Professor Nigel Leask - Scott's Antiquary and the Ossian Controversy

On Thursday 6th October 2016 we had a talk by Prof. Nigel Leask. He was introduced by our Chairman, Prof. Peter Garside:

Welcome to this year’s annual Joint Scott Lecture; and before going any further, in speaking on behalf of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, I’d like to acknowledge the essential input received from firstly our co-sponsors the English Department at the University of Edinburgh and secondly our hosts the Faculty of Advocates. Walking once more through these portals, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate location for this event, in surrounds which one could say offer a mini-history of Scott’s life just as potent as Abbotsford. Even before getting to this capacious sitting-room we pass along the even more splendid high-arched Parliament Hall, home of the original Scottish Parliament, prior to its being handed over the lawyers after the Union of 1707. It was there that senior advocates perambulated together in small groups, to avoid being overheard, shadowed by junior members such as the young Scott eager to give the impression that they too had business. Some of you might have noticed the statue of a sedentary Scott, by John Greenshields, who started his own career as an apprentice stone mason. ‘Sic Sedebat’ it says at the foot’ ‘Thus [or In this way] he sat’. Then through the now laptop-filled reading rooms of the Advocates Library, where Scott in his earlier years got vital access to manuscripts and rare books, and which of course later provided the foundation for the National Library of Scotland. One year I seem to remember the Faculty placing in this room the green leather chair which Scott occupied as a Clerk to the Court of Session. Perhaps it’s still here, and even has Scott sitting in it—in spirit at least (‘Thus’ you might say).


So, it is a great pleasure to introduce Nigel Leask as today’s speaker. Nigel was previously Reader in Romantic Literature at Cambridge, where among other things he gained a reputation for ground-breaking work on Orientalism. He is now Regius Chair in English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow (in fact, I believe he’s the third in a succession of speakers to the Scott Club from that University, indicating the high concentration of academics specialising in Scottish literature there, as well as their willingness to be called on!) . His most recent critical study is Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-century Scotland (Oxford U.P., 2010), which won the Saltire Prize for the best research monograph in 2010. His edition of Robert Burns’s Commonplace Books, Tour Journals and Miscellaneous Prose—the first volume of the AHRC [that is, Art and Humanities Research Council] funded Oxford Edition of Robert Burns’s Writings—was published in 2014. He is co-investigator of the AHRC-funded ‘Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour, 1750-1820’ (2014-18), and is currently completing a book entitled Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour 1720-1820. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a Vice-President of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

His lecture today, titled ‘Scott’s Antiquary and the Ossian Controversy’, seems timely on two counts: first, in view of this year being the bicentenary of Scott’s novel of that name; and secondly in the light of renewed interest in the fields of literary antiquarianism and romantic nationalism. It will examine Scott’s presentation of the Ossian debate in The Antiquary as one aspect of the contentious discussion about Scottish identity and ethnicity, relating it to his 1805 Edinburgh Review essay on Ossian, and suggesting that it plays a more significant role in the novel than has hitherto been recognised.