Featured Fellow: Marijane Osborn

Marijane Osborn

Professor Marijane Osborn, Visiting Research Fellow 1973

I may have been the youngest Fellow and the only American at the Institute in 1973, invited there to complete a project on Old English poetry that was meant to evolve into a book. I did complete the first chapter, published as an article in 1975, picked up and republished in 1978, and the core of my 1980 applicant’s lecture for a permanent position at UC Davis, where I’ve been ever since. But that particular book was never completed as I moved on to write many other books and articles, mostly on medieval English subjects. My IASH Fellowship was a huge step up into a long and successful academic career, and my gratitude to the Institute is profound.

But besides working hard, I had a wonderful time while living in Edinburgh. To begin with, the University found me an inexpensive top-floor flat in Moray Place. Anyone knowing Edinburgh understands that “inexpensive” and “Moray Place” are rarely uttered in the same breath, and the flat was indeed spectacular. The deal was that I would share it with the owner one day a week when he came into the city, sometimes with his wife. They treated me like a daughter and introduced me to aspects of Edinburgh I would have missed without them. The director of the Institute, Professor William Beattie, also took me under his wing, introducing me to the university faculty club where I made other good friends. One day I invited the Editor of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and the best (in my view) translator of the Icelandic Sagas, and one or two others that I don’t now remember, to come up to my flat for a drink, and I made them syllabub from a recipe I’d found. I remember verbatim the editor Jack Aitkin’s response to this drink: “Och, Marijane, what a dreadful thing to do to gud whisky!” I also remember the Icelander’s succinct advice to me when I had a Fulbright to Iceland: “Get good boots!” Some two decades later, I arranged for him to be the Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at UC Davis. He, especially, was my friend for life from Edinburgh (and turned out to be my best friend in Iceland’s father’s best friend – so Icelandic!).

Besides work and socializing, I read every Scottish novel I could find, and I walked. I walked all over Edinburgh. I was also fiddling with another project that seemed to me at the time on the outer (and dubious) edge of serious scholarship: place study. It surfaced in 1976 in two articles, on Wordsworth’s use of the landscape of Penrith and on Robert Louis Stevenson’s setting of his novel Ebb Tide. In that article, I mentioned the tradition that the landscape of Treasure Island originated in the gardens near where Stevenson lived as a boy, which of course I visited when I heard about it. I later incorporated that and many other Edinburgh locations in an early draft of my still-unpublished children’s book, The Woods of Leith. In a review of a book I wrote with Gillian Overing, Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Icelandic World (1994), I was mockingly described as a “modern Thor Heyerdal”—to which I did not reply that at least, like Heyerdal, I got out of my office and went places. Then only a decade later, after Beowulf and Lejre (Denmark; with John D. Niles) was published in 2006, I was described as “a pioneering ecocritic.”

I’ve spent most of my academic life on tamer writing and translation, and honestly, place-study still seems eccentric to me, but delightful, and it’s ongoing. Gillian and I are now working on another Saga project that will take us back to Iceland and onward to Greenland in summer 2018. But of everything I’ve written, my story set mainly in various corners of Edinburgh, a “place-study” in children’s fiction deriving from my time at IASH in 1973, is dearest to my heart.


With the kind permission of Prof. Osborn, we are delighted to offer a short excerpt from her story The Woods of Leith:

When Raven McCraw swooped down from the sky and picked up Minimus Mus in his yellow beak, just before the drifting teacup went over the waterfall of the weir, Minimus thought, “Ahah! Now we’re all right!” But then instead of setting him down on the bank, Raven McCraw flapped his ragged wings and up they went, up over the Water of Leith, over St. Bernard’s Well, over the Muses and the McFluffs and Bruno on the riverbank, and a glint of something silver in a bush near them that Minimus wondered about. Higher and higher they flew until Minimus could see a big part of Edinburgh spread out below him. Higher they flew than the hilltop castle itself. “Where … “ Minimus squeaked, but then his voice broke off in fright, and a good thing it was too, because if he had been able to ask Raven where they were going, and if Raven had been silly enough to open his beak to answer, where indeed would Minimus have been?

After a time, Minimus thought of this himself, with another little squeak of fright, and then he was very quiet and resigned himself to being carried wherever Raven wished to carry him.

Away they soared, away, away over the city, and Raven circled high above Princes Street, then turned north over the harbor, over the Firth of Forth. Minimus had never travelled before, so once they had crossed the Firth, he didn’t know where they were at all. “Is he taking me to the Highlands,” he wondered, “or maybe to England?” He didn’t like the idea of going to a foreign country, and hoped it was the bonny Highlands Raven was headed for.

And so it was. So far they flew, so fast and high, that they seemed to pass through tunnels in the wispy clouds, and Minimus could see lochs far below, like long fingers pointing in to the land from the west, gleaming silver in the afternoon sun. But how did he know they were lochs if he had never traveled, you might ask? The answer is simple: every Scot knows what a loch is, almost from birth. A loch is a special kind of lake, usually long and narrow, sometimes with one end open to the sea. And this, too, every Scot knows well: some lochs contain monsters.