Leanne Welsh, SATE’s new local authority representative in Falkirk, reflects on the annual ASLS conference. You can read Leanne’s excellent blog here.
Yesterday, I attended The Association for Scottish Literary studies annual Schools Conference in Glasgow. This conference is a vital resource for teachers wishing to explore Scottish literature and language in the classroom. I left the event with many new ideas that I plan to use with my classes in order to enhance their understanding of Scotland’s heritage.
The day started with Scottish war poetry presented by David Goldie and Rory Watson talking about a new collection edited for the ASLS, From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945. A poem that stayed with me was Mary Symon’s The Soldiers’ Cairn. This poem would be a great way to explore the impact of war with a class as it represents a different perspective than that of a solider. The Soldiers’ Cairn is written in the dialect of North East Scotland and I believe this use of dialect helps emphasise the nature of home life and the pride people have for their country. This can be explored in the first line of the poem ‘Gie me a hill wi’ the heather on’t’ which immediately transports me to the beautiful Scottish hills and the scenery that we have become so familiar with. However, we soon learn that those bereaved by the war are ‘biggin’ the soldiers’ cairn’ in memory of the loved ones they have lost due to the horrors of war. The speaker states that the driving force for building this cairn is the heartbreak that the families now feel, and perhaps this cairn will provide a little comfort and bring back the memories of happier times before the soldiers’ deaths.
We also learn that many of the soldiers will be ‘still’ in lands that their relatives will never see; which again highlights the raw emotion in this poem and creates a contrast between the safety of home and the dangers of unknown countries. The families can only imagine what has happened to their loved ones and this ‘lanely cairn on a hameland hill’ helps them represent the overwhelming love they felt and, to some extent, brings their child back to the familiar scenery of Scotland.
In the final stanza loss is further presented through, ‘But oh, my Bairn, my Bairn’ showing a parent’s worst nightmare: outliving their child. I believe this also represents the idea that a parent’s need to protect their offspring never diminishes, even when they watch them leave home and live their own life. Therefore the death of a child, at any age, can never be forgotten.
My experience of war poetry is minimal; however poems like The Soldiers’ Cairn have helped highlight to me that war impacts the families, as well as the soldiers, as they suffer from the moment their child leaves to fight in unknown territories. One of the speakers mentioned that the 4th stanza may lose the reader as the language becomes more sophisticated; however, I believe this is suitable as it stresses the unpredictable thought-process of an inconsolable parent. The Soldiers’ Cairn can be accessed here:
Another key moment for me was looking at the three short stories of James Hogg in The Devil I am Sure. These stories all have an element of the supernatural and Hogg manages to create a contrast in social classes by exploring characters varying from the smooth educated English to the rough pheasant Scots. These short stories could definitely be explored with classes and could make a refreshing change for senior pupils writing their critical essay. Hogg creates stories with the intention of stumping his reader and making them think. He also explores the quirks of the human mind and the impact differing personalities can have on relationships. These would be thought-provoking stories to read with a class and I will be reading them all soon to discover their menacing nature.
I enjoyed many other elements of the conference, such as learning about the fiction of Nan Shepherd and the connections between home and the wider world. Ewan McVicar was also entertaining and discussed ways to use Scottish folksong in the classroom. It was interesting to hear about how to keep folksong tradition alive by asking pupils to add a modern twist in order to make the songs relevant to modern day life. This conference is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in how to explore Scottish literature in the classroom and I will definitely attend it again.