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Symposium report: Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literature

Jessica Reid (University of Glasgow) & Heather Wells (University of Glasgow)

 

[1] The Scottish seventeenth century has traditionally been viewed as ‘the awkward bit in between’ ‘Reformation and Renaissance’ on the one hand and ‘Improvement and Enlightenment’ on the other, ‘with no similar dominant theme to give it unity’.[1] Until recently, much of the literature of the seventeenth century in Scotland has been neglected. The organisers of the Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literature set out to bring researchers in this area together to take stock of the current landscape. The range and volume of papers given over the course of the symposium, as well as the number of attendees (96 in the best attended paper, 175 over the whole event) proved just how far the field has come.

[2] The symposium took place entirely online from the 17th-19th February 2021. Organised by post-graduate researchers at the University of Glasgow, it attracted speakers from as far away as Padua, California and Saskatchewan as well as closer to home. The thematic focus was left deliberately open; we wanted enough flexibility to provide a sense of this ‘neglected’ century and the state of the field today. As the call for papers was written, the following questions arose:

  • Is it possible or desirable to arrive at a canon for the Scottish seventeenth century?
  • Why has this century proven so troublesome to critics of Scottish literature?
  • More positively, how have researchers begun to make sense of the seventeenth century?
  • Does this century, more than others, require us to become interdisciplinarians, dabbling, for instance, in history and theology?

[3] When the committee met to discuss the veritable bounty of abstracts received, it was striking that despite the diversity of papers, the same common themes emerged and papers easily organised themselves into panels covering topics such as learned women, northern renaissances, new texts, and multilingualism.

[4] Prof. Alasdair A. MacDonald gave the opening keynote and kicked off proceedings with the question ‘Why is the Scottish literature of the seventeenth century so little-known?’ His own suggestions included monoglot researchers; an aversion to anything of a religious sort; and the challenges which the century poses to entrenched twenty-first-century ideas of nation.

[5] Over the course of the few days, eighteen speakers, including established academics, early-career researchers and postgraduate students, undertook to overcome such barriers. Writers usually left outwith the fold due to limited ideas of national or religious identity were reclaimed (Lilias Skene, Catherine Trotter Cockburn). The definition of literature was itself extended to include calligraphy (Esther Inglis) and textile (the Thrissels banner). National and nationalist boundaries were interrogated and found to be more friable than is ordinarily assumed. As Dr Allison Steenson pointed out, the distinctions of Scottish/English, Catholic/Protestant, Scot/Gael, Anglo-Brit/Scoto-Brit are not as clear as we might want them to be. Scottish literature from the seventeenth century challenges these distinctions by its very nature.

[6] It was an invigorating experience and perhaps our only regret as organisers was that it only lasted three days. The freshness of the topics combined with the energy of the delegates made for animated discussions at all panels, with much still left unsaid. Dr Kirsten Sandrock closed proceedings with a double boon: a keynote on ‘Rereading Failure’, which also marked the launch of her book Scottish Colonial Literature: Writing the Atlantic, 1603-1707 (Edinburgh University Press). She explained that when evaluated with traditional apparatus, Scotland’s seventeenth-century colonial endeavours are unsuccessful and that as a result of this perspective, Scottish Atlantic literature from the period has also been characterised as failing. Throughout the symposium, seventeenth-century Scottish literature was found to be ‘out of line’ with a progressivist understanding of literature and Dr Sandrock added her voice to those symposium contributors who sought, in the words of Dr Theo van Heijnsbergen, ‘to meet Scotland in its own timetable, in its own perspective’.

[7] Aside from drawing attention to several new and burgeoning research areas, the symposium brought home the importance of studying a period when many of the knottiest, most contradictory, and at times shameful aspects of Scottishness were formed; nationalism (be that Scottish, British, or Scoto-British), colonialism (both at home and abroad), the slave trade. It was also the seventeenth century that birthed the Scottish newspaper, novel, short story, and professional theatre. The Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literature provided a chance to pull back the curtain on well-worn, comfortable definitions of literature, nation, language, and the intersection of all three, and to witness the processes by which they were negotiated.

 

[8] The committee have begun preparations for a collection of essays on seventeenth-century Scottish literature. To join our mailing list and be kept abreast of the latest developments, contact 17thcenturysymposium@glasgow.ac.uk and keep an eye on your spam folder, where our emails sometimes end up. 

 

[9] The Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literature was funded by the Tannahill Fund for the Furtherance of Scottish Literature and the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow.

NOTE

[1] David Stevenson, ‘Twilight before night or darkness before dawn? Interpreting seventeenth-century Scotland’ in Why Scottish History Matters, ed. by R. Mitchison (Tillicoultry: Saltire Society, 1991), pp. 37-47: p. 37.