Robert Henryson Society Newsletter
Number 5
Autumn 1996

The third year of the Robert Henryson Society saw further exciting developments in the promotion of the poet's work. The annual Conference continued to attract a good audience, well into the sixties, and the calibre of speakers and performers maintained the high standard of previous events.

The day began with the by now customary visit to the Abbot House, followed by the AGM in the Carnegie Hall Music Institute, and an excellent lunch. At the AGM, George Philp stepped down from the office of Chair of the Society. All who know George will recognise his boundless enthusiasm for the guid Scots tongue in general and for Henryson in particular, and it is his vision which has guided the Society through its early years. We owe him a debt of gratitude for all his efforts on behalf of the Society. Fortunately, he remains on the Committee, devoting his considerable energies to the ongoing project of making available a range of Henryson's poems on audio cassette, mair o whilk anon.

The main speakers at the Conference mirrored aspects of Henryson's own life: Professor Edwin Morgan is an internationally-acclaimed makar, and Gerard Baird is a schulemaister, as well as being the author of the newly-published Scotnotes on Robert Henryson. Professor Morgan considered the ways in which Chaucer, Henryson and Shakespeare all treat the character of Cresseid, whose story is illustrated on the walls of the Presence Room at Abbot House. He discussed the extent to which her punishment at the hands of the gods, her leprosy, was justified, given the weak role that men had played in her life. Intriguingly, he suggested that a modern Scottish writer should write a feminist version of Henryson's 'The Testament of Cresseid', much as Henryson had adapted and extended Chaucer's poem.

Gerard Baird also encouraged a contemporary engagement with Henryson's work. He gave a practical and inspiring demonstration that Henryson's poems could be brought to life at all levels of secondary school teaching -- and the posters on the walls of the Institute bore witness to his claims that poems such as the 'Fables of Aesop' could be both enjoyed by school pupils and used as the basis for creative writing in Scots, in the form of news reports, letters, and illustrated stories. The Spring 1995 Newsletter of this Society called for the teaching of Henryson in schools -- how good it is to know that in at least some schools this is already happening, and producing such excellent results. We can only hope that Mr Baird's example, and the availability of his Scotnotes on Henryson, help stimulate teachers elsewhere to explore innovative ways of introducing the Scots makars to a younger audience.

The Conference paid tribute to the late Matthew McDiarmid, the first President of the Henryson Society -- his inaugural address to the Society was shown on video. His enthusiasm and scholarship will be sorely missed.

The day was rounded off by a presentation of a video, conceived by George Philp and produced by Scotseen with support from the Society, of the Presence Room in Abbot House. This fine production showcases the talents of the artist Virginia Colley, whose murals of 'The Testament of Cresseid' adorn the building. The video also features readings from 'The Testament' by Professor Jack Aitken, and it serves as an excellent introduction to the poem. The video is available from the Society and should also be on sale to the public at Abbot House. Last, but not least, were readings by George Bruce, Bob Smith and Molly Rorke of excerpts from those poems by Henryson which have been lightly modernised and recorded by Scotsoun. These modern Scots versions of 'The Preiching of the Swallow', 'The Trial of the Fox' and 'Robene and Makyne' are well worth the listen -- vividly performed and soon to be accompanied by explanatory commentaries. The audiocassettes are also available through the Society or through Scotsoun. Bob Smith represented the Society at another Conference, on Mediaeval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, held at St Hilda's College, Oxford, in August 1996.

All in all, the Conference was a great success and offered considerable hope for a wider appreciation of Henryson in his ain land. The Conference also marked the beginning of my own Chairmanship of the Society, and so perhaps it is fitting to end this, my first Newsletter, with my hopes and plans for the immediate future of the Society.

First of all, I hope to build on the fine work which has been done by the previous and current Committee members. The talks and Conference are an established and popular success, and the recordings of Henryson's poems are an ambitious and laudable attempt to make the makar's work more accessible to a wider audience. The talks and Conference are obviously the foundation of the Society's work, and an exciting programme is currently being finalised for 1996-7 (not to mention 1997-8!). We hope to increase the range of audiocassettes available, and look to encourage their use for educational purposes as well as individual pleasure. Professor Aitken's guide to Middle Scots pronunciation, with particular reference to Henryson, will soon be available.

Promoting Henryson in local schools will also continue to be a main priority. In this we have been greatly helped by novelist and artist Alasdair Gray, whose work also graces Abbot House -- Mr Gray has donated a sum of money to be used to award prizes for local school pupils' illustrations of Henryson's poems. The competition for the Henryson Tassie is another incentive for schools to get involved in exploring the work of our poet. There are considerable changes occurring in Scottish education -- changes which should favour the study of Scots and Scottish literature. Teachers and pupils will be hungry for resources, and the Society should be well-placed to offer advice and encouragement as the demand grows.

Finally, in the coming year we hope to strengthen our ties to like-minded groups by having a short column detailing the Society's activities, in the Association for Scottish Literary Studies Newsletter, Scot Lit. We also hope to feature our mediaeval makar on the information superhighway, by setting up a 'Henryson Home Page' on the World Wide Web. This will mean that information about Henryson, and the activities of the Henryson Society, will be available internationally to those computer-users linked to the Web by the Internet.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Society's work, and will do my best to serve its goals. I also look forward to getting to know the members of the Society better, and to hearing your views on what the Society should be doing. Don't hesitate to buttonhole me at any of the coming year's meetings!

With best wishes,

John Corbett
Autumn, 1996


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