Former students, friends and colleagues share their memories of Professor Ted Cowan

Following the sad news of the passing of our esteemed Professor Ted Cowan, former students, friends and colleagues share their fond memories of Professor Ted Cowan


Ewen Cameron (University of Edinburgh) writes:

I first met Ted in the company of Allan Macinnes when I was a PhD student in Glasgow in about 1990. He was visiting Scotland from Canada, delivering seminar papers at Glasgow and Strathclyde and plundering second-hand bookshops to stock the Scottish Studies library at Guelph. Despite his ostensibly disparaging comments about my rather earnest PhD project, he took the time, over a few pints, to talk to me about highland history and I learned a great deal from him at that stage and on many later occasions. 

When he returned to Glasgow a few years later, I enjoyed working with him on the Scottish Historical Review Trust, of which he was Convenor and I was the 'Clerk'! This was an enormous pleasure. He ran the meetings with efficiency, ensuring that that they were brief (and followed by conviviality), treated the publishers, EUP, with occasional scorn but encouraged the editors to be adventurous. He was also central to the development of the monograph series in the period in which it was published by Tuckwell Press and then EUP. There were one or two tricky issues - including an occasion on which a subsidy from the Trust had been incorrectly acknowledged by the recipients - which he handled with tact and diplomacy while some Trustees were calling for heads to roll.

As a historian three points are obvious: his incredible range, from early Scottish history to the twentieth century; his concern for those beyond the elites; and his interest in the relationship between history and literature, most appropriate given the title of his Glasgow chair. Only recently I happened to read his percipient essay on RLS in the collection The Polar Twins, which he edited with the late Douglas Gifford. He was also an incredible communicator of ideas about Scottish history, in writing, in the media and in the lecture hall. No one in the audience will forget the bravura performance that was his Glasgow inaugural. His capacity to be quite rude about important people and for them not to take offence was quite a skill.

The last time I met him was also in Allan's company, on the occasion of the memorial service for Archie Duncan (at which he read a section from Archie's The Making of the Kingdom), we went for a drink afterwards and he was in good form, which is how I will remember him.


Elizabeth Ewan (University of Guelph) writes:

Ted was the heart and soul of Scottish Studies during his time at the University of Guelph. Under his leadership, it was established as the leading centre for the the study of Scottish history, literature, and culture in North America, attracting students and scholars from around the world, and expanded the Scottish Collection into an internationally-recognized resource. Scottish antiquarian booksellers’ eyes still light up when they hear his name!

Ted played a major role in helping to establish the Scottish Studies Foundation, which was later able to establish North America’s first Chair in Scottish Studies. His exuberant personality and dedication to public outreach ensured that he was an excellent ambassador for the cause. His kindness to students and young scholars was exemplary - he will be greatly missed.


Cynthia Neville (Dalhousie University) writes:

I made Ted’s acquaintance the first time that I attended the annual meeting of the Scottish Medievalists – January 1981, in the good old days when the conference convened at Pitlochry. My supervisor, Grant Simpson, introduced me to Ted in the pub of Scotland’s Hotel. It was a raucous and entertaining evening, with Ted holding forth (at high volume) on a host of things medieval and Scottish. That night - and indeed ever since then – Ted proved himself a gifted storyteller, a vivacious and thoughtful mentor, and always an inveterate jokester. His knowledge of Highland history and of the Lennox in particular was profound. His written work covered an impressive breadth of topics, and his article-length studies were unfailingly popular among the undergraduate students I taught for well over 30 years. Ted, may you rest in peace and find many new listeners.  


Julian Goodare (Edinburgh University) writes:

Ted was a larger-than-life presence throughout my academic career. I remember attending a paper he gave on the Vikings, perhaps in the early 1990s or even before, at which he announced that after this paper he would devote himself entirely to the seventeenth century 'like a respectable historian'. But he never really did. Instead he made himself even more at home in an ever wider variety of periods. One of his later projects was on Scottish emigration to New Zealand. How on earth did he do it?

I worked directly with Ted in 2000, at the conference that preceded the book The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context. He was an obvious choice to convene that conference, and I was pleased and gratified when he agreed to do so (and to contribute to the book). I hoped that he'd be a charismatic presence in the chair, and I wasn't disappointed. What I didn't particularly expect, though, because I'd never seen him do it, was that he was also tightly organised - keeping all the speakers firmly to time, and even keeping everyone under control in the restaurant. An example to us all. He will be long remembered.


Marjorie Drexler writes:

I was the first candidate Ted had to guide through their research for a PhD, no mean feat as I arrived with a BA in American history and a sum total of one course in Scottish history. I am proof of Ted's  great skill as an advisor during postgraduate research and, though it often seemed hidden, his immense patience with those who wanted to learn the subject he loved. He had a true teacher's desire to share Scotland's history with everybody from school students on up, and we all greatly appreciated it.


Martin MacGregor and Dauvit Broun (Univ. of Glasgow) write:

We both met Ted for the first time in 1985 when we were re-establishing the student Scottish History Society at the University of Edinburgh during our PhD days. We were trying to put together a programme of speakers that would be well attended, and already knew Ted would draw a crowd (and we were not disappointed). The unforgettable title of Ted’s talk was ‘Prophecy and Prophylaxis: the World Cup Syndrome in Scottish History’. (Those were the days when we took it for granted that Scotland would qualify, and hoped for so much more!)

Ted’s extrovert, charismatic personality and wonderful sense of humour made him a peerless communicator and teacher, the life and soul of any gathering. In company and conversation he was disarmingly, even alarmingly, direct and honest, unable to abide pretentiousness in any form. But he was also immensely kind and empathetic, genuinely and deeply interested in everyone he met, and unfailingly supportive of others. All these qualities inspired great affection on the part of many students, colleagues and the general public, and the love of many friends. 

With his passing Scotland and its diaspora has lost not only one of its greatest, most gregarious and passionate academic personalities, but a historian of unprecedented breadth and openness. He was intellectually fearless and always inspiring. There never was, and never will be, a scholar with such a range of research, capacity for originality or gift for communication. He redefined what it meant to be an academic historian, and what Scottish history could be. He was not only a historian of the people’s past, but during his long and active career he was always the people’s historian above all else. 


Michael Penman (University of Stirling) writes:

Ted was a very welcome presence at conferences. He always had time for people, especially postgraduates and he always made contributions which were both entertaining and thought-provoking. He very kindly agreed to give the closing plenary at a 2014 conference about Bannockburn in Stirling, a tough gig. Do have a read - it's pure Ted: forthright in critiquing those he does not agree with; a sharp, fresh perspective on the evidence; but fair crack to those from a non-academic background working on the topic - history was for everyone. I owe him many, many references, several pints, and a constant reminder of the rich variety of the sources of Scottish history across all periods. A true polymath. Cheers, Ted.


Michael Russell (President of SNP) writes:

I was lucky enough to have Ted as my tutor in my first year studying Scottish History and he helped turn an enthusiasm into a passion.   Over the years our paths kept crossing with each of us in different roles.  He was a good critical friend when I was Cabinet Secretary for Education and a good collaborator when we were both focused on saving the Crichton campus from what would have been a near fatal withdrawal by the University.   We were also on the same side in trying (unsuccessfully,) to persuade  the first post devolution Scottish Government to fund the building of a replica of Scotland’s first towing steamboat , the Charlotte Dundas, and - to more effect -  in a wonderful staged debate in the run up the Independence Referendum in 2014, contending that the murder of the Red Comyn was, as they say, “a good thing”    It is tragic that he has now  left, far too  early, both the country and the subject he did so much to promote but his memory amongst students, colleagues and friends will maintain his influence as will the original work he did that  did so much to drive his discipline forward.


Steven Reid (University of Glasgow) writes:

I didn’t know Ted that well, as I started at Glasgow just as he finished. But whenever I did meet him I was struck by how much larger than life he was, and he was one of the funniest historians I’ve ever met. I have two strong memories of him – one drinking in a group with him at one of the last medievalist conferences at Pitlochry, and the other when he came to Glasgow (around 2013 I think) to give a talk on the declaration of Arbroath with Roger Mason. Both panellists were good, but Ted was memorable because he’d spent most of the afternoon in the pub in the West End and was still able to give a barnstorming talk and to spar with Roger, who just sat with a slightly bemused grin. It was great fun.


Alan Riach (University of Glasgow) writes:

Sometimes you meet a person, and you know you’re going to remember that person for the rest of your life. It might be momentary, in company, something about them, or it could be a conversation, or a long relationship, a teacher, a colleague, a student. It might be a lover or husband or wife. But it might not be an intimate friendship at all, or even a close one – but something strikes you, and you know you will always remember this person. Ted Cowan was one of those people.

His presence was always palpable but could as often be attentive and sensitively receptive, as assertive, engaged and argumentative. His broad face, open but keen eyes, the sense of the shrewd mind, the sheer strength and sinewy warp and weave of that mind as he took you with him on a verbal exploration of whatever it was, the focus of the discussion, in a lecture or seminar or in a pub or a home.

He was one of the panel who interviewed me when I was appointed to my job at the University of Glasgow. I remember his questions were forceful and fair, neither blunt nor tricky, clever but designed to accumulate my answers to give a fair impression of whatever I was and was likely to be, and to bring. Later, he and Lizanne visited my wife Rae and me in New Zealand, before we returned to Scotland, and they stayed over with us the night Ted gave his guest lecture at the University of Waikato. He made no preparation whatsoever at our home before the event, spoke without notes in a performance of sustained, unflagging energy with brilliance sparking up at appropriate moments, addressing the audience immediately, engagingly, gauging their engagement and responses exactly, moving ground when they thought it was secure, moving away from the lectern, and structuring his argument as it unfolded as only such a professional – and I would say, such an honest historian – could do. And afterwards, back at our home, it was a good long night and one of those necessary deep discussions, that stick in the calendar of your life, a place marked forever on the clock.

And back in Scotland since 2001, in the early years of working alongside him, with him, and Douglas Gifford, the ‘Polar Twins’ of Scottish History and Scottish Literature, with international students for residential weekends, they sometimes seemed linked at the hip. I was witness to their shared energy and drive, conjoined in professorial principle, like no other colleagues I have worked with, so closely, so totally differentiated, so single and separate, yet in purposive alliance, dedicated teachers, primed and ready in all the arts of giving.

Ted and I were back in New Zealand years later, as colleagues now, under the aegis of Liam McIlvanny at the University of Otago, guest-lecturing on our subjects, and Liam staged the last event of our residence as a public debate advertised as ‘Scottish History versus Scottish Literature’. The battle raged happily for 40 minutes or so, examples and anecdotes, primary, secondary, tertiary texts, scoped and shaped in great chunks of verbal contest, but I won in the end with the incontrovertible declaration that history IS literature and there's no way around that. And yet – ever since then I’ve wondered if maybe Ted just let me have the day.

So many people are better for knowing him, for what he gave us. Life is made better, and Scotland even more so, for his presence in it. When the shape of the whole trajectory can be seen and measured, the quantity of quality will be as appropriate, most ample. The writing is there, still. And the learning to come from it, for all those to come to it now, is so much, still to be done.


Andrew Mackillop (University of Glasgow) writes:

Ted Cowan – rough, tough (and tongue in cheek) supervisor.

I first met Ted in 1993, shortly after he arrived from Guelph to take up the then chair of Scottish History and Literature (now the chair of Scottish History) at the University of Glasgow. I was almost two years into my PhD and at that precise moment more preoccupied with the fact that my then supervisor, Allan Macinnes had departed to take up the Burnett-Fletcher chair of History at the University of Aberdeen. It was while mulling over the question of who would supervise the remainder of my time, that our paths first crossed.

It was typical of Ted that he put his head around the door of the office I shared with another PhD student, Ronnie Lee, to introduce himself. I was immediately struck with his sheer physical presence – as I suspect many were. After getting our names and topics, he launched into an extended and detailed exchange with Ronnie, showing his well-known characteristics of encyclopaedic knowledge, critical questioning and brilliant ability to offer a different perspective on a topic. All of this was of course laced with warm humour. Then it was my turn: the precise details escape me now, but there was some talk along the lines of ‘not more Highland tartan history’ and ‘badges, belts and bullets’ – all accompanied with raucous laughter and obvious attempts to put a slightly nervous student at ease. He was probably in the room for two minutes at most; but suffice to say he made an immediate impression.  

Shortly afterwards I learnt that Ted would supervise the remainder of my PhD. What was brilliant about his approach was that he engaged so helpfully with what I had already done, and in no way tried to impose his sense of priorities or perspectives. Yet even while doing so – or perhaps because of this – he ended up influencing my work in ways that have remained with me ever since. He made me think much more critically and empathetically about migration – and of military service as in many ways simply a highly regulated form of human mobility. This shift in perspective profoundly altered the nature of my PhD. This he did with a light touch, much humour and penetrating insight. It was supervision of the very highest calibre and I owe him a huge intellectual debt. No matter what the subject, his injunction to put people at the heart of things has stayed with me.

As I neared the end of my PhD, Ted provided me opportunities to teach – even setting aside a dedicated slot in his honours class to enable me to experiment with developing a seminar. This sort of career development and facilitating of honour-level teaching was so valuable. He was rightly known for getting his post-graduate students to think of new venues and new audiences. In my case this extended to him suggesting I give a paper at the Scottish Studies conference in Guelph in the autumn of 1995. What was even better was that Ted was there too. It was so obvious from the reaction of so many people just how much respect and affection he was held in – it was a privilege to see first-hand just what an international scholar and leader Ted Cowan was. 

Be it as supervisor or as someone who helped me find my feet, I owe Ted a huge amount. Fast forward twenty-five years and one of the last times I heard Ted give a paper was on the theme of Scots and the Artic. The same old amazing breadth of knowledge, waspish criticism of some of the existing historiography, and thoughtful, insightful questioning was there for all to see. He seemed so much like himself. Looking back to the start and the end of my interactions with Ted, the over-riding sense is one of having met a real force of nature, someone who had a deep love of Scotland’s past but who wore it lightly and in ways that made it seem so real for so many. For his brilliant qualities as a scholar and intellectual leader he will be sorely missed – but even more so for his open, warm-hearted kindness.


Catriona Macdonald writes:

There’s a wind that blows across the Machars of Galloway that, no matter the pastoral calm of the fields, always reminds you of the sea’s power and nature’s grip. Over the years, the voice of Ted Cowan – at times a whisper, when needed, a shout - reminded us when we needed it most of what Scottish history was for, and who were its originators, patrons, and audience: namely the public, a global public. 

As our debt to him, let us never forget that voice, and be aware of its echo in meaningful scholarship, engaging stories, open hospitality, and the beauty and potential of the country that he loved. 

Catriona M.M. Macdonald, Director, Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies, University of Glasgow


Chris Whatley (University of Dundee) writes:

A historian who wore his deep and encyclopaedic knowledge of the country he loved lightly. Passionate about issues that mattered to him, but always fair-minded. Able to puncture with gently delivered sharp wit pretentiousness and the least sign of pomposity. Never arrogant or patronising, he was a captivating public speaker who had the capacity not only to induce tears of laughter, but at the same time to make us think and later reflect on his wisdom-laced insights. Above all, he was the most convivial of companions and will be – is already - sorely missed.  A big man in every respect; his loss is immense.


David Caldwell (President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2014–2020) writes:

Ted Cowan was my tutor in Scottish history when I first went to Edinburgh University in 1969, very shy and immature, and in awe of lecturers and other academics. I soon discovered how different he was from the rest. He challenged (I think that is a safe word!) my interest in archaeology then and ever since, but I believe I quickly learned to give as good as I took. He was an inspirational lecturer, though best to avoid his flailing arms. John Knox would have envied his declammatory style. And he enlivened and lit up so many gatherings of historians and others over the years that I was privileged to attend. Scottish history has lost so very much with his passing.


Iain MacInnes (University of the Highlands and Islands) writes:
It is with great sadness that I saw the news about Ted’s passing. As a young undergraduate in 1996, I remember watching him in a class striding about a large lecture theatre at Glasgow with a blackboard pointer that was about as tall as he was. He would periodically brandish it like a claymore as he made a point about some element of medieval Scottish History. Fast forward many years to 2009, and I was a young academic just recently appointed as a lecturer at UHI. We had to go through a research area revalidation, for which Ted was one of the external members of the panel, there to provide comment on the Centre for History’s research environment and output. We were a small and young team at the newest HE institution in the country, but Ted was completely and generously supportive of our research, our development as a Centre and our ambitions for future work. On top of the loss to Scottish History, and to Scottish Medieval History specifically, it is in relation to such personal involvement in education across Scotland (and more widely) that he will be particularly remembered.


Jonny Murray (Edinburgh College of Art) writes:

Knowing Ted Cowan was an experience that changed my life. I first met Ted in 1995, when he went out of his way to support me, an undergraduate student whom he hardly knew, in switching half of my joint degree studies to Scottish History; I suspect a couple of university regulations may have been temporarily injured in the process. From then on, I quickly learned that what felt at the time like an unexpected act of extraordinary kindness was simply Ted’s way of being in the world.

Ted’s scholarship is ground-breaking because it applies not only formidable intellect, but also empathy, humility and a voluntarily assumed sense of ethical responsibility to everything and everyone he ever studied. And what you get on the page is what you got from the man. Ted saw academia as a collective endeavour within which all people’s voices deserve to be heard and all people deserve to know they have voices worth hearing. He didn’t just practice the ideal of the Democratic Intellect—he personified it. I wouldn’t, for example, have been able to complete my doctoral studies without Ted’s unwavering scholarly guidance and human support. Corrective wit was also applied as and when he felt the occasion merited—which, Ted being Ted, was pretty much always. On first meeting him in the late 1990s, my then-girlfriend remarked that she immediately knew she liked Ted because of the fun he clearly had in not indulging me. The next day, he spoke warmly of her in uncomfortably similar terms.

My career ended up taking me down very different disciplinary paths to those I first explored under Ted’s supervision. But the fundamental lessons he taught me about what it means to be a practicing academic of any stripe are ones I still learn from and think about on a daily basis, and I know I’m far from alone on that score. Ted was an irreplaceable, unrepeatable man. But the corollary of this is that the example he sets, and the encouragement he gives, anyone lucky enough to have been his student continue on for as long as we all do. They’re also things we can try our best to transmit to those who we teach in our turn. Thank you, Ted, for what you did and who you were.  


Karin Bowie (University of Glasgow) writes:

The breadth of Ted’s contribution to research, teaching and public engagement in Scottish history has been rightly underlined by those commenting on his untimely death. His work provided thought-provoking interventions across multiple centuries and sub-fields. In the early modern era, Ted encouraged a focus on popular politics while also providing path-breaking studies on elite political and constitutional thought. With his wife Lizanne Henderson he wrote an extraordinary book reconstructing past beliefs about fairies, nearly human-sized beings that most people considered entirely real not that long ago. Across his work, he sought to recapture how people understood their world in the past. I will be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to pursue a doctoral thesis on a topic first explored in an essay in one of his Masters seminars. Later, I was asked to carry on teaching his Honours course, Scottish Popular Culture 1500-1800 after he left for Crichton. Ted had kindly given me my first lecturing experience on that course when I was his postgraduate student. The broad sweep of this course has been a delight to teach ever since, offering plenty of scope for my own research interests and guest lectures by new graduate students. Ted’s approach to Scottish history taught me that good historians think across time and topics and don’t get stuck anywhere for too long.  


Karly Kehoe (St Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia) writes:

Scottish History has lost one of its greatest ambassadors – Professor Ted Cowan will be remembered by all of us as one of those special people who made everyone feel welcome to explore the history of his beloved Scotland. He encouraged discussion and debate and was disarming in his willingness to nurture new understandings of Scotland’s past – ones that included people whose everyday life and ways of living built the nation.

Ted’s legacy on Scottish studies in Canada has been profound and today its presence can be seen from coast to coast to coast in the programs he built and inspired and in the researchers he trained and mentored. He engaged humbly with a Diaspora anxious to learn more about itself and its place in Canadian society and he encouraged critical reflections of its legacy. That many of us now working on the historic links between Scotland and Canada are committed to using our research to enable an engagement with the complex process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is an important result of Ted’s pioneering efforts. The practice of doing history, I’m sure he would have agreed, gives us an opportunity to imagine how our futures might be different. I will miss him. We all will miss him. 


Mike Duguid, Chairman of Kirkcudbright History Society, writes:

I first met Ted when I was a mature student and he was lecturing at Glasgow University at the Crichton campus in Dumfries before he became the Director there. I was hooked from the start because he was such a brilliant lecturer, informative, humourous, controversial and engagingly enthusiastic about his subject. Such was his inspiration that by the time, as Director, he led the campaign to save the university campus he had turned me from the upstanding establishment figure of an ex-Royal Air Force officer into a protesting student marching down Sauchiehall Street with a ‘Save Our Campus’ banner. He deserves huge praise for his role in saving the campus.

It was also directly through his inspiration that I acquired sufficient knowledge and courage to take on such roles as President of the Robert Burns World Federation and Chairman of the Kirkcudbright History Society. In the latter capacity I had the pleasure of welcoming Ted to deliver several talks, all of which were hugely appreciated by the audience.

Looking back at some of the post-event write ups, I am struck by the constant refrain which ran through his talks: the history of his beloved Dumfries and Galloway in relation to the wider history of Scotland. A typical write up read, “A packed town hall audience sat in rapt attention as Professor Ted Cowan, in typical rumbustious and humorous style, provided a thoughtful and highly detailed analysis of ways in which the culture of the South West has been continually under attack from a multiplicity of diverse sources over many centuries.” 

He stressed the importance of learning about local history, especially in view of the large numbers of incomers to the region and pointed out that, ironically, it was often the newcomers who expressed most interest in the history of their newly-adopted home.  He cited this phenomenon as being a ‘cultural disjunction’ which provided even greater reason for encouraging a sustained period of cultural re-invention to ensure Dumfries and Galloway’s cultural identity emerged stronger and better understood by all its residents. He certainly did his best to help us understand.

His loss to Scottish History scholarship and research will be immense, especially here in the South West, an area he championed at every opportunity. Even though his death is awful and unexpected I’m sure he would want us to remember him with a smile. I feel privileged to have known him.


Richard Finlay (University of Strathclyde) writes:

Ted Cowan had many qualities, and this short tribute cannot do justice to all of them, and he did say that brevity was a virtue.  He was a warm and compassionate human being who was the embodiment of generosity and had a deep-seated interest and empathy for his fellow creatures. All people have flaws but his were miniscule compared to his giant personality and his fun-loving thirst for life.  Rarely are academics complete human beings, but he was an exception. Ted had a fierce intelligence that burned brightly and helped illuminate our understanding of the Scottish past with clarity and precision. His knowledge was immense, like his personality and he never took himself too seriously.  If you close your eyes and picture Ted - he is always smiling. That is a good way to be remembered.


Simon Gilmour, Director, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, writes:

I first met Ted Cowan when organising the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland joint conference with Winterthur Museum in the US and he graciously agreed to present our keynote lecture. It turned out we held this in the Philadelphia Museum of Art for reasons I cannot now remember, which was preceded by a surprise (to us) three course sit-down lunch with wine at the PMA! Needless to say Ted was well able to still present a barnstorming keynote, which got our conference off to an excellent start! We remained in touch and he gave Society lectures, but what sticks in my mind was having to persuade him (over a meal and wine) to accept a nomination for Honorary Fellowship – not something we usually have to do, and which highlighted to me his modesty; and the opportunity of a meal, wine and chat wouldn’t have gone amiss either!


Ralph Jessop (Crichton Campus, University of Glasgow), writes: 

Among his many talents as an eminent Scottish historian, I knew Ted Cowan principally as an admirably humane, level-headed, respectful, and humorous Director of the Dumfries Campus between 2006 and 2010. But before this time, when I was teaching English Literature and Philosophy at The University Glasgow in the 1990s, I'd known this physically striking, affable figure, somewhat indirectly, or at a distance – a regular co-frequenter of the College Club. My first direct experience of Ted’s quick-witted and insightful humour occurred in 1999.

He was on the interviewing panel for my present post and (responding to one of my answers), he made an especially complex declaration: ‘well-fielded!’ – though the utterance alone was refreshingly simple, it was inextricably interlaced with a lingering chuckle and huge smile, immediately fostering an increasingly encouraging discussion. Ted had effortlessly struck an affirmative chord that, along with his other contributions to the interview, memorably told me that here was a man I could trust. Authentic, healthily sceptical of authority – ‘No hidden agenda? Ho, oh, there’s always a hidden agenda!’ – and so often engagingly flickering between dignity and impudence, he was to me an exemplary, unique embodiment of that seemingly peculiar and precious weel kent Scottish combination of seriousness and fun. He was passionate about the potential for the South of Scotland of the Dumfries Campus, which is of course significantly situated in the very heartland of a rich, extensive, fascinating, yet still far too marginalised and globally pertinent cultural history – the very place in which the term ‘environment’ was coined. But, when the Campus was threatened with closure in 2007, Ted also had to perform a professional role as the Campus’ Director. So, I strongly suspect that he often had to temper his passion to ensure he steered our wee boat safely through those troubled waters.

Fortunately, Ted’s commitment to the Dumfries Campus was matched by some colleagues, a variety of local supporters, and by the truly heroic Arts students who campaigned so vigorously, intelligently, and most publicly to prevent the Campus' closure. At least since that time, I often heard Ted deliver public lectures and witnessed how his combination of humour and serious scholarship invariably gripped his audience’s attention, evidently stimulating them to find out more. Like a great many of those who knew him, I have been deeply saddened by his death, but have at least one abiding regret: that I let slip the possibility of learning more from him, within a convivial setting, about at least one little-known yet precocious New Galloway figure (Robert Heron (1764-1807)), whose work Ted had warmly exhorted me to research. 


Laura Stewart writes:

Saddened to hear that Scottish history has lost Ted Cowan. Ted's chronological and thematic range, accessible prose, and conviction that 'the people' mattered in history make him one of those enviable kinds whose books are read both by specialists and the public. I knew best Ted's work on early modern Scotland, and especially the Covenanter era, but he (perhaps unlike me!) had much wider interests, being able to interrogate the meaning of - and provoke debate about - the Declaration of Arbroath, while also assessing the place of Scots in 18th century America. But perhaps the best reasons to read Edward J. Cowan are to enjoy his sheer love of doing history and to engage, as he did so compellingly, with why the questions we ask as historians must and do continue to matter. 


R. Andrew McDonald (Brock University, Canada) writes:

I first met Ted Cowan in autumn 1989 when I arrived at the University of Guelph to begin work on my doctorate in medieval Scottish history. I was immediately struck by Ted’s larger-than-life presence, and was impressed and not a little intimidated by his vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects. Ted was a fantastic supervisor and mentor and became a huge inspiration and influence in my personal and professional life. I have many great memories relating to Ted; among them, perhaps my fondest is of meeting up with him for a week’s worth of travels around Scotland in winter 1991. In those days I was never much for hanging out in pubs, but among the many and varied things I owe to Ted is an appreciation for single malt whisky! Sláinte, Ted. You are sorely missed


First published: 20 January 2022