Place and Space in Scottish Literature and Culture – Gdańsk Connections
Alan Bisset has recently voiced, in an article published by the Guardian, his deep concern with the fate of Scottish literature along the lines of Alan Warner’s pre-indyref forecast (quoted in the same article) that a No vote would “create a profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature,” and that it would ultimately “be the death knell for the whole Scottish literature ‘project’ – a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating, trying to maintain and refine.” One would certainly sympathise with Bisset and Warner’s thoughtful evocation of the central role played by Scottish writers not only in paving the way to devolution, but in re-imagining their nation – and indeed nationalism – for the 21st century. Such a role can hardly be overestimated and represents no doubt an extraordinary and distinctively ‘Scottish’ event. But if it is indeed realistic that this role will now change, in what are changed circumstances, and post-indyref Scotland is undoubtedly a changed country, it seems however doubtful that we will hear that death knell in the near future.
In the past two decades or so the Scottish literature ‘project’ has grown and established itself globally – the Referendum campaign has actually contributed to attract unprecedented interest in Scotland’s political predicament as well as in its cultural and literary expressions. Arguably, interest has grown constantly and considerably over the past ten years, and has taken ideas of Scotland and Scottish literature to quite new places. It may not be surprising news that Scottish literature, as a field of studies, has long been developing in the US and Canada (the US Modern Language Association, for example, includes a very active Scottish literature discussion group, and both the US and Canada host several established centres for the study of Scottish literature and culture), or in New Zealand (the University of Otago hosts a prestigious Chair in Scottish Studies), or even in India (where the Indian Association of Scottish Studies will hold its first conference next year, 6–8 January, at Bankura University). All these countries have long had, after all, a solid connection with Scotland, via the British Empire, as well as a shared language. It is possibly slightly more unexpected that this field is gaining popularity in non-English speaking countries, and especially in continental Europe, where a growing number of scholars are today focusing on Scottish studies as their field of specialisation.
If any evidence should be needed of this new, extremely promising and relatively recent developments of Scottish studies in this part of the world, the conference on “Place and Space in Scottish Literature and Culture,” held at the University of Gdańsk (8–10 October 2015), organised by the Scottish Studies Research Group at the University of Gdańsk and the Society for Scottish Studies in Europe , provides an excellent example. It gathered scholars from Austria, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Spain, beside Scotland itself, and offered a remarkably dense programme – featuring, beside a wide range of papers, a memorable reading by John Burnside, a captivating performance of Alan Spence’s No Nothing (by Alan Riach and David Malcolm), the launch of the volume Boundless Scotland: Space in Contemporary Scottish Fiction , edited by Monika Szuba (one of the Gdańsk organisers), and a round table with John Burnside (University of St. Andrews), Glenda Norquay (Liverpool John Moores University), Alan Riach (University of Glasgow) and myself. Speakers covered different aspects of Scottish literature, from the 18th to the present day, in English, Scots and Gaelic, the work of canonical writers was discussed as well as that by authors often neglected at ‘home,’ such as Agnes Owen and Brian McCabe, engaged with off-the beaten-track topics (from the literature of the Orkney and Shetland to representations of rural and urban Scotland in daily newspapers), to explored space and place in Scotland’s literary texts and cultural production from a kaleidoscopically diverse number of perspectives – geographical, visual, ecocritical, postcolonial, feminist, historical and comparative. Spaces and places discussed included rural/natural as well as urban environments, canonical lieux de mémoir and iconic ‘edgelands,’ nostalgic/lost and future/utopic landscapes, bounded and open spaces, national and regional/local perspectives. The conference was aptly closed by a discussion of Jamaican writer Kei Miller’s negotiations of identity when he was based in Glasgow – connecting Scotland to spaces and places beyond its borders.
This was by no means the first Scottish Studies enterprise in continental Europe. The Scottish Studies Centre at the University of Mainz, in Germany, and the Groupe de Recherche Études Écossaises’ at the Univer¬sité de Stendhal, Grenoble, in France were both founded in the early 1980s. The Société Française d’Etudes Ecossaises (founded in 2000) has organised an annual conference for several years and is admirably active and productive, while the younger Society for Scottish Studies in Europe, founded in Germany in 2011, is also setting up conferences and actively networking with scholars in the field. The Gdańsk event, like other recent, equally challenging international conferences held in recent years, managed to attract participants from different countries as well as, refreshingly, from different age groups, thus setting Scotland within a wider and more articulate European debate where, after all, it also belongs. Possibly unlike previous conferences it managed to reach an ideal balance between ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ – between Scottish and non-Scottish scholars – and thus to blur a distinction that has never been explicitly stated, but that has haunted Scottish studies since its beginning.
So, no, the death of the ‘Scottish literature project’ is not at all imminent. This is a project that has been shaped and nourished in the course of many decades by Scottish writers (shall we set its beginning with the Scottish Renaissance in the early 20th century?), and is now out there, being acknowledged and revitalised beyond Scotland’s borders. At least as a literary/cultural entity Scotland, is today an independent country. This is no minor result and does deserve both recognition and celebration.
1) Alan Bisset, “Scotland’s no vote has forced its artists to rediscover ambiguity”, Guardian, 15 October 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/15/scotland-no-vote-artists.
2) The conference programme is available at http://noweszkoty.com/conference-2015/.
3) Edited by Monika Szuba. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, 2015. For more information see: http://noweszkoty.com/tag/boundless-scotland/.