I think there has always been a feeling in this English Studies department that to be engaged with literature is to be in contact with a living experience (however ancient the texts being studied) and that part of that experience should also be an engagement with living artists and their work. This is why the University has such a significant art collection.
And this was why Norman MacCaig was invited to join the English department in 1970, where he worked with us for eight years before finally retiring. Students would talk with him about their own creative writing, of course, but he was also a regular member of the teaching staff, with a famously sharp humour and a quick ear for waffle in tutorials and department meetings alike. His old friend, the Shetland fiddler Aly Bain reckoned that Norman was ‘reborn’ when he went to Stirling: ‘They looked after him. At Stirling, he found the respect he was worthy of ’.
As part of the same respect we used to choose a new volume of poetry each year as required reading for the semester three module on ‘Poetry’, and invited the poet in question to come along to read their work in a lecture at the end of term. I especially remember Don Paterson in 1993 with his collection Nil Nil and Kathleen Jamie in 1994, with The Queen of Sheba.
Over the years, in fact, the department has taken five creative writers on board with contracts that have seen Ron Butlin, John Burnside, Walter Perrie, Iain Banks, and Sue Stewart all teaching for us and engaging with students’ own writing. Our academic interest in postcolonial literature brought us into contact with the Australian poet Les Murray, and through his friendship with colleagues he has made numerous visits and done readings for us, and the same links bring a creative writer from India to Stirling each spring, as the Charles Wallace visiting fellow.
It has long been our practice to invite poets to read for us at the University, including a memorable occasion when Seamus Heaney had standing room only in the Logie lecture theatre. On a still larger scale, the department has established a very popular series of international poetry conferences on major themes such as ‘Poetry and History’ (1996); ‘Poetry and Sexuality’ (2004); ‘Poetry and Politics’ (2006) and ‘Poetry and Melancholia’ (2011) with academics and poets from all over the world. Readings and talks from writers are a central part of these gatherings.
Actually, a commitment to creative writing was written into the constitution of the department from the University’s foundation in 1967—as part of a radical revision of the usual British degree. So a fully modular Stirling degree was based on the periodic assessment of each student’s best work, done in essay format. Instead of exams, the climax of four years’ study was a final-year dissertation, which could be a piece of creative writing. In those early days there were no classes in creative writing on our curriculum, or indeed on any curriculum in any university in Britain, but a number of students chose the creative dissertation route every year.
Now, creative writing options are part of the regular degree, and the creative writing dissertations are more popular than ever. Some notable writers, including Iain Banks, Jackie Kay and Alan Bissett, have come through the Stirling undergraduate degree. This is why it’s so exciting to see the postgraduate MLitt in Creative Writing, which will do so much more to develop the department’s original commitment to creative work and to working creatively.
– Rory Watson