10th Conference 1967

The 10th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists, held at Crombie Hall, University of Aberdeen, 7-8 January 1967. Minutes Secretary Dr Leslie Macfarlane.

Saturday, 7 January

Paper 1: Professor Derick Thomson: The Office and Work of the Gaelic Professional Bard

Professor Thomson first discussed the obscure origins of the office of the professional poet. The introduction of Christianity to Ireland had made for a redistribution of functions of the native learned castes, and according to the 8th century Vraicecht Becc, the poet-guardians of traditional knowledge, the filid, belonged to the privileged classes, the druids to the subject classes. The Norman invasion and the 12th century Cistercian reforms, however, altered this balance, and separate schools of poets, historians and lawyers came into prominence, The fili took over the function of making praise-poetry from the bard. In this way a hierarchy of poets developed, carefully graded by their attainments and characterized by their privileges and honour-price; a hierarchy which was still distinguishable in 16th and 17th century Ireland and Scotland.

Professor Thomson then spoke graphically of the arrangements for the training of these poets, drawing on the evidence of the Marquis of Clanricarde’s account of the bardic school in Ireland and upon Martin Martin’s corroborative details for Gaelic Scotland. He spoke of their elaborate handbooks, of the syntactical and material tracts which had to be mastered, skills which in turn created lines of hereditary poets like the O’ Dalaighs in Ireland and the Macauirichs in Scotland.

Finally, quoting liberally from their poetry, he was able to demonstrate its sociological and genealogical importance, its technical skill and its wide ranging use, Naturally there was venality, but bardic verse, if emotional, was nevertheless sincere and loyal.

After Professor Thomson had answered a number of questions, the chairman thanked him for a learned graceful and very informative paper which members had thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed.

Paper 2: Discussion led by Mrs Brown (later Dr Jenny Wormald): Revolution in prospect – the Conference as it is, and as it might be

Mrs. Brown said that because of the dissatisfaction which she and other members felt after the 1966 Glasgow Conference, she had begun to wonder if these Conferences were now too stereotyped and therefore too dull. Ten years ago all the members knew each other, were experienced scholars and knew their needs; but now that the Conference was larger and most of the projects were well under way, the majority were not so project-minded, and one session at the Conference was enough to dispose of all these cooperative enterprises. On the other hand, the Conference had not outlived its usefulness; it was a great opportunity for getting to meet and know people and exchanging ideas. Moreover, there were large areas of Scottish History not covered or rarely discussed – the later middle ages for example, after 1371. She therefore suggested that paper reading might form a larger part of the Conference – informal papers, not for publication, but devoted devoted to a stated theme (perhaps short papers by several people) with discussion to follow, Such a theme, for example, might be ‘The Crown and the Nobility in the 15th century’.

Lively discussion followed Mrs, Brown’s remarks, Mr Shead and Mr. Harding both thought that the Conference was stimulating and valuable even if reports were dull. Mr. Macdougall said that there was no time to discuss one’s interests either individually or more generally with others. Mr. Cant thought the idea of one or two people raising and leading a central issue on a particular period a sound one, since it was useful for those already involved to get to hear fresh views. Professor Barrow emphasized the need for informality in these papers and discussions, otherwise rigid and formalized standards would be demanded and the Conference killed at the start. He agreed that the original group were people with projects who came together to discuss them, and that it would be suicide to invent projects just because more people had come into the group.

Comparisons were made with the Past and Present Conferences, and those run by Edinburgh University; and later, it was asked whether our own Conference should split into groups for discussions on particular topics, how long should be given to reports, the kind of guest paper we wanted, and the general structure of the time table. Following a suggestion of Mr. Cant, the general consensus of opinion seemed to be that papers and discussion on some pre agreed topic or topics might form the core of the Saturday afternoon and early evening’s activities for the whole group, with project reports later on Saturday evening (for about one hour), and a guest speaker and societies’ reports on Sunday morning, while the formal business meeting be introduced at the very beginning of the Conference. Dr. Nicholson thought that there was still a case for the Conference splitting up into smaller groups, so that papers and discussion could be held on a number of topics at the same time, to which members could contribute according to their interests. All agreed that as a first step members should supply the Secretary with brief details of their own interests, together with any suggestions they might have for topics for later conferences. The Chairman thanked Mrs. Brown for provoking such a thoughtful and fruitful discussion.

Sunday, 8 January

Society Reports, Project Reports and Administration.