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Teaching Romanticism III: Scottish Literature

by Daniel Cook

This semester I’m convening a new upper-level undergraduate module: Scottish Literature before 1900. A couple of years ago our resident Scottish literature expert, a highly affable and active George MacDonald scholar, David Robb, retired. He had long taught two Scottish modules, one up to and including the Victorians and another on the twentieth-century Scottish Renaissance. Although I was hired at Dundee as a nineteenth-centuryist, I’m really more of a long-eighteenth-centuryist (Swift to Wordsworth, Pope to Byron). In the long term, amid some adjustments to our curriculum across the programme, I’ll be introducing some broad modules in eighteenth-century studies (a notable absence in our provisions). For the last two years I’ve been babysitting Victorian Literature; this will change when we appoint a proper Victorianist, or a long-nineteenth-centuryist at least, once the dust around our quinquennial Programme Review settles later this year. All of that information amounts to a roundabout way of saying that my modules are in flux right now. In September, more certainly, I’ll be convening a new module, The English Novel before 1900, a sort of page-saver until our Victorianist arrives. At that point said module will become more clearly one of those fairly conventional, but vital, The Rise of the English Novel classes.

Walter_Scott_Waverley_illustration_(Pettie-Huth)Why Scottish Literature before 1900, you might ask? Well, similarly, the module is in flux; the current incarnation seeks to fill some important space in our programme. After David Robb’s retirement we were left without any modules on Scottish literature, for one thing. The School of Humanities meanwhile has established a new Centre for Scottish Culture under the direction of Graeme Morton and Annie Tindley (both History), Murdo Macdonald (College of Art & Design), and myself. We have lots of collaborative projects on the slate, including an upcoming symposium on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (“Waverley at 200“). So it seems important to retain, and even build on, our provisions in Scottish literature right now. We also need to bear in mind the students’ needs, of course — I’ll get to their reaction later. For research purposes I’m also interested in a number of the authors one might, indeed ought to, include on such a module — we’ll get to authors later.

When setting up the module last year I decided to keep it in the “pre-1900” category largely for practical reasons more than for ideological ones. First, I know very little about modern Scottish literature, other than the texts we happen to teach on the period surveys at the pre-honours level (i.e. years one and two), such as Jackie Kay’s Trumpet (always popular with the first years) and poems by Carol Ann Duffy and Kathleen Jamie, among others. Dundee’s inaugural makar, W. N. Herbert, will be joining the roster, too. (A few years ago I supervised an undergraduate dissertation on William Boyd. Can’t say I was a fan of his work at that point, but cramming four fat novels into a weekend is hardly conducive to a love affair, authorially speaking.) Second, students at Dundee have to take a quota of pre-1900 modules before they graduate and we have far more options in contemporary literature. So it’s nice to balance the books. We like to use the period surveys as a feeder into the honours (i.e. upper-level) modules. Currently we use James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, to take two major examples, as a way of stirring interest in the Romantic and Gothic Literature, 1760-1830 and Crime & Detection modules. Now, hopefully, the texts will pique the interest of students who might be interested in the new-old Scottish literature module.

confessions-of-a-justified-So, let’s turn to the authors and texts. The list will change of course, particularly as I read more widely in the area in the coming years. Beginning at the end of the schedule and working backwards, I put down George MacDonald. David Robb very kindly popped into my office last year and gave me plenty of notes on him. Editions of MacDonald aren’t particularly cheap, but I’ll deal with that issue later. Hogg and Stevenson come next on the list. But which texts? I’ll return to that one, too. Walter Scott is a given, but which novel? Do we include poetry too? I like to strike a pretty even balance between poetry and prose (and drama, sometimes) in my modules, so I’ll address the “Scott conundrum” later. We need Burns, of course. We teach ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ in the second year, but it’s a poem worth repeating. ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, ‘Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn’ take their rightful place. We can always add more pieces later. Poets before Burns? Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson pick themselves. There is a decent anthology entitled Before Burns, as it happens, but I still haven’t picked the required texts. Cost will be the main factor, for obvious reasons. Other novelists? Tobias Smollett is an obvious choice, but I do worry about teaching him in isolation, that is, without Fielding or Sterne beside him. His writing is accessible, to be sure, but a lot of it needs to be explained in the tricky terms of sentimentalism, the picareque, and the like. But I’ll include him for now: Roderick Random or Humphry Clinker? The latter is more fun to read, no doubt, but Roderick Random fits well with discussions about the fall-out of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, particularly as Smollett cleverly deals with the deep-seated cultural rather than the surface-level political consequences. The novel contrasts nicely with Scott’s Waverley, certainly. And I have a hunch Roderick Random might make for better discussion on the whole.

4624434775_b9bf3dd1a5_bHow far back should the module go? Language will be an issue. Sidestepping Gaelic, we can use modern translations. Meg Bateman and Iain Chrichton Smith have produced some good translations of old favourites. Ballads proved popular on my Romantic and Gothic module, and, again, I have an ongoing research interest in balladry. So ‘Thomas Rhymer’ and ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, among others, make the cut. Hopefully the students will see the connections with their prior reading of Coleridge in particular. If not, I’ll be harping on that point all too readily. I decided to add Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel to the roster, though perhaps we won’t have sufficient time to discuss all of the cantos. (As for Scott’s novels, I have chosen Waverley for now; my other favourites include Redgauntlet, Rob Roy, and The Bride of Lammermoor. But Waverley seems to fit my initial themes better. Plus, it’s an anniversary year.) There’s a distinct shortage of woman on the module, I notice. Mrs MacGregor, Joanna Baillie and, in the latter end of the course, Elizabeth Grierson, come into the fold. There’s certainly a relative lack of female poets in the various anthologies I’ve browsed. So, in the long term, I’ll either find more comprehensive anthologies or build my own collection for the class.

765578Editions, then. David had suggested Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah’s The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, an anthology referenced extensively in Crawford’s influential history of Scottish literature, Scotland’s Books. Having looked at a couple of other anthologies (Edinburgh, Oxford), I go with the Penguin. It has a greater range of authors and is reasonably priced. Byron, I notice, is cozily nestled in the anthology. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might feature on this module, to be honest. Would it be cheating to include him? Nope. Most of the other departments in Scotland with similar modules seem to use him quite extensively. And so do the various academic press companions to or histories of Scottish Romanticism (Edinburgh, Cambridge, et al.). But to cover myself I’ll be sure to use ‘Lachin y Gair’ alongside some other pieces. Which other pieces? Tricky. Snippets of Don Juan, probably. Another key figure is James Macpherson, author of and mastermind behind the Ossian phenomenon. The Crawford anthology only includes a small shard of one of the works. So I scan-and-print some of the prose-poems in Gaskill and Stafford’s edition of Fingal. In future I’ll need to re-jig my provision of Ossian, no doubt; as I haven’t taught it before, I imagine it might prove difficult to give a sense of the style of the works (again, in the sentimental mode) without delving into the surrounding texts by David Hume, Hugh Blair, and others. There is a danger that non-fiction, such as Hume’s essay on the Ossian works, might commandeer the valuable space needed to cover a vast historical span of Scottish writing. Must watch out for that.

Increasingly, I’ve become far more interested in the literariness of literary history and, if I’m honest, in jettisoning as much historical “context” as possible. In what ways does MacDonald uphold or challenge the rules and expectations of fairy tales, or Stevenson the Gothic mode? Such questions interest me, even if I concede the importance of outlining the bare bones of Jacobitism and colonialism in order to understand the themes and burdens of the works. Indeed, one of the key aims in the Scottish Literature before 1900 module is to elucidate the contribution of Scottish writers to important literary traditions: the ballad, the fairy tale, the Gothic, the picaresque novel, and the like. Hogg’s Winter Evening Tales (or a selection, at least) therefore take a prominent place, as do some of Stevenson’s Fables and short stories, such as ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Olalla’. One day I might add ‘The Bottled Imp’ and some of the increasingly popular late pieces. But let’s see what the students suggest. Oh, right, I was going to tell you about their reaction to the module. ‘Why are you taking this module?’ ‘How does it fit in with your other modules and interests?’ I ask them, routinely, in the first session. Answers range from ‘Well, I haven’t studied Scottish literature before and, being Scottish, I felt I ought to do so’ to ‘the module includes fairy tales and Gothic writing, which I enjoyed last year’. Or, ‘I like Burns’. Or even, ‘I want to make the time to read Scott’s novels as they’re famous’. ‘I studied Adam Smith and David Hume on my philosophy modules’, as one student said, ‘and they seem to talk about Scottish literature a lot‘. Seems as good a place to begin as any: with the literature, I mean.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).


  1. […] Teaching Romanticism: Scottish Literature […]

  2. Avatar Jen Davis says:

    Sounds like a wonderful module – your students are very lucky! I’ve recently taught Scott’s Antiquary after Hogg’s Justified Sinner; there are plenty of interesting correspondences in terms of narrative voice, textual stability / instability, the construction of history, antiquarianism, etc. – and The Antiquary is funny! (A revelation for some students …)

  3. Agreed! The module sounds excellent. I’m teaching a Scott unit too this semester (for a whole ten weeks), and I’m hoping my students see not only how funny Scott is, but also that they’ll be able to engage with his wonderfully ludic metatextual games.

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