Douglas Gifford (1940 – 2020)
Updated: May 7, 2021
Last weekend we lost one of Scottish literature’s greatest champions. Professor Douglas Gifford was an academic who made it his life’s work to inform, educate, and spread the word about Scottish writing and writers – past, present, and with a keen eye to the future. However he wore his expertise lightly, always looking to include others in the conversation and listen to their point of view. It’s hard to imagine a national literature having a more inspirational and persuasive champion.
His ability to clearly communicate ideas, matched to an easy and natural charisma, inspired many University of Glasgow undergraduate students to pursue Scottish Literature as an area to study, many doing so to PhD and beyond. For most that relationship would have begun in earnest with one of Douglas’s lectures.
To a not-so-young first year student in 1998 he gave fresh perspectives on well-kent novels, such as Iain Bank’s The Bridge, and introduced new favourite writers including Robin Jenkins, Muriel Spark, and George Douglas Brown. He performed a near miracle in making Sunset Song, (previously derided from bitter schoolboy experience), one of my favourite novels, proving you’ve got to be carefully taught. Douglas made it seem as if he was thinking about each text anew, even if he had taught it many times already, finding fresh perspectives and contexts with every reading – his mind always open. It’s a lesson well worth learning.
Douglas Gifford at Abbotsford
I later discovered he was also a generous collaborator, willing to give his time, advice and support freely, and always making sure that opportunities were fairly divided and credit given where due. There are too many examples of this for me to mention here, but just one was the day Scots Whay Hae! were invited down to his beloved Abbotsford, where he was the Honorary Librarian, to talk all things Walter Scott.
Douglas agreed to take part without hesitation (despite it being one of the coldest days of the year), talking to Ronnie Young and I about the life, times and legacy of Scott. His expertise and insight were crucial to the success of the project, and it proved to be one of those days which will stay with everyone involved. You can watch the resulting video below:
Douglas was one of those rare people with an ability to shape and change lives. I know he did mine, and his attitude as set out earlier is one I have tried to follow with Scots Whay Hae!. The SWH! mission statement to “not take too seriously something which I take very seriously indeed” is in part taken from how I believed Douglas viewed his life and work. He was hugely passionate and endlessly enthusiastic for Scottish writing and those involved, but always able to lend a welcome sense of perspective.
His writing would continue to inform my own, with his reviews in countless literary periodicals and publications particularly influential. Insightful and thoughtful, he always had an eye on the bigger picture of a national cultural conversation which had been silenced, or at the very least muted, for far too long. Its revival and growth is in no small part due to his tireless work and influence.
Douglas Gifford encouraged generations of students and writers with his wise words and sage advice and strengthened Scottish literature as a result. He is sadly missed but will always be warmly remembered, and his legacy lives on in all who knew him.
Douglas Gifford was Emeritus Professor in the Department of Scottish Literature and previously Professor of Scottish Literature, both at the University of Glasgow.