The referendum for Scottish independence will take place this week, and I am thinking of a picture that used to hang in the Classics library at Chapel Hill when I was a graduate student there. There among images of philologists and historians of old hung a framed portrait of Douglas C. C. Young, the Paddison Professor of Greek from 1970 to his untimely death through years later at the age of sixty. Young was a great scholar who produced a critical edition of Theognis, and in fact wrote a book about his thrilling search for the lyric poet’s manuscripts all across Europe entitled, Chasing an Ancient Greek.
Young was extremely learned– there is a story I remember hearing of how, one time in some Oxford Common Room, a historian was going on about a Byzantine emperor’s lineage and said, “And God only knows who his grandfather was!”, whereupon Young leaned over to give the answer and thereafter was nicknamed “God”– as well as extremely witty. My favorite article of Young’s is entitled “Miltonic Light on Professor Denys Page’s Homeric Theory” (Greece & Rome 6.1  96-108) which employs the statistics-based methodology of academics arguing that the Iliad and Odyssey are not by the same authors to prove that there two different Miltons at work on Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained! A reductio ad absurdum of epic proportions, “Miltonic Light” must be one of the greatest satirical works of scholarship ever written.
But as compelling as his textual criticism was, Young was more notable for his fierce devotion to his native Scotland. An ardent nationalist, Young chastised his fellow Scotsmen as Quislings if they did not actively work for independence. As leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party), he even spent three years in prison during the Second World War, insisting that the 1707 Act of Union did not permit conscription of Scots into the British military. After the war, Young continued to teach Classics at Dundee and St. Andrew’s, eventually ending up with a prestigious named chair in Greekat UNC, where he died too young. Throughout his life, he remained a force in Scottish politics, and one can well imagine what his thoughts would be this week.
As the referendum draws nearer for Scotland, the rhetoric has gotten more acid. In a recent editorial, Labour MP Gordon Marsden, an anti-separitist, writes, “As for the bigger questions about border controls and goods from Scotland entering the UK and all other EU countries without customs controls, the SNP’s cloud-Cuckoo land White Paper simply assumes it would happen.” The reference to the fairy-tale utopia in Aristophanes’ Birds is one that Young would have relished responding to, with acerbic ridicule no doubt. Among Young’s signal achievements was a translation of this play into Lollans, the Scots dialect employed by Robert Burns among other. I remember once looking up The Burdies in the Chapel Hill library and reading it mostly as a sustained curiosity, but it has in recent years received critical praise.
Alas, I cannot find The Burdies online anywhere, but did find these lines cited form it in an article, which perhaps are most apropos:
O, you that foondit the famed etherial city,
ye kenna hou muckle honour ye win frae mortals,
hou monie lovers are grienan for this county.
ὦ κλεινοτάτην αἰθέριον οἰκίσας πόλιν,
οὐκ οἷσθ᾽ ὅσην τιμὴν παρ᾽ ἀνθρώποις φέρει,
ὅσους τ᾽ ἐραστὰς τῆσδε τῆς χώρας ἔχεις.
Oh you, who have founded so illustrious a city in the air, you know not in what esteem men hold you and how many there are who burn with desire to dwell in it.
I’ll be thinking of Douglas Young as the votes come in, but how the referendum will go this Thursday is anybody’s guess. The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, as some Scottish poet once said, and that goes for burdies as well.