LAST week, we introduced the most neglected tradition in Scottish literature, poetry in Latin, now available to a new readership in the Association for Scottish Literary Studies publication Corona Borealis: Scottish Neo-Latin Poets on King James VI and his Reign, 1566–1603, edited by Steven J Reid and David McOmish. Here Alan Riach and the philosopher Alexander Broadie, emeritus professor of logic and rhetoric at Glasgow University, discuss how this tradition arose.

Alan Riach: Alexander, I share with you the sense that the idea of “Scottish literature” could do with some expansion. The category of “literature” isn’t closed. When we introduce the work of secular and religious philosophers, we open enquiries into matters of meaning and value that complement, rather than rival, the work of poets, fiction writers and playwrights. Where would you begin to outline this territory?

Alexander Broadie: One way is to raise the old question of the canon. Overwhelmingly, in the Middle Ages, writing by Scots, within or outwith Scotland, was closely related to matters of religion and theology, and it was written in Latin.

Alan: But also even beyond the philosophical and theological areas, there’s a substantial contribution to Scottish literature in Latin in the form of poetry. So do you think we could be more inclusive and say that the Scottish literary canon should include not only poems in Latin but also religious and theological work in Latin?

Alexander: Indeed, yes. Theological writings are deeply embedded, not fiction or poetry but, for example, commentaries on “The Sentences” of Peter Lombard – that was the main educational text in theology in the Middle Ages. By profession, I’m a philosopher, and most of the primary sources I study are in Latin, and these are hardly recognised within the Scottish literary community on the whole.

Alan: Let alone the wider public!

Alexander: I say this not aggressively or competitively but to emphasise there is still so much more to bring into our understanding of the subject.

Alan: And of Scotland, the whole inherited cultural file. We’re talking about education, in the broadest sense, which in so many ways is under threat these days. Where to begin?

Alexander: The beginning. The Scottish universities came into being in the 15th century, so let’s go back before that. At this time, Scottish scholars went abroad for a university education. Partly that meant England, but England didn’t take many Scottish students because times were troubled.

Travelling from the Scottish Borders to Oxford or Cambridge meant crossing dangerous territories. So Scottish students would travel by sea to the continent, to Paris or to Bologna in Italy. For example, Richard de Victor’s Latin name is Ricardo de Sancto Victore Scotus. He died around 1173. At that time, “Scotus” and “Hibernicus” or Scottish and Irish were distinctly identified, so we should call him Richard the Scot to emphasise the point. His book De Trinitate is centred on the concept of love. The Trinity is generated by successive acts of love, so the world is generated by love. The practical theological aspect of this is love of your neighbour and love of God.

Then there was John Duns Scotus, who came from Duns, in the Borders, before any Scottish university existed. On his tomb in Cologne there’s an inscription that reads, “Scotland bore me, England brought me up, France taught me and Cologne holds my bones”.

Alan: He was a great European, a brilliant intellect who bestrode academia throughout Europe and was immensely influential and widely recognised internationally. And he was known throughout the Middle Ages by the name of the country he came from. So he was one of many Scots representing Scotland on the continent of Europe.

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Alexander: Yes. Now, let’s come to the universities. St Andrews was founded in 1411, Glasgow in 1451, King’s College Aberdeen in 1495: three medieval foundations, all of them with the job of protecting the truth, as the church saw it, from error and heresies. All the teachers in the first 100 years of the Scottish universities received a terrific education – in Latin – at the University of Paris, then came back to Scotland to teach.

Alan: So where did their students come from? And in what language did they learn?

Alexander: They were taught in Latin. This was the language of education, of the textbooks and it was the spoken tongue of the classroom. The Latin mass was the normal thing in the church. Even the minutes of faculty meetings were written in Latin. In the minutes of the Arts Faculty of

St Andrews, a teacher complained about the students playing football and shouting at each other – but not in Latin! Imagine the people on the terraces today shouting “Populus sumus!” (We are the people!)

Alan: So culture, wide and deep, was marinated in Latin.

Alexander: All the children in schools learnt Latin, not only the children of the lairds, but also the sons of agricultural labourers learnt Latin. One labourer’s son, John Mair, went to Cambridge, then to Paris, lived in the same house as Erasmus, became well-known, returned to Scotland to spend seven years from 1518 as principal of Glasgow University, returned to Paris and then finally back to Scotland from 1534 till his death in 1550 as Provost of St Leonard’s College, St Andrews.

By then he was in his 80s and had published more than 40 books, the last one a commentary on Aristotle. The epistolary prefaces to his writing are full of gossip, full of information about his colleagues, sometimes quite personal. This great theologian and philosopher and logician of the Middle Ages should not be excluded from the Scottish literary canon.

Alan: Wasn’t one of his students John Knox?

Alexander: Yes, indeed. Another one was George Lokert from Ayr. He became Abbot of the College of Sorbonne, theology’s headquarters in Paris, and ended up Dean of Glasgow Cathedral. William Manderston was another one, a member of Mair’s Scottish circle who became Rector of the University of Paris, then Rector of the University St Andrews. He was a fine Latin stylist on very good terms with George Buchanan.

Alan: And Buchanan was recognised throughout Europe as one of the greatest humanists of his era. And increasingly Buchanan is acknowledged not only as a crucial political thinker whose insistent argument utterly rejected the idea of any “divine right” of kingship, but also as a playwright recognised as a major figure throughout Europe, a poet, a playwright, a man of letters and a man of ideas, a philosopher.

Alexander: And thus is the canon revised!