Lang Syne in Bohemia

by James Barrowman

The last time I was in Prague it was the Christmas of 2019, when my family and I decided to try something different from our usual, low-key gathering. For all of the beauty of the cityscape and the novelty of visiting another country with my mum, sister and nephews for the first time, we had found the trip ultimately unsatisfactory. It was one of those stays where you fall into the trap of following the same routes daily, circling the old town hall of mirrors until eventually you find yourself returning to your hotel, feeling as if you have been on your feet for a week yet lacking a firm understanding of the ground you have been walking on. It also felt difficult to get a glimpse of the true character of the Czech people, given the homogenising force of a tourist season. There was an understandable distance in our interactions with a citizenry surely disillusioned by the daily influx of obnoxious stag parties and hedonism-seekers. The signs of establishments designed to cater to those crowds were often jarring, as you would stumble upon a gorgeous baroque building only to discover it housed a gift shop or a massage parlour. Before I became a student of Scottish literature, I was a film undergrad who had written a dissertation on Czech cinema, so encountering Prague as I had long imagined it was still unfinished business.

By the time I travelled onwards to Hamburg, Denmark, and into 2020, mentions of the then enigmatic coronavirus were gaining traction. I had said at the time: ‘I’ll be back in Prague six months from now, for an international conference on Scottish literature, and I hope I’ll get to know it better.’ Those six months passed five times over, so that when I ventured out on the overnight journey to the much-delayed congress in June, it had a strange temporal quality. I hoped it could act as a definitive closing of the chapter that had opened in the winter of 2019, two trips to Prague acting as bookends for a truly distinctive, if miserable, period of life. Some last minute, frantic booking resulted in me having to stay out in Hanspaulka: an upmarket suburb populated with stunning Art Deco mansions, perched on a hillside adjacent to the Dukha Prague football stadium of Half Man Half Biscuit fame. I inevitably got lost on my first evening, the consequence of a dead phone and a recently untested sense of direction. It was about an hour’s walk from the university, at the heart of the old town, and I grew quite attached to following the same route this time around, incorporating liveable neighbourhoods, historic artists’ villas, and panoramic views of the skyline.

So Prague was already looking much more favourable in the summer and the conference had not yet begun. I had high hopes that the build up of anticipation alone would promise an exciting few days of discussion and debate. The coinciding of the conference with some much-awaited movement on the possibility of a second independence referendum promised some interesting nuances and perspectives. I first entered Charles University on the 22nd of June for registration, and from the start the faculty and the student assistants were a delight, always beyond helpful. The Congress Opening and the first Keynote, by Angela Esterhammer, took place in the Karolinum, one of the oldest dormitories in Europe and the university’s ‘seat of muses’. After some introductory remarks from the organisers, we were welcomed with some poetry readings: in Gaelic by Christopher Whyte, in Scots by Matthew Fitt.

A portrait of Gregor MacGregor by Samuel William Reynolds (based on another work by Simon Jacques Rochard).

The lecture, ‘Speculation, Displacement, and Transatlantic Entanglement’, set the tone superbly. It looked at a single subject in great detail, one that was brand new to many of us, and its implications reverberated in all directions: Gregor MacGregor’s fictional territory of Poyais on the coast of Venezuela, which he invented to attract investors and settlers into an elaborate financial scam. In the early 1820s, 250 settlers travelled to Poyais only to discover it was built on a foundation of lies; half of them died due to the harsh conditions. Dr Esterhammer looked at traces of the scheme, or treatments of financial speculation, in works by John Galt, Walter Scott and James Hogg. In the discussion afterwards, the full context of Poyais when considered alongside Darien and John Law’s Mississippi Bubble opened up exciting avenues for new thinking.

On to the reception, where I got a chance to introduce myself to Matthew Fitt and offer some appreciation for the Michael Marra tribute in his opening poem, ‘Lang Syne in Bohemia’ to the cadence of ‘If Dundee Was Africa’. Being the sole in-person representative from my university, it was great to wrangle Matthew, who has lived in Czechia for the last decade but remains a passionate Dundonian. His children’s book Time Tram Dundee sparked an interest in local history for a generation of the city’s library dwellers, myself included. He was present to attend and field questions after Caroline McCracken-Flesher’s paper on his sci-fi novel But ‘n’ Ben a-Go-Go, a dystopian vision of a climate changed Scottish settlement now known as ‘Port’ expressed in a futuristic projection of the Scots language. That panel, on Scottish science fiction, unfortunately clashed with another that I could not afford to miss, but it was said to have been very good and it is refreshing to see the Scottish contribution to the genre being celebrated.

The panels began on Thursday morning. Christopher Whyte gave the second keynote, ‘Leapfrogging Unionist Scotland: Insights from the 17th Century’, a self-admittedly provocative survey of a century that he argued was relatively overlooked in Scottish literary studies. A panel that same morning, ‘Place and Mobility in 17th Century Literature’, showed that while this scholarship gap may well exist, it is being addressed by the current generation of doctoral researchers. Papers by Lorna MacBean, Jessica Reid and Roslyn Potter, on William Lithgow, Thomas St. Serfe, and John Forbes respectively, would suggest that the period is at the heart of new developments in the field. Their founding of the 17th Century Symposium has surely been a significant factor in this development, and Roslyn subsequent chairing as a representative of the symposium, part of a roundtable discussion of ‘The Future of Scottish Literature Past (Pre-Union)’ proved to be a personal highlight. Papers from across the conference, including on the ‘Reception and Translation’ of Medieval and Early Modern texts, as well as the panel I appeared on ‘The Scottish Middle Ages and Representation’, established that it is an exciting time to be studying pre-Union writing from Scotland. This despite the difficulties of studying these periods at a time when they are being deprioritised in university departments across these islands.

I prioritised papers that would be delivered in-person, which often eased the pain of having to choose between some difficult clashes. I had to make an exception for the roundtable ‘Voices from the Margins: Radicalism in Literature and Arts in Post-War Scotland’, in which case all five panellists were presenting online. There was enough of a consistency between the papers and they complimented each other so well that the technical barrier was overcome. Contributions from Eleanor Bell, Scott Hames, Angela Bartie, Kate Wilson and Corey Gibson explored Scottish magazines, individually focusing in on their intersections with the folk revival, feminism, Glasgow’s community writing groups, and the wider political context of the post-war period. The panel established the richness and variety of Scotland’s magazine culture at the time, as has the work of the Scottish Magazines Network more generally, of which Scott Hames is the Principal Investigator. As well as the work here on magazines in the post-war period, a panel on ‘Scottish Popular Literature, Transnationalism, and the Periodical Press in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century’ provided Charlotte Lauder’s paper ‘Popular Scottish Magazines and Transnational Echoes of Scottishness’ and Kirstie Blair’s ‘Provincial Ayrshire and Global Islam: John Parkinson/Yehya-en-Nasr, The Crescent and The Islamic World’ – highlighting the potential of periodical study to offer fresh perspectives on Scottish literary history.

I offer this conference report for the launch of Heckle with knowledge that it hopes to play a part in addressing the relative absence of Scottish radical magazines at our present cultural moment, even if Scott’s paper ‘How Radical was Radical Scotland?’ established that the long-term editorial direction of these publications can often be unpredictable. Some of these contributions, as well as the discussion afterwards, convincingly made the point that the legacies of Scottish radicalism can, in some cases, be stifling and conservative, making it all the more vital that there are new avenues opening up in which these afterlives can be re-examined in a non-academic context.

There were unfortunately a number of wonderful panels that I was not able to attend, some of which I would like to give an honourable mention to here. It was encouraging to see a panel on Scottish Modernism that centred Nan Shepherd, with two out of the three papers dealing with her work. The Scottish modernists that are more typically placed at the forefront of the movement, MacDiarmid and Grassic Gibbon for example, were a much quieter presence at the Congress. Given that next year, the centenary of the publication of Annals of the Five Senses will no doubt offer a range of new work on Grieve and the ‘Hugh MacDiarmid: Visions and Revisions’ conference in Brest, this was a pleasant break ahead of a big year for explorations of his work. There remained dedicated panels for many of the big-hitters in Scottish literature: Burns, Scott, Hogg, Galt, Stevenson. Yet these panels were still infused with original treatments of their work, and sessions dedicated to George Mackay Brown, Allan Ramsay and Alasdair Gray complimented them well.

Exciting developments in the digital humanities were also the talk of the conference, namely the relaunch of BOSLIT (The Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation) – as presented by Paul Malgrati and Kirsteen McCue. The opening keynote was only the first of several contributions to explore Scottish literature’s relationship with imperialism, including a dedicated panel on ‘Scotland’s Colonial Contact Zones’ which looked to South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand and one on ‘Writing Scotland’s (Post-) Imperial Diasporas’ that explored writings on the Caribbean, Canada, and Aotearoa’s Waipu Community. A panel on ‘Celtic Cultures and Transnationalism’ featured new work from Gerard Cairns on Ruaraidh Erskine of Mar, Eleanor Thomson on Calum MacPhàrlain, and contributions from two of the organisers, Martina Vacková Reiterová on An Comunn Gàidhealach and Congress Secretary Petra Johana Poncarová on the internationalism of Gairm magazine. Several panels sought to celebrate Scottish links with Europe and there was a dedicated exhibition about Scotland’s Czech connections.

Those Czech connections came to the surface as the weekend arrived and our evenings started to fill up with festivities. A ceilidh dance on the Friday night was impressively conducted, with an energetic group of Czech enthusiasts leading the crowd. Luckily for me, I managed to find a scholar recovering from a knee operation who provided me with an excuse to keep the birling to a minimum. As the night started winding down, I ordered a round of Becherovska and watched as one by one my fellow Scots started to shuffle into trams or taxis home. I lamented the fact my own paper was scheduled for the graveyard shift on Sunday morning, meaning that I couldn’t quite make the most of the open bar at the Congress Dinner the following evening.

When I found myself to be the last man standing, Dr Poncarová was kind enough to invite me along for some more drinks with her and the student assistants, where I was finally able to geek out on the Czech New Wave. I found it hard to gain insight into the local character my first time here, but now I was privileged enough to enjoy a night of drinking with four delightful Czech scholars, over which we shared many laughs. Simply put, I cannot wait to return again, and my pain was certainly eased when I had to make an early exit the next night. The dinner was held in the Art Restaurant Manes, a beautiful building with historic significance for the Czech avant-garde – with an impressive ceiling mural by the Cubist Emil Filla. The interior was stunning, but the outside patio also offered a special significance, with views over the sunlit river to the house where Willa and Edwin Muir stayed while in Prague.

The graveyard shift wasn’t so bad in the end. After my paper, there was one last set of parallel sessions to top it all off. I chose to attend ‘The 1820 Radical War in Life and Afterlife’, originally planned for the centenary two years ago. Gerard Carruthers opened the panel with a myth-busting contribution that convincingly made the case that our visual understanding of the Rising is more indebted to the Peterloo Massacre than events in Scotland themselves. He traced the currents of political legacies of the events as it has passed between Scottish nationalists and the labour movement. George Smith took a place-based approach to the war, looking specifically at events in his own village of Duntocher. Finally, Craig Lamont looked at the Rising through the lens of cultural memory, mapping monuments and plaques that commemorate the war while noting how these markers were often built in dialogue with their surrounding environment, especially those situated alongside previous monuments to Covenanters. All three contributions developed my understanding of the events of 1820 and it was a great note to end on.

One last evening of social drinks acted as the finale to a bumper week of Scottish literature. The setting for the 4th World Congress of Scottish Literatures was announced during the week, at the University of Nottingham in 2024. Maybe not quite as glamorous as Vancouver or Prague, but easy to get to, and I am already looking forward to it. I am reminded of the words of Max Pensky, referring to a philosophy conference in the Czech capital: ‘I do have a sort of paradigmatic Prague experience, repeated over the years, in which a discussion of old ideas suddenly gets a new twist or spark from someone I do not know, with an accent I cannot place.’ I hope that future ScotLit conferences, and visits to Czechia, can repeat my own, paradigmatic Prague experience.



James Barrowman is a writer and PhD student at the University of Dundee. His project, 'Counterfooting the Conjuring of a Ghaist', attempts to reimagine two lost plays by James Wedderburn from the sixteenth-century, by weaving together fragments and anecdotes from Dundonian history. He also works as a barista and a tour guide.

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