Obituary: Ronald DS Jack, Professor Emeritus of Medieval and Scottish Literature, University of Edinburgh

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Professor Ronald DS Jack. Born: 3 April, 1941 in Ayr. Died 14 December, 2016 in Edinburgh, aged 75.

Ronald DS Jack, Professor Emeritus of Medieval and Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh, died after a return of the cancer from which he had suffered in his last years. ‘Ronnie’ to the many friends he made in Scotland and around the world, was a scholar of eminence, a DLitt of the University of Glasgow, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a prolific publisher of consistently ground-breaking research, and a teacher of commensurate genius.

He was educated at Ayr Academy and then at Glasgow University, where he achieved First Class Honours in English Language and Literature. He then moved to Edinburgh, to study under Professor Jack MacQueen for a PhD, and Edinburgh became his professional home for the rest of his life, although his heart never abandoned the west coast; he was frequently invited to teach and research abroad, and his influence was international.

Like the best of medievalists, Prof Jack had range, but he had it more than most, partly because of his love of languages, which enabled him to be a truly European scholar, and partly through his openness to new theories, which he used to spark fresh ideas but never allowed to constrain him. Scotland’s poetry from the 15th to the 18th century always fascinated him, not least because he insisted on its taking its rightful place in world literature. He urged this, not from narrow patriotism but its opposite – a confident admiration of Scotland’s creativity. The time has surely come to forsake insecurities over ‘Scottish’-ness and open up that field unapologetically to the accepted methods of interpreting ‘literature’.

He produced a groundbreaking anthology of early Scottish literature and a widely influential study of Italian influence on Scottish literature, while ideas in his study of medieval English drama were still being footnoted a generation later. Robert Burns was an enduring interest, and, while he delighted in telling of his encounter with one adult education listener who piped up, ‘Don’t talk to me about Rabbie Burns; I learnt him at my mother’s knee,’ he was undeterred and wrote about Burns and freedom, satire, the older Scots makars, Wordsworth, rhetoric and English literary tradition.

From the mid 1980s, an interest in JM Barrie began to show in Jack’s work: there seems no doubt that Barrie’s writing, while it offered problems which both new developments in literary theory and exacting traditional literary analysis could help unlock, also appealed to him for its emotional complexity, its provenance in the south-west of Scotland and its engagement with the dark forces under which human beings labour. His prolific research also led to his rediscovery in the Beinecke Library of JM Barrie’s first ever play, Bandalero the Bandit, foreshadowing Peter Pan. Barrie himself believed this play lost, but Prof Jack’s discovery permitted it to live again: it was revived in 2015 to help support Peter Pan Moat Brae as the National Centre for Children’s Literature.

For all his publications, Ronnie Jack possessed a remarkable gift for teaching, based on good humour, fair-mindedness, respect for students, and a strong sense of collegiality with them. They felt he was ‘there for them’, and he was. He was unafraid to trust and support them, memorably sticking up for two tutees when they publicly engaged in perhaps over-energetic questioning of a major international scholar. ‘Disgusting’ was how one extremely eminent professor described it. ‘But they were right’, replied Ronnie. ‘Well, yes’ was the reply. Unstintingly kind and generous to generations of doctoral students, he was instrumental in inspiring many medievalists to their careers.

He was quick to acknowledge the wit or ability of others. At Ayr Academy, he had been a fast rugby wing and he told with pleasure of the occasion when, seeing some forward chasing after him, he thought ‘No trouble here’ only to be bundled over the touchline by his fellow pupil, Ian McLauchlan, later prop forward for Scotland and the Lions. Many of his friends will have anecdotes showing similar generosity of spirit – Ronnie particularly liked the response he got when he politely asked a persistent interrupter if he could possibly keep his questions until the end of the lecture, and was told ‘Ronnie, I’m an old man; I may not make it until then!’ That sudden irruption of fun into a serious and disciplined event attracted him; he created the effect himself in his often theatrically dynamic teaching.

Prof Jack suffered all his adult life with waves of clinical depression. To be silent about this would misrepresent the scale of his achievements, but more importantly, it would obscure the importance to him of his family, whose love sustained him through these times. His marriage to Kirsty lasted 49 years; she was his rock, and he knew how much he depended on her strength of character. Kirsty and their two daughters, Fiona and Isla, were the source of enduring joy and the ‘ever-fixèd’ marks that gave him perspective and hope.

His funeral service opened with All Things Bright and Beautiful, recalling the simple affirmation that lay at the heart of this complex man, and his intense commitment to life, which shone the brighter for the darkness which was its frequent foil.

His extensive list of publications, his extra-mural teaching, guest lectures, and society addresses which he gave throughout his life, demonstrates his career of outstanding service to his fellow Scots and to those interested in medieval and Scottish literature around the world. But that would still not accommodate that most life-enhancing but evanescent of contributions – his university teaching – or the deep personal loyalties and friendships which he inspired. One would say that life is the poorer for his passing were it not that it is immeasurably richer for his having been with us.

John J McGavin