World Congress and new association dedicated to Scottish studies cement our country’s culture on the world stage, says Murray Pittock
We already know that 2014 is a landmark year in the history of Scotland. However, in addition to the political, historical and sporting events that are making headlines, there is another global event taking place this summer that pushes Scotland to the forefront of consciousness, this time in the literary world.
Earlier this month, the University of Glasgow hosted the first ever World Congress of Scottish Literatures. The Congress is believed to be the first comprehensive global conference dedicated to all aspects of Scottish studies that has ever been held, and attracted huge attention worldwide. This event was the largest truly global affair focusing on Scottish literature – around 240 experts descended on Glasgow presenting more than 200 papers looking at a wide range of subject related to Scottish literature.
Six universities across the world are partnered with the Congress, including the University of California at Berkeley, and the universities of Guelph in Canada, Mainz, Otago, Charles University in Prague and Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. A number of international organisations in the UK, Ireland and the United States are also partners.
Students at these partner institutions, all of which have significant Scottish studies programmes or activities, gave papers on aspects of Scottish literature and what it means to them.
This response has confirmed the University of Glasgow’s place as the most successful university in Scottish studies research worldwide, supported by the fact that we have recorded around £10 million in Scottish studies research funding in the last five years.
In addition to this, we currently host the only academic unit in the UK dedicated to the teaching and research of Scottish literature. We are home to the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, the only research centre dedicated to Scotland’s national bard, and we work closely with many contemporary authors and poets. Recent writers-in-residence have included the Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead, and novelist Louise Welsh.
However, this is only the beginning. The Congress also saw the formal launch of the International Association for the Study of Scottish Literatures (IASSL), which is already attracting significant interest from Australasia, Europe and North America.
In providing a framework for the arrangement, organisation, partnership and support of future World Congresses elsewhere, IASSL will help to ensure that Scottish literature’s status as a national literature is internationally recognised and promoted as widely as possible.
IASSL will also provide a hub for raising concerns about Scottish literature-related issues internationally, and will give a particular priority to themes: examples include international research projects, promoting the possibilities of exchange or joint programmes in Scottish literature and providing a web-based forum for students studying Scottish literature outwith a Scottish context to reflect on their experience across cultures.
IASSL will also exemplify a core tradition of intellectual inquiry and practice which is both Scottish and international: that of the Enlightenment application of reason to knowledge in the context of material improvement.
The time is right for this development: whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there is now rapidly rising international interest in Scotland.
As convener of the national champions’ group in Scottish studies in 2011-13, I became very much aware that we still often fail to promote our literature and culture internationally as well as we should, and that some people still worry about the literature and culture of Scotland being seen as parochial. Yet all over the world, students are studying our literature and culture – whether or not we encourage them to.
North America has seen a revival in the teaching of Walter Scott and in Continental Europe, contemporary Scottish literature is often of huge interest. And it is estimated that more than nine million people attended Burns Suppers in 2009, many of them being cross-cultural events, such as the Burns Supper/Chinese New Year celebrations in Vancouver.
The Congress and the IASSL will help to bring the research, teaching and cultural events associated with Scottish literature and culture to an increasingly global audience, and in so doing promote understanding of their importance in different cultural contexts worldwide. The world wants to hear about our literature, and has plenty to tell us too.
• Murray Pittock is vice-principal and head of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. www.glasgow.ac.uk