Born: February 15, 1944;

Died: January 2, 2021

Professor Ted Cowan, who has died aged 77, 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 including Canada.

As well as being an inspired researcher and dazzling lecturer, he was also a natural collaborator and leader, running academic departments, programmes and centres from 1983, chairing societies or contributing to initiatives such as the Edinburgh Folk Festival and Tartan Day.

He 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, Galloway National Park Association, as well as helping to found the Glenkens Story, a local history group where he lived latterly.

He was especially passionate about the south-west of Scotland, where he was raised and to which 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 18 books and nearly 100 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 16th and 17th centuries, the Witch-Hunts, Scottish popular culture and folk belief. 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.

His academic career began exceptionally early, having been appointed to a lectureship in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh only a few months after graduating from there with an MA in Scottish historical studies in 1967.

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. This was a daring undertaking, not least because its academic heartland was history rather than folklore studies. 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. He worked tirelessly to build relationships with local communities 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.

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 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).

Professor Cowan’s Glasgow years 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) to Scottish History: The Power of the Past (2002).

In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in 2015 an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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, organiser and collaborator. His main publications were edited volumes on Scottish ethnography: A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland 1000 to 1600 (with Lizanne Henderson), and Dumfries and Galloway: People and Place c.1700–1914 (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.

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 death, 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 died on at his home in Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire. He is survived by his second wife, Dr Lizanne Henderson, his sisters Eileen, Margaret, Fiona, his children by his first wife Alison (d. 1994) Karen, Morna, David, and eight grandchildren.