A new age for Celtic studies

March 5, 1999

Interdisciplinary research centres are springing up across the country. Olga Wojtas reports on the Irish and Scottish studies institute in Aberdeen, while Julia Hinde looks at the digital world

The arts are generally the Cinderella of academic research, lacking their own research council and unable to attract the substantial sums that go to more applied subjects.

It is therefore surprising to find Aberdeen University committing Pounds 290,000 over three years to set up the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies, the first of its kind in the world.

Arts subjects were hard hit during Aberdeen's savage cuts in the 1980s, but Aberdeen's principal, C. Duncan Rice, considers them a worthwhile area. "We are dedicated to preserving the intellectual and cultural legacy of the arts and humanities subjects passed down to us over the centuries," he says. "Aberdeen has always been a full-spectrum university and the new research institute emphasises our commitment to strengthening our research in humanities as well as applied disciplines.

"I am confident that the investment we have made will pay off in the future, both in terms of quality and in terms of our contribution to contemporary policy debate."

The institute's annual budget funds two postgraduate awards, three postdoctoral fellowships, an administrator and the director, Scottish historian Tom Devine, headhunted from Strathclyde University.

The institute has a high-powered advisory panel, including Irish poet Seamus Heaney; Seamus Deane, professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US; and Helen Vendler of Harvard University.

Strathclyde's history department, whose core is Scottish history, was rated 5 in the last research assessment exercise: this would have been impossible, says Devine, if the subject had not been seen outside Scotland as sufficiently mature to be regarded as world class. But this should not skew the scope of research topics, he warns.

"There are still subjects in the RAE where panels will think that local or regional means low quality. The history panel took a decision that a high-quality study of, for example, a few villages in northeast England, could be given a grade 5, the same as a pan-European history. The importance is the quality of the exercise rather than the territoriality."

Scottish history emerged from its traditional parochialism partly because of conferences on comparative Irish and Scottish work, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council from the 1970s. The size of the two countries makes comparative work manageable, Devine says, and the new institute's rationale is to look at Scottish culture, history, language and literature in a comparative and interdisciplinary way with its Irish equivalents.

The institute plans to boost its resources through fund-raising, which is likely to include expatriate Scots. A major RIISS project will look at the emigration experiences of the Scots and Irish. Irish studies are well established in North America and Australasia, but Scottish studies do not have the same high profile. Devine suggests that this was because many Scottish emigrants were skilled or professional workers who quickly melded with the mainstream of their host country.

"While Ireland was one of the poorest areas of western Europe in the 19th century, Scotland was second only to England as the most prosperous. The typical immigrant was not a dispossessed Highlander, but a Clydeside shipwright or Aberdeen granite worker," he says.

"Obviously the situation in Ireland was different in origin, but there are so many interesting comparisons, such as both the western Highlands and western Ireland having a potato famine."

Devine says that part of the institute's attraction was the fact the project was initiated by the departments of history, English and Celtic. "It's not senior management trying to implant something artificially. This is of vital importance, because although it is theoretically a free-standing unit, its success will depend on an intimate relationship with the founding departments and other parts of the university."

He plans to have affiliate status for staff from a range of departments, and is keen to attract researchers from the social sciences as well as from the humanities.

"It is serendipity that constitutional change in Scotland and the island of Ireland is happening at the same time as RIISS is being set up," Devine says.

"RIISS has been created at a historical conjuncture. If I am not able to take advantage of that, it will not be the circumstances that are wanting, but me."

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