Strangers on the doorstep: International Travelers at Scottish Authors’ Houses

Since at least the eighteenth century, if Scottish literature travelled abroad, readers from around the world headed to Scotland. They established pilgrimage routes for celebrity culture following pathways laid out through the poems of “Ossian,” the novels of Walter Scott, the life of Robert Burns, the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson. Today, they pursue a Scotland mapped across time and place by Diana Gabaldon, or translated into fantasy by J. K. Rowling. Yet they also follow Spark to Oliveto, Carlyle to London. This round table invokes theories of travel and tourism, and the traffic in ideas, to understand the affective relations between authors and readers who are on the move—from elsewhere to Scotland, and from Scotland to elsewhere.

A society increasingly mobile in mind through international publishing, and capable of pursuing the ideas and authors that compelled them to their places of origin, raises questions. For example, for Scotland:

  • Who are these readers?
  • What networks do they establish between one place and another?
  • What literary pathways bind and separate us as European cultures?
  • Where are the inner/outer limits of the world of Scottish writing?

And on the larger, theoretical scale:

  • How do writers and readers remap the literary and physical world?
  • To what degree does “author love” recast creativity as commerce?’
  • What challenges does such a reader/writer dynamic bring to knowledge?
  • How does it construct or undermine a literature considered “national”?
  • Can it rework established theories?

In discussion, experts on authors’ houses as cruxes for creativity between writers and readers will pursue these questions, and project the directions of study that literary tourism suggests, especially in Scotland.

Nigel Leask: Ossian tourists on the Doorstep

This discussion will focus especially on Scottish, English and European tourists visiting the homes of noted Ossianic verse collectors in the Scottish Gaidhealtachd 1780-1810. There are numerous accounts in the travel literature and some fascinating exchanges which tell us a lot about responses to the first work of Scottish literature with international appeal. Discussion can be broadened out to include visits to other contemporary Scottish writers homes – Abbotsford, Dumfries, Edinburgh. 

Richard Hill: Robert Louis Stevenson and the art of intrusion

As a famous traveler through the Pacific at the end of the nineteenth century, Robert Louis Stevenson had many temporary homes. A significant, albeit brief, home was the Waikiki shore of Honolulu, provided by friends of the Hawaiian royal family.  In his “grass hut” he would attempt to write between the visits of Honolulu society, from King Kalakaua himself to pestering haole fans of his popular works. However, such intrusions were also part of his mission in the Pacific, because his grand ethnographical project required that he intrude himself on peoples and societies in order to record them.  Stevenson could prove a pest himself, when it suited him. Vailima, Stevenson’s grand “Big House” in Samoa, is a type of intrusion, one he himself satirizes in “The Bottle Imp”, as Keawe first dreams of, then realizes, such a house for himself on the volcanic shores of Kona. What mattered to Stevenson was the nature of the intrusion.  It was one thing to be visited by nuisance haoles, but quite another to be interrupted by the young Princess Kaiulani, royal daughter of an Edinburgh businessman. As exemplified by the grass hut, Stevenson attempted to make his own intrusions welcome and constructive, in opposition to the typical colonial conquest of the Pacific by the British, Americans, and Germans.

Carla Sassi: Muriel Spark — an Italian author?

We all know and give for granted that writers think and create in the “third space” of cultural encounter — the history of literature is indeed a history of contaminations and appropriations across borders. However, we often think of such encounters exclusively or mainly in terms of (high) literary connections — intellectual encounters that do not imply any form of attachment to or involvement in a specific place. And yet, writers who travel to or settle in different countries often engage with and elaborate from different aspects of the cultures they inhabit. “Foreign” visions, habits, popular culture, landscapes may have an impact on a writer’s texts and literary imagination as important as that of established literary models. The title of my area of investigation is provocative — for a long time regarded by many as un-Scottish for her “cosmopolitan” outlook, Muriel Spark was eventually included in the Scottish canon, but largely on the basis of her occasional engagement with Scottish life and culture. The “Italian” Muriel Spark (Spark lived half of her life in Italy) has remained largely uninvestigated. I will contend, among other things, that it is not fruitful either to deal with the layers of her literary imagination in a “devolved” manner (e.g. a “Scottish” Spark vs and “Italian” Spark), or to consider her as an uprooted cosmopolitan.  

Caroline McCracken-Flesher: Fake Scots meet Fake Tourists…

Walter Scott’s house at Abbotsford often is dismissed as a “Conundrum Castle.” The description is taken from Scott. Yet careful attention to the author’s remarks suggests that the conundrum lies less in the venue than with the viewer. Scott goes on: I have great pleasure in it, for while it pleases a fantastic person in the stile and manner of its architecture and decoration it has all the comforts of a commodious habitation.” By its origin in Scott’s fictions, its embedded artefacts, its twists and turrets, Abbotsford beseeches a visitor’s investment. It is constructed to enhance their propensity to mystification. But its reality is prosaic—it is a comfortable family home.

My discussion will introduce the idea that Abbotsford operates as a “fake out” that has flipped its dynamic between site and sight-see-er. Scott’s work and life, and any intentions he may have had about Abbotsford, have faded from memory. His house, however, has encoded a discourse of encounter that today is purveyed through National Trust properties and twenty-first-century experiential tourism. During Scott’s lifetime, hordes of visitors turned up on his doorstep. They sought an authentic connection, often established by means of an introduction—an initiation to the mysteries of the Author of Waverley and the house he had authored. Reading today’s encounters with Abbotsford through Dean MacCannell’s understanding of the touristic gaze, and Grant McCracken’s analyses of consumption, we might consider the tourist, who expects authenticity, perversely to be the phenomenon by which Abbotsford is produced as authentic. For the 2020s, a visit to Abbotsford, even for the least knowing guest, involves an exchange of simulacra between venue and viewer that Abbotsford, itself, has constituted.

Introducing these ideas should stimulate discussion of international authors’ houses as sites of authenticity, and about the inauthenticity of their modeling—insofar as that modeling is derived from Scotland, and from Abbotsford.

Sarah Jones: ‘A box in the world theatre’: the Carlyles’ houses and geographies of interconnection

The title alludes to the interconnected lives the Caryles lived – their fragile yet powerful networks of intimacies with people, places, possessions and property. I will talk to the Carlyles’ houses – in Scotland and London – in the creation of imagined communities (contemporaneous to the Carlyles, and for modern-day audiences who visit the Carlyles’ house museums and other places of significance. The influences and disturbances of visitors to the Carlyles’ residences (those ‘strangers on the doorstep’), which talks to international tourism, reception and cultural interchange.

The influence of expanded travel and modes of transportation, as well as immigration and migration – as friends and family departed Britain, globalising further the Carlyles’ outlook and circulating Carlyle’s name, works and reception (e.g., Emerson, the Carlyle Township in Australia, influences in New York and elsewhere); and as Irish, European and Americans (etc.) arrived in Britain and crossed the threshold of the Carlyles’ domestic dwellings. The Carlyles’ houses were theatres for a whole cast of nineteenth-century characters and performances: intellectuals, political exiles, revolutionaries, social reformers, Irish servants, down-and-outs, ‘lunatics’, American ‘lion hunters’, and other personalities. 

Through this lens, it would be possible to stretch the boundaries of what constitutes an author’s house … and, indeed, what constitutes an author (i.e., JWC was as much an author as Carlyle).

Calum Rodger: Little Sparta

“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks”: Little Sparta, Scotland and the World

Poet, artist and “avant-gardener” Ian Hamilton Finlay is a singular but divisive figure in the history of Scottish letters. Along with his contemporary Edwin Morgan he was instrumental in the dissemination of concrete poetry in Scotland and the UK, via his prolific correspondences with poets across Europe and the Americas, while his magnum opus Little Sparta, a garden of poetry and sculpture nestled in the Pentland Hills of southern Scotland, remains a unique achievement of 20th century art and poetry of international renown. Yet these achievements belie the deep ambivalence of Finlay’s relationship to his contemporaries, to civic Scotland, and to art in the global sense in the postmodern condition.

With regards to Finlay’s work it is possible to identify three key populations, shifting and provisional, that prove formative for the poet’s work and attitudes: a) the local: the arts and literary world of mid-late 20th century Scotland to which Finlay was deeply antagonistic, emblematised by the bureaucracy of the Scottish Arts Council and the poetics of late-career MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance; b) the international: an international network of late modernist poets in the 1950s and 60s, including those in the American Objectivist tradition and, later, the ‘international movement of concrete poetry’ (Stephen Bann), by whom Finlay was strongly influenced, until the network faded and soured somewhat in the late 1960s and early 70s; c) the historical (or perhaps the mythological): the ciphers of Western history with whom Finlay populates Little Sparta and his work elsewhere – among them Heraclitus, Virgil and Rousseau and, more problematically, French revolutionaries Robespierre and Saint-Just.

The notion of “fraternity” is crucial for understanding Finlay’s work and how the poet himself viewed it; indeed it is no exaggeration to say that at every point in his career Finlay is explicitly making his work in collaboration or in conflict with these distinctive populations. The shifting ways in which he does so teaches us much not only of Finlay’s work, but also of trends and currents in late 20th century poetry and thought and – more significantly still – questions of belonging and value fundamental to democratic thought in a globalised, secular age.