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1st World Congress of Scottish Literature - 1st July 2014

Opening Address - Glasgow University

Chancellor, Principal, Vice Principal, Delegates

I would like to congratulate Murray and others at this university for their work in bringing together this first World Congress of Scottish Literature.   In recognising the value of  such a congress they and their six partner institutions and organisations pay a great service and tribute not just to this country but also to the universal cause of literature, free expression and excellence.    

Many of you have travelled far to be with us for this congress. On behalf of the Scottish Government I would like to extend the hand of welcome to you all. As international scholars working in university departments around the world, Scotland is indebted to you for your protection and promotion of our cultural heritage. 

We are doubly fortunate to have you here at this  exciting time. 

This is, an auspicious year for Scotland. Only last month we celebrated the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. In a mere 20 days from now, a possible television audience of a billion will watch on as this city plays host to the Commonwealth Games. And, of course, this September our nation will decide on its constitutional future –  and the significance of  that  debate and decision will not be lost on an audience such as this. 

It is therefore more than fitting that we are also celebrating this year the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley

The critic, George Lukacs famously venerated Waverley as the prototype of the historical novel in modern times. This might be a slight overstatement of the case but it is certainly true that Scott popularised historical fiction and established it as a genre in its own right. 

Waverley marks a break from the eighteenth century novel of manners where social realities are described with little attention to historical change. There is no escaping history in Waverley - just as there is no escaping history in our own lives.   In  Edward Waverley we are afforded a window onto the struggles and antagonisms of Scottish and indeed English history. 

For a time it was fashionable to dismiss Scott as irrelevant, verbose and arcane.   

But I have never forgotten reading ,with enormous excitement as a young student ,of Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University,  “Old Mortality”  which warns about circumstances in which  faithfulness can degenerate into fanaticism but which also respects belief and integrity.  It remains with me as a powerful message just as Scott remains to me a writer who always repays study and who has probably done more to advertise Scotland to the world than any other, save Burns.      

That fact is celebrated in the form in the Scott Monument – the so-called Gothic Rocket – in the heart of our nation’s capital. 


The monument is the largest to any writer anywhere in the world.  

And, befitting of Scott, it has its own history of controversy and disputation. 

Indeed, there are parallels with construction of our own Parliament building in Edinburgh in that it was built following a competition; its architect – George Meikle Kemp - tragically passed away before it was completed; and the construction costs – a little over £16,000 – were far in excess of the original estimate. 

Scott was 12 when he first began studying at the University of Edinburgh – a year ahead of his contemporaries. While that would be inconceivable to us now, there are some elements of the education system that would be reassuringly familiar. 

Hume called that period  the “historical age” and, by the time Scott was attending his first Greek classes under Professor Dalzell, Scotland had already started to reap the benefits of a highly developed university system. Our universities  were looking  to France and the Enlightenment to forge a uniquely Scottish and uniquely practical branch of humanism. 

Scotland,  was well on the way to becoming a nation of the mind  and, we can be proud that we are continuing with that heritage. 

No other comparable small country has 5 universities in the world's top 200.

Indeed, the latest report from the Office of National Statistics shows that Scotland is the best educated country in Europe in terms of the proportion of the working age population with a higher qualification. 

For its part, this university has consistently occupied a place among the top 40 universities in Europe. It has been at the forefront of our efforts to extend our global reach and I am pleased to see that, in conjunction with this congress, two Commonwealth Games 2014 Studentships will be made available to commonwealth students from outwith the UK for any aspect of Scottish Studies. 

Along with our other universities, Glasgow has also been working hard to open its doors to students from a much wider range of backgrounds. Today, around one in four of the Scottish domiciled students at the university come from 40% of the most deprived areas in Scotland. 

That is important.    And, for an international audience, it is worth pausing on just for a moment because it is where I think that Scottish education most differs from the UK’s. 

In Scotland, there are two fundamental principles which underpin our approach. 

These will not be lost on scholars of Scottish literature or history.

The first principle can be traced back to our first national parliament and the very inception of public education in Scotland.

It is the belief that education should always – always – be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. Universal free education was born here in Scotland and – because of the decisions of this current Scottish Government of which I am proud to be a part - university education remains free for Scottish students. 

The second is that education is a societal, not an individual, good. 

In other words, when we invest in education, we are not merely investing in individuals for their own personal gain but in the future of our society and the future of our nation. 

These principles are doubly important because they reinforce our cultural self-confidence.

It is true to say that, historically, we have not always celebrated our literary achievements as we might. 

In Scotland, Scottish literature, despite its global reach, has in the past been undervalued as a national literature. 

The Scots are not unique in this. 

Other national literatures in countries which have emerging political consciousness have struggled to various extents, with the idea of cultural legitimisation and cultural dispossession.

Scott’s writing itself tells of an identity crisis engendered by the experience of union and empire. 

Repeatedly in his writing, national identity struggles to assert itself against the experience of cultural dispossession. Memorably, in Scott’s novel, Guy Mannering, the travelling people become the custodians of the Scottish folk tradition – and, the Scots are left dispossessed of what should have been theirs. 


In our popular culture, the same themes can be at play.

At its worst, this has swung between riotously emphatic national clichés and nagging self-doubt. 

One impact of this has been that we have been left with a legacy of thinking that other stories are more important or more valid than ours. That somehow culture is always happening elsewhere. 

But, there is progress. 

Politically, the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament after a 300 year absence has had a profound impact on every aspect of the life of our nation. We have reconnected with ourselves democratically and have gained confidence as a result. 

Our culture is flowering and this conference is itself a sign that we are reconnecting with ourselves. 

It celebrates a national literature that is  wide ranging in its diversity and of the highest  quality. 

14 years ago – just a year after our Parliament was reconvened - a watershed was reached when the MLA recognised Scottish literature formally as a distinct literature. Some of you – perhaps many of you – will have been among the 12,000 delegates at that first session on Scottish literature in Washington DC. 

That fact reminds me, momentarily at least  ,of another watershed moment in the modern Scottish story.   When Winnie Ewing won the ground breaking Hamilton by-election in 1967 to become not only  the second SNP MP in history but also the start of continuous Parliamentary representation for the party, she told the waiting crowds outside Hamilton Town Hall “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”, words that I used  as the title  for the book when I edited her biography

Because, since  that MLA conference, Scottish literature has been steadily getting on, in   and on to, the world. . 

In 2006, there was a major three day event on Scottish Romanticism in World Literatures at the University of California at Berkeley– again some of you will have been there and heard papers delivered by such scholars as Cairns Craig, Robert Crawford, and yourself, Murray (Pittock). 

In 2009, there was a conference in Prague on Burns – and, a growing number of important Scottish Studies collaborations are appearing around the globe. 

Indeed in March, I was lucky enough to visit  the University of Otago in New Zealand  to speak and to see  at first hand the work that Liam McIlvanney, who is here today,  and other scholars are doing as  major Scottish Studies partner there. 

Closer to home, there are other signs that Scotland  and its distinctive literary voice is getting on. 

A generation of Scottish children and young people are finally reconnecting with Scottish history and literature. 

Through the Scottish Parliament, we have been able to take the crucial step of promoting Scottish Studies and Scottish texts in our schools – and, this year, our first pupils will gain the new Scottish Studies qualification. We have also been able to make changes to the Higher English exams to ensure that every pupil taking them will study Scottish, as well as other, texts.

For an international audience such as this one, that might seem uncontroversial enough.

 Indeed, it might seem inconceivable that we would do otherwise.

Yet, in the current political context, some have seen the teaching of Scottish literature and Scottish history in our schools as tantamount to preaching sedition.   Indeed my attempts to have a Scottish text taught to our Higher Pupils was described at the time by my Labour shadow as “brain washing”.  

But in fact to  fail to teach Scottish literature and Scottish history in schools, is to risk having a generation of Scottish children and young people who are strangers in their own country. 

The point was put well by an alumnus of this University , Robin Jenkins, in his novel Fergus Lamont 

At one point in the book, the   teaching protagonist of the novel, John Calderwood is taking his class through the history of the Clearances, in a school where the teaching of Scottish history is forbidden. Ultimately, he is found out. The headteacher, Mr Maybole, turns up at the classroom and says to him: 

“I must warn you. You are filling these children’s minds with poison. You are under-mining their confidence in legally constituted authority. It’s a mistake to study the history of one’s own country. It divides us instead of uniting us. Why bother with stuff so out of date?”

Before John Calderwood has the chance to respond, a child from the slums of Gantock – the fictional town in which the novel is set – speaks up immediately to say: 

“It isnae out of date Mr Maybole. People are still being pit oot o’ their hooses”.

I am passionate about Scottish literature and Scottish history because I understand – as I assume that an audience such as this understands – that, to move forward as a nation, we need to know who we are and how we came here.   So that people are no longer “pit oot o’ their hooses”.  

Through our literature, we not only connect with we are, were and may be – but, we also gain a window onto the world. 

You exemplify that point yourselves. You illuminate our literature with cosmopolitan critical theories and you see parallels with other literary traditions. You are working at the frontier of knowledge about our nation’s literature. 

Few could deny the global reach of  that literature

In 2011, when the Chinese vice-premier visited Scotland, I noted that he had a copy of Adam Smith’s ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ – indeed, he carries it with him everywhere.

A few years ago, when I was Culture Minister  had the privilege of giving dinner in the Scottish Parliament to the Nobel prizewinner Wole Soyinka  (a fellow member of PEN) .  Afterwards , on an impulse, I walked him the few yards up the royal mile to stand by the statue of Robert Fergusson which is placed outside the Canongate Kirkyard.    We talked of Burns’ admiration of Ferguson and how a third poet - Robert Garioch - had written movingly of both and that very place in one of his Edinburgh sonnets.   

We made connections , just as his marvellous play “Death & The Kings Horseman” connects the experience of cultural alienation to readers such as myself when we think of the Highland Clearances and the old crofter at the start of the Crimean War telling the  recruiting agent of the Duke of Sutherland who had cleared the land  ;”Since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you.”  

Our literature reveals how our culture is interwoven with other cultures and other histories. Some of these histories are more uncomfortable than others but, nonetheless, they need to be understood. 

James Robertson will speak to you in a short while. He has, of course, written the great socio-historical Scottish novel of our generation. Yet, his earlier novel, Joseph Knight, restores a vital forgotten history. Joseph Knight was a slave who sought freedom in Scotland and who, from the Sheriff of Perth in 1778 , heard a commitment of Scottish Law – that the state of slavery is not recognized by the laws of this Scottish kingdom. 

In this sense, literature therefore can provide a window on to our ambitions for social justice and human rights for all , not just in Scotland but universally. 

Through John Galt we get access to another history  - that of exile. Since it first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine almost two centuries ago, authorship of the Canadian Boat Song remains one of the great whodunits in Scottish literature .  I think the evidence is now on the side of those who deny Galt’s authorship but what is in no doubt is the ongoing strength of that poem in its expressing of the longing of exiles for their native land.   

And in thehe poetry of Sorley McLean, we get access to something else - the rich story of a three voiced nation.   

A picture of McLean hangs in my office at the Scottish Parliament. In many ways he lived two lives as a poet – the first in writing the epoch-making poems that brought Scots Gaelic poetry to life; and the second, later phase, when he translated these poems into English. 

McLean is well known for grafting a modern European intellectual awareness onto the stem of the Gaelic oral tradition. Nuclear submarines surface in his poetry and there are poems with such titles as ‘Id, Ego and Super-Ego’. His work demands that we come to it as internationalists. In ‘The Lost Mountain’, he links the experience of the Clearances on Mull – the homeland of the Clan MacLean – with the ruination of other communities around the world: 

In what eternity of the mind

will South America or Belsen be put

with the sun on Sgurr Urain

and its ridges cut in snow

In making these connections, MacLean tells us that, however local, our history is valid and worthy of the telling – and also that it can illuminate and tell us something new about the histories of others. 

And finally let us not forget that other tradition - that of understanding others.   Many Scots have helped bring the great treasures of world literature to English speakers. 

My friend  Alistair Reid, who is the finest translator of Pablo Neruda. 

Robert Garioch  again who, in his devotion to the work of the Italian poet, Guiseppe Belli, translated over 100 of his satirical sonnets from the Roman dialect into Edinburgh Scots, using a language he had learned in a prisoner of war camp.  

And Edwin and Willa Muir who championed Scottish literature through the Scottish Chapter of Pen and insisted on its independence but who also received the highest honour from the German Academy for Language and Poetry for their ground breaking translations of Kafka, Heinrich Mann and others. 

Of course, a nation’s literature – any nation’s literature – does much more than offer connections. 

At their best, the greats of Scottish literature represent what we feel because we are what they are. They hold a mirror up to ourselves and tell us what it feels to be alive in terms we understand. Theirs is a cumulative and tacit knowledge which spans history and a broad range of experience. 

In Shelley’s famous phrase, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. 

Or to put it another way, in the words of Fletcher of Saltoun which carved into the wall the Scottish Parliament, if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.

For literature is the  living memory of the nation. 

As Aristotle observed more than two millennia ago, our literature tells us the “general truths” about ourselves. 

In so doing, it can challenge us – all of humanity - to be better than we are today. 

As an elected politician, I am acutely aware of that challenge. 

It has never been made more explicit to me than at the official ceremony to mark the restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. There, Iain Crichton Smith’s poem – ‘The beginning of a new song’ - was read out so memorably by that great actor, Tom Fleming. 

The poem called on the Parliament and the freshly elected MSPs – including myself ,  at the time as the list MSP for the South of Scotland and founder member of what was then the new Parliamentary Bureau – to help Scotland “sing in a new world”:  

Let our three-voiced country

sing in a new world

joining the other rivers without dogma,

but with friendliness to all around her. 

Let her new river shine on a day

that is fresh and glittering and contemporary; 

Let it be true to itself and to its origins

inventive, original, philosophical,

its institutions mirror its beauty;

then without shame we can esteem ourselves

Perhaps above all else, Crichton Smith calls on us to show empathy – for it again is true to ourselves and our origins.  To who we are as human beings.

Perhaps above all others in our nation’s literature, Burns appeals to that same common humanity 

There is no doubt that two centuries of veneration have sometimes obscured Burns’ poetry and overlaid it with sentiment. MacDiarmid recognized the problems in a typically pugnacious 1934 essay called, ‘The Burns Cult’. There, he railed against the “bourgeois orators” who “annually befoul his memory” and called on us to re-concentrate on “the living message of Burns’ poetry”. 

The Burns scholars here will recognise that I could not do justice to his range and variety. 

Burns is nothing but multi-faceted – and the particular traditions that have accumulated around certain songs and poems give them added resonance.

I could talk about the universality of ‘A Man’s a Man’ – which again featured at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. I could reflect on the friendship of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. I could talk about the patient and long-term affections of ‘John Andreson my Jo’ or the patriotic fervor of ‘Scots Wha Hae’. 

But, I would like to focus instead on a poem which was very much out of favour for a long time but whose time has now come. The poem is ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and its subject has been close to my heart for all of my political life; Scotland’s place in the world. 

Written at Mossgiel, the poem has in the past been described as the most imitative of Buns’ works. Certainly, the influence of Gray’s ‘Elegy..’ is conspicuous as is Fergusson’s earlier ‘Farmer’s Ingle’. 

Like Scott’s ‘The Vision of Don Roderick’, the poem also uses the Spenserian stanza form. 

Yet, in his alchemy of the constituent parts, Burn’s poem fuses a power and sentiment all of its own. 

MacDairmid claimed that “mair nonsense has been talked in [Burns’] name bar any but Liberty and Christ” – and, it is true that, like other poets, he often wore his politics to suit his mood. In the past two centuries he has been claimed by Liberals, Tories and Labour alike.

Yet, it is surely incontestable that Burns believed that Scotland should not have given up her independence – something still that would have been fresh in the minds of his grandparents at least. He wrote of a Scotland that had been “bought and sold for English gold”. 

He also wrote of the need for what lay behind that sentiment. During his walks with his brother Gilbert, Burns spoke of his desire to return to a simpler, more noble, more honest existence that he saw all around him. In short, he saw a need for a better, more human, Scotland.   What we would call a social democratic Scotland - a Scotland of equality and fairness.  

Many of us still believe that such a Scotland  is possible.  That belief guides me and others and underpins all that we are trying to achieve. 

In a little over two months from now, our independence referendum represents the opportunity to renew our nation and our people. This shouldn’t involve looking back with nostalgia on an old, lost Scotland – as Burns’s grandparents might – but looking toward a new Scotland that has the confidence to stand on its own feet emotionally, morally and, yes, in its culture and literature too. 

Our nation and our people will have the kind of opportunity that Burns never could have envisaged. I am working as a member of the Scottish Government to encourage all of my fellow citizens to make real this vision of a better Scotland and a better world. 

We are inspired by precisely the same vision that Burns outlines in the last stanzas of ‘A Cotter’s Saturday Night’. 

O Scotia, my dear, my native soil

For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent

Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil

Be blest with heath and peace and sweet content

And O may heaven their simple lives prevent

From luxury’s contagion, weak and vile

They howe’er crowns and coronets be rent

A virtuous populace may rise the while

And stand a wall of fire around their much loved isle

When Gilbert Burns first heard the poet repeat these lines, he recollected being “highly electrified” – the poem “thrilled him with a peculiar ecstasy through [his] soul”. Reading them now I am left with a similarly powerful vision of a transformed Scotland, and a transformed people. We can become that virtuous populace if only we choose. We can be inspired by our country, by the remarkable times we live in and by the wonderful future we have. 

It is a vision – gifted to us through our nation’s literature and through our national Bard – that goes on inspiring Scotland, both collectively and individually. 

That it is what we are here today to study, to promulgate and to celebrate.  Thank you for being part of that.

And many of us hope that the lesson will go wider still. Wide enough to inspire a whole nation to be all it can be for everyone of its citizens.  

Wide enough to establish that fair, equal, just, open , democratic Scotland to which our national literatures  aspires. 

© Michael Russell 2014