential, since it provides a philosophical matrix for the nineteenth-century novel — not just Scott’s historical fiction but, through that, the ‘English’ realist form. We learn, too, that a national tradition is multiple rather than singular, an often turbulent play of crosscurrents rather than a broad mainstream — for example through Murray Pittock’s studies of a Jacobite tradition far more complex and polyvalent than we had thought, or the reclamations of women’s writing undertaken in the recent “History of Scottish Women’s Writing” edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, the electronic archive of “Scottish Women Poets” edited by Stephen Behrendt and Nancy Kushigian, and like projects. Perhaps the last thing Scottish literature needs is the unifying forcefield of a ‘Great Tradition’.

Which brings us to the second good reason for affirming a Scottish literature: its importance and influence outside the borders of Scotland. Scottish writers from the century of Enlightenment and Romanticism — Hume and Smith, ‘Ossian’, Burns and Scott — enjoyed a huge international popularity and prestige, across continental Europe and North America and other European colonies, defining the intellectual and literary genres of modernization throughout (at least) the nineteenth century, from political economy to national epic and historical novel. In the light of this world-scale reception, it is the English tradition (Johnson, Wordsworth, Austen, Keats ...) that begins to look provincial. (Byron belongs to both!) Merely to reverse the charge of national inferiority, though, is just as unhelpful — replacing one imperialist boast with another. The splendours of the English tradition need no defence. It is important, rather, to recognize the complex networks of affiliation that bind Scottish literature (sometimes painfully) to other literatures and cultures. Scottish writing helps constitute the literatures of continental Europe, North America and the British and European colonies, in complicity with other, often less benign institutional conduits of ‘influence’, just as it is in turn constituted through and by other literatures. Scholars who have recently been drawing the map of Scottish literature’s global interrelations, such as Robert Crawford and Susan Manning, are building upon a solid scholarly foundation (in the work of R. S. Jack, Andrew Hook and others).

These networks of reciprocal making bind together, not least, Scottish with English writing (the work of North American scholars such as Leith Davis and Janet Sorensen is helpful here). Thus, we need to understand Scott in the light of Scottish traditions of moral philosophy, historicism and antiquarianism, poetry and ballad revival — and also of English and Irish, as well as continental, traditions of the drama and novel and romance, and a great deal else. Victorian Scottish authors in particular, like Carlyle and Oliphant, did not simply write and publish in London, but shaped ‘English’ styles and genres, as Robert Crawford and others have insisted. It makes as little sense to tear them out of their English context, in a mistaken bid for purity, as it does to read them as English authors without regard for their Scottish roots and associations. English needs to be an essential component of the study of Scottish literature — just as Scottish literature needs to play no less vital a part in English studies, in England and elsewhere. So: let’s not submerge Scottish literature, once again, under the surface of ‘English’; but let’s not cut it off from English either. Scotland’s literary and linguistic bond with English, far from being a shackle, can enhance our understanding of how national cultures develop — not in splendid isolation but in complex engagement with the world.

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APA Style:

On the Study of Scottish Literature. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 10 December 2023, from

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"On the Study of Scottish Literature." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. 10 December 2023.

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2023. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 976

On the Study of Scottish Literature


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Informed lay people
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2003
Word count 3072

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Web (webpages, discussion boards, newsgroups, chat rooms)

Text publication details

Publisher ASLS
Publication year 2003
Place of publication Glasgow
Part of larger text
Contained in ScotLit 28
Editor ASLS

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Author details

Author id 496
Forenames Ian
Surname Duncan
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Secularism
Occupation Professor of English
Region of birth Cornwall
Country of birth England
Place of residence Berkeley
Region of residence California
Country of residence USA
Father's occupation RAF Officer
Father's place of birth Perth
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Housewife
Mother's place of birth London
Mother's country of birth England


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work / home
Scots No No No Yes Scholarly / recreational