Honouring the Memory of Professor Ted Cowan

The Adventure Canada family was deeply saddened to hear about the sudden passing of Professor Ted Cowan in January of 2022. Ted was a walking encyclopedia of all things Scottish and his passions and humour dominated any room. We are grateful for his memory. Read his full obituary here.
Ted Cowan Moussa Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Obituary of Professor Edward J. Cowan, FRSE, HonFSAScot

Professor Ted Cowan, who died on January 2, 2022 at the age of seventy-seven, was a towering presence in Scottish studies for half a century. A pioneer in the study of people’s history, he had a passionate commitment to communicating Scotland’s past to its people today, and to the world.

There was no corner of Scottish history that was beyond the reach of his originality, no part of the diaspora untouched by his research, and no place he would not go— from the Arctic to the Antipodes—to share his insights and knowledge.

He not only gave keynote lectures to academic audiences across the world, as a leading scholar might do, but spoke to local societies and community groups in every county in Scotland and to Scottish societies across the diaspora.

He worked regularly with Adventure Canada for more than twenty years, giving lectures on expedition cruises around Scotland and Ireland, the North Atlantic, Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic.

Ted’s extroverted, 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.

Ted Cowan and Adventure Canada guests Islay Scotland

© Dennis Minty

As well as being an inspired researcher and dazzling lecturer, he was also a natural collaborator and leader, running academic departments, programs, and centres from 1983; organising conferences and workshops (regularly there were two each year); chairing societies; contributing to initiatives such as the Edinburgh Folk Festival and Tartan Day; and advising museums in Scotland and Canada.

He was Chair of the Board of the European Ethnological Research Centre and was past president of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, The Scottish Studies Foundation, and The Scottish History Society, Honorary President of the Bruce Trust, and Patron of the Scottish Studies Society of Sydney, Australia.

After his retirement in 2009, he was particularly involved with the Saltire Society, the Wigtown Book Festival, Glenkens Community Arts Trust, and the Galloway National Park Association, as well as helped to found the Glenkens Story, a local history group where he lived latterly.

He was especially passionate about the southwest of Scotland, where he was raised and to where he returned at the end of his career as Director of the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries, which he successfully campaigned to save from closure in 2007.

These activities were grounded in his unparalleled range of research across the fields of Scottish history, literature, and folk culture. He published, co-wrote, or edited sixteen books and nearly a hundred articles or book chapters, including crucial contributions to our understanding of the Viking impact on Scotland, the Wars of Independence, Scottish political thought, the Highlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the witch hunts, Scottish popular culture and folk belief, the Covenanting Revolution and later Covenanters, antiquarian studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ballads, sagas, and folklore, the Scottish diaspora especially in North America and Australasia, and Scottish explorers in the Arctic.

His literary studies included Icelandic sagas, Burns, John Galt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Service and poets of the First World War, as well as the popular literature of chapbooks and ballads. He maintained this astonishing range of interests right to the end. Two books are due to be published this year: Northern Lights: The Arctic Scots, and the edited proceedings of a conference on Gaelic Galloway.

Ted Cowan portrait

© Dennis Minty

Ted's academic career began exceptionally early, being appointed to a lectureship in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh only a few months after graduating with an MA in Scottish Historical Studies at the same university in 1967. His specialism was Scandinavian Scotland, and Icelandic sagas in particular, but his first major work was a history of James Graham, the first marquis of Montrose (1612–1650), published as Montrose: For Covenant and King in 1977 (republished in 1995).

He continued to work on medieval Scotland, extending his reach into late-medieval histories in Latin as well as early chronicles. Montrose: For Covenant and King, however, heralded two major interests that he worked on for the rest of his life: Covenanters and Gaelic Scotland.

In the 1970s, his passion for popular culture in the past and its historical legacy in the present saw him leading a pioneering collaboration between historians, musicologists, and folk singers in a conference as part of the Edinburgh Folk Festival. He edited the proceedings in The People’s Past: Scottish Folk, Scottish History, published in 1980 (republished in 1993).

This was a daring undertaking, not least because its academic heartland was history rather than folklore studies. It was, nevertheless, embraced by the leading Scottish folklorist at the time, David Buchan, for its "fecund unpredictability." It was the beginning of a new approach to academic work that engaged fully and equally with talented and committed people beyond university cloisters in developing new perspectives.

This commitment to relating to the wider public became a hallmark of his work when he left Edinburgh in 1979 to become Associate Professor of History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. In 1983 he was promoted to full professor and became director of the Centre for Scottish Studies, leading a programme of teaching and research that saw as many as 300 students take his third-year course in a year, and dozens of PhD students work under his supervision.

Every year he would come to Scotland to increase Guelph University Library’s stock of rare books of Scottish interest. He worked tirelessly to build relationships with local communities, bring leading scholars to Guelph and hold conferences, and promote the study of Canada’s Scottish past. In 1987 he established the Scottish Studies Foundation, which by 2003 had raised three million Canadian dollars, enough to endow a chair of Scottish Studies at Guelph for the foreseeable future.

Ted cowan water portrait

© Rob Poulton

In 1994 he returned to Scotland as the fifth holder of the chair of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow. Despite its title, it had since its inception been held by historians steeped in the study of documents. Ted was the first with a track record in both Scottish literature as well as history; it is ironic, therefore, that he established the convention of referring to it as a chair of Scottish History out of respect for the chair of Scottish Literature founded in 1995.

He established a close working relationship with the first holder, Douglas Gifford (1940–2020), founding the Centre for Scottish Studies (now the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies) and jointly editing The Polar Twins: Scottish History and Scottish Literature (published in 1999).

Ted’s years in Glasgow were exceptionally productive. Between 2000 and 2007 he published eight books as author, co-author, or editor, ranging from For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath (2003, republished three times) and The Wallace Book (2007), to The Ballad in Scottish History (2000) and Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook Heritage (2007), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era (2000, reprinted 2003), Scottish History: The Power of the Past (2002).

Two books highlight two salient features of this period. Scotland Since 1688: Struggle for a Nation (with Richard Finlay, in 2000) was written for the general reader, and can be seen as part of an effort to make Scottish history accessible, which also included working with journalists and on radio and TV. Scottish Fairy Belief: A History (2001, republished in 2007 and 2011), written with his most important scholarly collaborator, Lizanne Henderson, showed the commitment to people’s history that he first developed in his essay on the impact of the Reformation on folk culture in The People’s Past two decades earlier.

In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (established in 1783), and in 2015 an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (founded in 1780).

Ted cowan looking up Moussa tower scotland

© Mick Langan

In the last four years as Professor of Scottish History at Glasgow, he was head of the university’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries, returning to where his academic journey had begun in Dumfries Academy, where he had been head boy in 1961–1962.

He continued to live in the area during a very productive retirement, active as ever as researcher, speaker, organizer, and collaborator. His main publications were edited volumes on Scottish ethnography: A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland 1000 to 1600 (2011, with Lizanne Henderson), and Dumfries and Galloway: People and Place c.1700–1914 (2019, with Kenneth Veitch). He also published an edited collection, Why Scottish History Still Matters (2012), and The Battle of Largs (2017), a return to his early interest in the Norse involvement in Scottish history.

With Ted's 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.

Professor Edward J. Cowan, born February 15, 1944 in Edinburgh, died on January 2, 2022 at his home in Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Lizanne Henderson, his children by his first wife, Alison (d. 1994)—Karen, Morna, and David—and eight grandchildren.

About the Author

Dr. Lizanne Henderson

Dr. Lizanne Henderson

Cultural Historian

Dr. Lizanne Henderson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, where she teaches History, Tourism, and Human-Animal Studies. Much of her research is on the Scottish witch hunts, supernatural belief traditions, Arctic studies, wildlife tourism, and human-animal studies.