Priscilla Bawcutt, 1931-2021

There are few — if any — scholars who can claim to have had as great an impact on the study of Older Scots literature as Priscilla Bawcutt. She has a place in modern scholarship similar to that of the two Older Scots poets whom her research did most to illuminate, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. As the younger poet Sir David Lyndsay wrote of Douglas, so might a modern scholar of Older Scots write of Priscilla (with the minor substitution of ‘critics’ for ‘poetis’): 

[He…] Had, quhen he wes in to this land on lyve, 

Abufe vulgare poetis prerogatyve, 

Boith in pratick and speculatioun. 

I saye no more. 

(Testament of the Papyngo, ll. 28-31)[1] 

Priscilla’s Shorter Poems of Gavin Douglas (STS 4th series 3, 1967) was followed by what remains the authoritative study of his life and works, Gavin Douglas: A Critical Study  (Edinburgh 1976). A second edition of the Shorter Works was published in 2003 (STS 5th series 2, 2003), and the first volume of her long-awaited edition (with Ian Cunningham) of Douglas’s Eneados came out — despite all the upheaval of the pandemic — with the Scottish Text Society at the end of 2020: the remaining two volumes are also complete and due to be published as the Society’s volumes for 2021 and 2022. Meanwhile, anyone who researches any aspect of William Dunbar will be familiar with the sensation of thinking one has made a marvellous discovery only to find that Priscilla has, of course, been there already: her 1992 study Dunbar the Makar and her 2-volume edition of The Poems of William Dunbar (Glasgow, 1998)contain, it feels, everything it is possible to know or understand about him.  

After a degree at the University of London and brief period teaching at Durham, which she remembered very fondly, Priscilla settled in Liverpool in 1962 with her husband, the English scholar Nigel W. Bawcutt. She would remain attached to the Department of English at the University of Liverpool in various guises (latterly as Honorary Professor) for the rest of her long career. Her publications span an astonishing six decades, from a 1957 début in Notes & Queries (published under her maiden name of Preston) to volume 1 of Douglas’s Eneados, published in her ninetieth year. In a neat moment of career symmetry, that very first 1957 article — about a newly-identified additional source for the Complaynt of Scotland — observed in passing that the same source appeared to lie behind a remark of Gavin Douglas’s in his Prologue to Book 1 of his translation of the Aeneid: see now her note to Prol. 1, ll. 359ff of the Eneados (Edinburgh, 2020).  

Sally Mapstone wrote in 2001 that to ‘ask Priscilla’ is the standard reaction of any scholar of Older Scots when stuck on an interpretative quandary, an obscure bibliographical issue, or when one ‘thinks one has discovered something new’, and that ‘letters from Priscilla in response to queries of this sort are collectors’ items’. [2] Priscilla was exceptionally generous with her scholarship, to junior as much as to senior petitioners, and I have gratefully amassed several such ‘collector’s items’ (latterly in email form) over the course of my own career. She will be sorely missed by her family, her many friends, and the scholarly community at large. But in one sense at least she still has a long life ahead of her, as scholars will be reading and profitting from her work for generations to come.  

Rhiannon Purdie 

March 2021 

[1] Sir David Lyndsay: Selected Poems, ed. Janet Hadley Williams (Glasgow, 2000). 

[2] William Dunbar, ‘the Nobill Poyet’: Essays in Honour of Priscilla Bawcutt, ed. Sally Mapstone (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001), p. ix.