Comment: ‘Scottish literature is often overlooked’

Sir Walter Scott's works are widely read around the world
Sir Walter Scott's works are widely read around the world
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NEXT year is certain to be a big year for Scotland – not just at home, but on the world stage. There’s the Commonwealth Games, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, a second Year of Homecoming, and – of course – that referendum. All are certain to keep the world’s eyes on Scotland in 2014.

However there’s another lesser-known event taking place next year: the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley. Waverley was the first in a series of novels from a man who did more than any other writer to interest the world in Scotland.

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island.

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island.

Thus for many reasons, this seemed the right year to celebrate the global quality of Scotland’s literature.

So from 2-5 July 2014, the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow will host the first World Congress of Scottish Literatures. It is in keeping with a central part of the college’s mission, which is to bring the world to Scotland and Scotland to the world.

The college has backed up its goal with more than £8 million in funding for Scottish-related projects, ranging from The People of Medieval Scotland to the Oxford Collected Burns.

However in Scotland, Scottish Literature, despite its global reach, can sometimes be undervalued or even dismissed as a national literature.

Not so elsewhere. For example in 2000, the Modern Languages Association of America recognised Scottish literature formally as a distinct literature. The first session on Scottish literature was held in Washington DC that year at an event which attracted up to 12,000 delegates.

Then in 2006, there was a three-day event on Scottish literature in world literatures at the University of California in Berkeley, one of the top-ten universities in the world.

Yet only this year, I was engaged in championing the cause for Scottish studies in Scottish schools. In particular, many of us argued there should be an integrated question on a Scottish text in the Higher examination.

In making the case to people working in education, culture and the arts throughout Scotland, I was asked more than once: “How do you define Scottish literature?”

There is quite a large literature on this, dating back nearly a century. But even without that body of work, such a question wouldn’t be asked in other countries and cultures about their own literature. In fact, that question might have seemed strange to the Scottish literature students at Charles University, Prague, to whom I lectured at the invitation of the Czech Education Ministry in 2010.

Only in Scotland is it controversial to suggest that young people should study the literature of the country they live in. And since the 2012 Nation Brands Index ranks Scotland 15th in a world to which we have been exporting our literature for centuries, why should we not be proud of it at home?

Whisky, salmon, music all play a distinctive part in our national iconography: and so does literature, whether in English, Scots or Gaelic (or Latin, if we go back far enough).

The World Congress of Scottish Literatures is intended to be a positive voice for Scotland and its literatures in the world in 2014. It hopes to showcase how internationally recognised Scottish literature is – and how global its writers are.

Adam Smith is arguably one of the most influential writers in history. His book Wealth of Nations has shaped the world’s economic thinking in much the same way that Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium has shaped science and astronomy.

If Sir Walter Scott didn’t exactly invent the historical novel, he popularised it and established historical fiction as a genre in its own right.

Other Scottish writers have been no less global. Between them Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson alone have been translated more than 6,400 times.

The Congress already has speakers from many UK universities (including Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Leicester, Oxford and many others).

With 18 months to go, dozens of speakers have also agreed to come from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Macao, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the United States. The list is growing.

A number of international partner universities and organisations have agreed to support the congress. They include the universities of California and South Carolina in the USA, the universities of Guelph and Simon Fraser in Canada and the University of Otago in New Zealand.

There is support too from international societies based in Ireland and the US.

As well as discussing the usual suspects among our famous writers, the congress will also explore themes, such as literature and architecture; theatre; medicine; film; the Scottish diaspora; the Enlightenment; and of course the Union.

This is much more than an academic gathering talking to itself. Many, if not most of our anticipated speakers, come from places where Scottish literature is taught and celebrated in its own right, and where students can come to terms with authors, from Burns to Muriel Spark, in a Scottish and a global context.

And this is only the beginning.

The congress is intended to mark the launch of the International Association for the Study of Scottish Literatures, providing, for the first time, organised global reach for the study of the literatures of Scotland in a single organisation. Everyone attending the congress will be a founding member of the association. And we intend to seek bids to hold successor congresses at three-year intervals worldwide.

We will also be building on the excellent experiences we have had in enabling students to spend part of their study abroad: there is no place for a little Scotland in engaging with global issues and we need to educate ourselves increasingly for this wider context.

But that is not and never should be about neglecting Scotland.

Nor is it about being negative about ourselves and the achievements of a culture which has – in the context of such a small population – had a truly global impact.

For Scotland to engage globally we have to be in dialogue. And to be in dialogue we have to have something to say; something of our own to bring to the table.

And for that to happen, it is more important than ever that we know the riches of our own literature and culture. And we are very lucky that other people in other countries believe in studying our literature even when some of us do not.

The World Congress is one of a number of positive developments in recognising Scotland’s potential as a global brand. Food has been our most obvious recent success. Alternative energy, while controversial, may yet be another.

We have been overwhelmed by the very positive response received worldwide to the congress.

And if there is a central message in that which goes beyond Scottish literature and culture while recognising their importance, it is this: there is a lot of goodwill out there in the world for Scotland, and a great deal of understanding of the contribution we have made to the life of that world.

It is time to be positive about that now and in 2014, whatever your politics are.

For more information on the World Congress of Scottish Literatures go to

• Murray Pittock is head of the College of Arts and a vice-principal of the University of Glasgow. He was the first professor of Scottish literature in an English university, at the University of Manchester, from 2003-07.