‘Stick or Twist? Rigour meets Serendipity’, Cally Phillips

I am never quite sure whether to describe my relationship with the S.R.Crockett (SRC) Archives; of which I am the curator/guardian; as ‘not waving but drowning’ or as being embarrassed by riches but it’s frequently an overwhelming experience. There is just so much information it’s hard to know where to dive in.


My academic training began with an emphasis on rigour, in the field of Moral Philosophy. Over the years an element of serendipity has been added as I’ve studied (and at times qualified) in psychology, literature, mental health, social care… I am a serial ‘learner.’ I’ve been exposed to a  remarkable variety of research methods and find that outside of academic establishments one has both more freedom and more challenges when undertaking research. I work on what interests me – and so am constantly cursed to live in ‘interesting times.’  I am answerable to none, but equally I have no ‘support’ network or peer review system in place – there’s no safety net. Freedom can bring isolation.  I plough on, motivated by a conviction in the validity of the research.

I fully appreciate that serendipity can only take you so far in research (though I never underestimate it) and when the Archive received a very generous acquisition earlier this year, I glimpsed an opportunity to make order out of chaos.  The acquisition in question was a gorgeous, limited edition signed copy of the 8th Illustrated Edition of ‘The Stickit Minister and some common men’. ‘The Stickit’ (as SRC always called it, and on whose petard he has too often been ‘stickit’) was his first real publishing triumph and it happened in 1893. A quick count on my fingers told me that was 125 years ago. So while this particular Illustrated Edition was not published until 1894, it oozed significance.

‘The Stickit Minister’

I had my ‘in’.  I’d been lost in the mire of using the archive to develop a comprehensive timeline for SRC’s travels (of which there were many) and now I decided to focus on a fixed point.  Discovering that the actual date of first publication was March 20th 1893, I was sent into a fury of activity trying to pull together information to commemorate that event. Lots of work that had been languishing half-finished (as is the privilege and guilt of an ‘independent’ researcher) was brought forth and polished up into what turned out to be a 60 page Commemorative PDF.  http://www.gallowayraiders.co.uk/stickit-125.html

Project SRC125 was born.  2019 will mark 125 years since SRC’s ‘breakthrough’ year of 1894 in which no fewer than four of his works were published, launching him into celebrity bestseller stakes and into the middle of a furore whose ill-effects are still felt today. I contend that SRC (Scotland’s ‘forgotten bestseller’) has a significant part to play in the history of Scottish literature – a part that goes well beyond any critique of the ‘quality’ of his writing.  That is my on-going ‘big’ study: a re-appraisal and ‘placing’ of Crockett in the context of his time and Scottish literature in general.  It is a story that, among other things, involves Cabbages and Kings.

‘The Stickit Minister’, from Chapter 1

2018/1893 thus represents the first stage of SRC125. The focus is on ‘the Stickit’ which – for those unfamiliar with it -was a volume of 24 stories written mostly in the 1880s and pulled together to critical and popular acclaim in 1893 by T.Fisher Unwin.  Already a juxtaposition of old and new, ‘Stickit’ was highly significant in SRC’s life. The book sold outrageously well, going into 8 editions in the first year.  It was appreciated by Stevenson (RLS), to whom it was dedicated.  His endorsement of the 2nd edition by means of a poem didn’t hurt sales. His relationship with and attitude to SRC has long been a bone of contention, which remains underexplored.

A stooshie was caused by SRC’s ‘Letter Declaratory’ to RLS  which was published in the Second Edition of ‘The Stickit’.  Indeed it is here that the roots of the Kailyard myth may have started. Investigation of the source and consequences of the stooshie has taken me into an exploration of relationships between a range of literary figures from Barrie (JMB) to Henley to Colvin and into the ‘ins and outs’ of the contemporary publishing scene – William Robertson Nicoll, T.Fisher Unwin and A.P.Watt are all ‘characters’ in the emerging ‘story.’  I deem it a ‘story’ because I believe that fact and fiction are inextricably mixed when delving into the past via archive and/or primary text material.  I contend that such research always relies on elements of speculation and inspiration.

Robert Louis Stevenson poem

‘Strive for rigour and avoid prejudice’ is my mantra as I enter such places. And I bear in mind SRC’s own statement ‘the actual connections are never those which you think of.’

Crockett was no more ‘stickit’ than he was ‘kailyard’, as I hope Project 125 will show. Indeed ‘Stickit’ was the catalyst for SRC to move beyond both Ministry and Kailyard and 1894 was a very interesting year in that respect.  Since 2019 also marks RLS125 (the anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson) there are, I sense, significant connections within this serendipity.

Part of my current research involves exploring the relationship in letters between RLS, SRC and JMB in the years 1893-4. The intended ‘outcome’ is a short play ‘Jimmy and Sam’s Almost Excellent Adventure’  which imagines JMB and SRC’s planned trip to Samoa to see RLS in 1893/4.  So for the foreseeable future I will be ‘drowned in Scotland’ through the work of SRC, JMB and RLS. I hope this will give me something interesting to share with those who are perhaps better qualified but less free to take the serendipitous paths.

My research challenges the perception that the latter part of the 19th century was a ‘dark age’ in Scottish literature. With the hindsight of 125 years it is possible to throw a spotlight onto this time to reveal a rich seam.  For too long I feel that the Scottish Renaissance has been predicated on a constructed late 19th century ‘decline’.  Hindsight, an awareness of past ‘agendas,’ a critical, rigorous mind and an openness to serendipity offer alternative perspectives of equal value.

I find the 1890’s a fascinating, vibrant time. I believe that research, like life, is always a work in progress –and all the better for it.  I contend that we should always be challenging past opinion and authority.

Cally Phillips

I’m happy that as a community SCVS offers an opportunity for those of us on the fringes to (virtually) share and talk about the cultural and literary past of Scotland. My email for Crockett related things is gallowayraiders@gmail.com  and the associated website, The Galloway Raiders is www.gallowayraiders.co.uk

Cally Phillips  is an independent researcher with interests in Scottish literature of the late Victorian period, especially the work of S.R.Crockett and J.M.Barrie. In 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of Crockett’s death, Cally founded the S.R.Crockett society (The Galloway Raiders) at the same time republishing 32 volumes of his Galloway based novels. She holds the Crockett research archives of the late Dr I.M. Donaldson and Richard D. Jackson as well as a complete Crockett library and has now published over 50 Crockett related titles. In 2017 she founded the J.M.Barrie Literary Society.