Report: ‘Solway Romanticisms, 1770-1830’ Event 10/5/19

On Friday the 10th May it was my pleasure to host this project’s interdisciplinary symposium at the University of Glasgow. Branching out from my own work on southwest Scotland, the theme for the day was ‘Solway Romanticisms, 1770-1830’, intended as a way of thinking about questions of literature, culture and place in a cross-border and maritime context, taking account of the unique geography of the Solway Firth. Pairing scholars working on both sides of the firth, papers sought to address questions of similarity and dissimilarity, of parochialism and glocalism, while putting pressure on a central conundrum at the heart of regional studies and the spatial humanities at large: how and when does text explain place?

Following an introductory talk in which I outlined some of the issues at play, and gestured to a variety of texts and contexts that would recur in subsequent papers, we began with a panel titled, ‘History, Politics and Travel’. Dr Fiona Edmonds kicked things off in earnest with a long historical view of relations between the Scottish and English sides of the Solway in the medieval period – some much needed historical background for those of us who rarely venture back beyond the seventeenth century. Dr Alex Deans then brought us up to the Romantic period with a look at the 1771 eruption of the Solway moss, which he presented as a localised environmental disaster and case study in intellectual and aesthetic responses to an unruly landscape.

After lunch, we moved onto a panel titled ‘Maritime Cultures’. This began with a paper by me on the culture of periodical publishing in the Scottish southwest, specifically a series of tales in The Dumfries-shire and Galloway Monthly Magazine in 1821, set aboard the real-life Highland Chieftain steam packet, then operating between Dumfries and Liverpool. Dr Valentina Bold was up next, providing an analytical look at different ways of experiencing coastal borderlands, using selections of poetry to identify experiences available to different categories of people. This was followed by Dr Lizanne Henderson, who discussed the (pretty fulsome) history of connections to the slave trade along the Solway in the period, beginning her paper with the complicated relationship to slavery of the regional and national poet, Robert Burns.

Later in the afternoon the third panel, ‘Imagination and the Sense of Place’, was opened by Dr Joanna Taylor and Dr Chris Donaldson, who dug into the sources and subtext of Dorothy Wordsworth’s 1803 Recollections of a Tour to reveal a history of Anglo-Scottish relations captured in aphorisms about the landscape. Prof Ted Cowan looked at the emergence of elements of Romanticism in southwest Scotland, beginning his talk with the town of Moffat as a key site for the cultural phenomenon of James Macpherson’s Ossian poetry. The final paper of the day was delivered by Dr David Stewart, who reflected on the experience of a ‘moving landscape’ in a range of sources including works by Walter Scott and Allan Cunningham.

The day finished with poetry readings from two award-winning poets from either side of the Solway: Emma McGordon, originally from Whitehaven in West Cumbria, and Hugh McMillan, who is based in Penpont, Dumfriesshire. Both performances were rich explorations of the culture of the region, a real treat for all of us, and a way to bring our historical concerns up to the present.

There were many different perspectives offered on the day, and I am grateful to those who took part. What emerged most strongly, I think, was a variety of complex and often acutely subjective responses to a landscape that has long been a meeting-point for alternative local, national and global cultures, and indeed a locale that – as much as any other – invites us to rethink our sense of place.

This event was generously co-sponsored by the British Academy and by English Literature at the University of Glasgow.

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