Scottish Studies Profile: Professor Liam McIlvanney

OtagoI grew up in a fairly bookish household in Kilmarnock, so Scottish literature was part of my furniture from an early age. This being Ayrshire, Robert Burns was inescapable. The park I played in as a kid had a jaggy sandstone space-rocket called the Burns Monument at its centre. Every town in the district had its Burns connection. We were taken to the Burns Cottage in Alloway, the kirkyard in Mauchline, the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton. We shopped for school shoes in the Burns Precinct. And we learned the poems. I still have the Burns Federation certificate I got for reciting ‘To a Mouse’ in 1979.

Burns was everywhere, except – it seemed – the schools. He wasn’t the kind of poet you studied in class. Certainly not at secondary school, where Scottish history and Scottish literature were barely mentioned. At primary school we did the usual dramatic episodes from Scottish history, presented as parables or fairy tales: Bruce and the Spider, Wallace and the Bickering Bush, Bonnie Prince Charlie speeding over the sea to Skye. But at secondary school it was ‘proper’ History with facts and factors, causes and effects: Palmerston and the Concert of Europe; the Industrial Revolution; the South Sea Bubble.

Things weren’t much better at Glasgow University, where I went to study English Literature in the late 1980s. Because Glasgow had – and still has – a separate Department of Scottish Literature, we did practically no Scottish texts in the Eng Lit classes. We were reading Scottish literature in our spare time – we devoured Lanark and dissected A Disaffection in the Biko Bar of the Queen Margaret Union – but not much of this stuff made it on to the syllabus. Instead, I studied American literature with Andrew Hook, Romanticism with Richard Cronin and metaphysical poetry with David Newell. These were inspirational teachers, but no-one had much to say about Scottish literature. I think we did Dunbar and Henryson, briefly, as ‘Scottish Chaucerians’ in the medieval paper, but that was it. No Burns. No Scott. No MacDiarmid. No Spark.

No surprise, then, that my research topic, when I embarked on postgraduate study, wasn’t Scottish. After graduating from Glasgow, I went to Oxford to start a D. Phil on the Irish Literary Revival. I then found myself getting interested in the twentieth-century Belfast poet, John Hewitt. Through Hewitt I discovered Ulster-Scots poetry and the work of the ‘rhyming weavers’ of Antrim and Down, on whom Hewitt had written his 1951 MA thesis at Queen’s University Belfast. The weaver poets were Presbyterian radicals and heavily indebted to Robert Burns, and so I soon found myself settling on Burns and Presbyterianism as my research topic. The result was a D. Phil thesis on ‘The Poetry of Robert Burns in its Religious Context’, which, after considerable revision and additions, became Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Tuckwell, 2002).

Studying Scottish literature at Oxford was a curious experience. I was lucky to have a very acute and conscientious supervisor in the Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue. But what I remember most about my time at Oxford is the excitement surrounding Irish Studies. Roy Foster had just arrived as the Carroll Professor of Irish History. Seamus Heaney was the Professor of Poetry. Tom Paulin was living in the city, and would shortly be appointed to a lectureship at Hertford. Among the English faculty, John Kelly, Terry Eagleton and Bernard O’Donoghue marshaled an eager phalanx of Irish graduate students working on Yeats and Joyce and Beckett. The Irish President, Mary Robinson, and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, both visited Oxford during my time there. The contrast with Scottish Studies was rather marked. The whole experience brought home to me the need for Scottish Studies to have an institutional presence outside Scotland. It also showed me the potential significance of comparative Irish-Scottish Studies.

After Oxford, I spent ten happy years at the University of Aberdeen, teaching Scottish (and sometimes Irish) literature alongside colleagues like Isobel Murray, George Watson, David Hewitt, Patrick Crotty, Ali Lumsden and Shane Murphy. I also benefited from the lively research culture generated by Aberdeen’s Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, under the directorship, first, of Tom Devine, and latterly of Cairns Craig. Out of this came a collection of essays I co-edited with Ray Ryan, Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society, 1700-2000 (Four Courts, 2005). More recently, I have tried to extend my Irish-Scottish interests in the direction of fiction. My first novel, All the Colours of the Town (Faber, 2009), is a political thriller that moves between Glasgow and Belfast to explore the contemporary ramifications of the Irish Troubles.

Earlier this year, I moved to New Zealand to take up a post as the inaugural Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago. It’s been very enjoyable – and also challenging – to teach Smollett and Scott and Spark to students who have no background in Scottish Studies. I have also enjoyed discovering Scottish connections and affiliations in the work of canonical New Zealand writers. My current research focuses on the work of James K. Baxter (1926-72). The closest thing New Zealand possesses to a National Bard, Baxter was a passionate, lifelong Burnsian, having been introduced to the works of Burns by his pacifist father. He knew ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ by heart from the age of six, and alludes to Burns’s masterpiece throughout his oeuvre. His great poem, ‘Henley Pub’, for example, is a darker version of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.

Burns features not simply as an influence, but as the subject of Baxter’s writing (in the novel Horse), as the addressee of Baxter’s poetry (in ‘Letter to Robert Burns’), even as the speaker of Baxter’s poetry (in ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’). In the mid-1960s, Baxter wrote a collection of essays and talks entitled The Man on the Horse (1967), whose title essay is a masterful exposition of the symbolism of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Burns is an abiding preoccupation, a central element in Baxter’s imaginative mythology. For Baxter, Burns is talisman, bardic precursor, poetic exemplar, and the embodiment of a kind of tribal wisdom and vitality that Baxter sees as crucial to the healthy functioning of modern Western society.

James K. Baxter also spent two years of his life as the ‘Robert Burns Fellow’ at the University of Otago. The Burns Fellowship is the University’s writer-in-residence programme, and its title illustrates the surprising ubiquity of Robert Burns in the public life of Dunedin. The city’s central square – or rather Octagon – is dominated by a statue of Burns. There is a Robert Burns Hotel. There is a Burns Street. There is a suburb called Mosgiel (as well as one called Abbotsford). The University’s main Arts building is called the Burns Building. And indeed, the city was co-founded by Burns’s nephew, the Revd. Thomas Burns, a Free Kirk minister from Monkton in Ayrshire.

All this makes it very easy to feel at home, despite being 12,000 miles away from Scotland. I’m also conscious that New Zealand has a long tradition of teaching and research in Scottish literature, most recently with Marshall Walker and Alan Riach at the University of Waikato. Further back there was Ian A. Gordon, editing John Galt from the University of Wellington, and Thomas Crawford working on Burns at the University of Auckland. (Crawford, indeed, finished his great Burns book – still, for my money, the finest critical study of the poet – in New Zealand, and published parts of it in the NZ quarterly, Landfall.)

For the immediate future, my energies will be devoted to the establishment and development of Otago’s new Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, in conjunction with my colleagues Peter Kuch (who holds the Eamon Cleary Chair in Irish Studies) and Angela McCarthy (Professor of Scottish and Irish History). Our hope is that the Centre will act as a focus for high-quality research into the history, literature and culture of the Irish and Scottish diasporas. My own research over the coming few years will focus principally on issues of literature and identity in relation to the Scottish Diaspora, exploring the ‘Diasporic Imagination’ – that is, examining how Scottish identity is constructed and reflected, not just in migrant journals and shipboard diaries, but in novels and stories, poems and plays. I also hope to write more novels.

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Liam McIlvanney

Liam McIlvanney is the Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, and the author of two novels, All the Colours of the Town and Where the Dead Men Go.


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