The Robert Henryson Society

Newsletter: September 1999

August conference

Our annual conference was held at Dunfermline in the Abbey Church Hall on Saturday August 14. This year, the conference had been moved from its usual May date as an experiment to see if we could increase our attendance by timing the event to follow the major Medieval Literature conference at St Andrews. In the event, approximately twenty people attended. This was in fact something of a drop in numbers from previous years and may suggest that, while we gained two or three attenders from the St Andrews conference, we lost numbers overall, perhaps because August is such a holiday month for many people. The Committee will want to review the timing of next year's conference in the light of this year's experiment.

The day itself went smoothly, ably organised by a team led by Morna Fleming. The afternoon was led off by the presentation of excerpts from previous conferences prepared by George Philp from his video records. The theme of the recordings, focusing on members no longer with us, might have been melancholy. In fact, as we approach the Millennium, it was a celebration of the wisdom and knowledge shared with us before these speakers' departure and a reminder that the society represents a continuous flow of study and understanding. The sense of a continuing understanding was reinforced by Rod Lyall's paper, which examined 'varieties' of Henryson. Professor Lyall demonstrated the range of his grasp of Henryson studies as he analysed perspectives within which Henryson has been studied and framed by those who explored his work. In a detailed and deft way, he explored the ways Henryson has been seen, for example, inter alia, as a nature poet, as a humanist and as a moralist. In so doing, he reminded us of both the complex depths of Henryson's work and the range of responses we, as readers and critics, bring in our expectations and readings of him. The final speaker had been expected to be John MacQueen, who unfortunately was obliged to cry off for medical reasons. Morna and I felt that the best way forward at short notice might be for me to present a paper on the development process of my new play, to be produced by Perth Theatre next May on the theme of the life and death of that other great makar, James I. Conference attenders kindly accepted this late switch, which allowed the day's themes to be developed even further as we moved from the past to the future, looked across the range of renaissance poetry making and reviewed in the final paper progress towards an event not yet come about!

Programme 1999-2000

The next year's programme of events is now in place and promises to be as lively and varied as ever. In October, there will a visit to the National Library of Scotland to visit the Manuscript Room, to view some of the precious manuscripts in the National Library's collection and to hear of the work of the Manuscript Department, with a particular emphasis on its holdings from Henryson's day.

In November, Molly Rorke is following the theme of the broader context of Henryson studies by presenting a paper on the Mystery Makar. Molly has some fascinating ideas to present and will be taking us on a mystery tour arising form her recent research.

In February, Antoinette Watkins of the National Museum of Scotland will be visiting us to discuss with us the conception and execution of the national Museum. This is not a review of the architecture of the building. It is rather an intellectual and creative exposition of the conceptual nature of a Museum of Scotland, the ways in which our concept of Scotland may be shaped by what survives as artefacts and the ways in which the Museum itself may become a force in shaping our views of our own life and culture.

In March, the Cheese and Wine Party, normally held in November, will be held at Abbot House. We have moved the party to this time partly to take advantage of what we hope will be more clement weather and partly to make the event the social culmination of the year's meetings in anticipation of the Annual Conference later in the summer.

Charlotte McNaughton

As you will all know by now, our Treasurer, Charlotte McNaughton, died in July. It would be idle for me to try to provide an obituary, something which has been done to far greater effect and appropriateness in the celebration service held in The Abbey Church of Dunfermline. What I would wish to record is the sense of gratitude we felt as Committee members to Charlotte for her untiring and generous work as treasurer. She was a direct and supportive colleague, a keen contributor to debate at committee and moved by, a deep enthusiasm for Henryson and his poetry.

On a personal note, I was touched and delighted by the warmth of her response when she attended the Queen Margaret University College event in March, when drama students gave readings of selected Moral Fables. Her praise for and kindness to the students involved was deeply appreciated by them and her enjoyment of the evening was for me a very clear token of her love of Henryson's work.

She will be much missed.

Henryson Tassie

We have now awarded the Henryson Tassie for the first time to St Margaret's Primary school and following discussion at the AGM will, next year, award it to a individual who has made a distinguished contribution to Henryson studies. So, we will establish a pattern of year about awards, firstly to a local institution, then to an individual. We have also raised sponsorship to allow us to run the schools' competition for which Alasdair Gray has donated a prize. And we have, of course, maintained our programme through the year and planned that for next year.


This newsletter constitutes my envoi as chairman. When John Corbett phoned me last year and asked if I would act as Chair for a year, as he had to go to Brazil on sabbatical, my sense of his good fortune was tinged somewhat by my sense that I was unsure I would be able to cover adequately for him. I have done my best over what has been a busy year for me, and I hope I leave the Society in good heart.

We believe that the challenge facing the society over the next year is to identify its role, either as a small specialist society - and nane the waur o that! - or as a more generalised medieval and renaissance literary society. Soundings suggest that we may want to focus on the former, but encourage the creation of a network of other focused societies, such as the new Dunbar Society, of which we could be a willing partner for federal events and conferences. These are matters which the Committee will want to review and take further as appropriate. There is much work to be done.

Ian Brown
12 September 1999

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