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Archive for September, 2013

My former PhD supervisor has died. He was a renowned Scottish architectural historian, and professor at Dundee University with many relevant books and journal papers to his name. But I wanted to write about my own memories of him, which primarily concern the support he gave me over many years as a part-time postgraduate history student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Charles over the last few weeks. I’d known he was seriously ill for many months. But after an article published in The Courier recently, recounting his young days, including Beano and Dandy reading, I hoped for a better outcome, not least because he was talking about his hopes for better health, and mentioning some of the places he would like to visit. It was not to be.

I first met Charles in 2001. I’d recently finished my Open University history and classical studies degree, and wanted to go on to do a postgraduate history Masters. I initially signed up for the OU’s Masters degree, but was frustrated that it had to be studied over three years: with my medical condition, and uncertain future, I wanted to finish sooner. But I couldn’t study full-time, which I knew ruled out St Andrews University’s history MLitts which didn’t (and possibly still don’t) offer part-time as an option. But then I learned of Dundee’s new taught postgraduate Masters in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, which sounded wonderful, and could be studied either full-time in one year or part-time over two years. I emailed Charles to make tentative enquiries, and he emailed me the course book back, and I was sure it was for me, so signed up.

Dundee’s history MPhil (they couldn’t call it an MA because it was a Scottish PG, and it would be a few years before it was renamed to MLitt) was taught weekly on Wednesday afternoons, with seminars on the second floor of the Tower Building at the University of Dundee. Charles led these, but there would often be other members of the history staff coming along to share with us their specialist knowledge. And we were encouraged to bring in primary source material, and discuss them. It was a wonderful time, and Charles was an inspiring teacher. I remember his unconcealed glee as he told us about the Beggar’s Benison club in Fife, and likewise how excited he got when talking about architectural history, such as the changes to the built environment in Enlightenment Scotland. Through him I gained a new appreciation for the importance of urban history: something I had vaguely dabbled with before, but had not studied properly until now. At the end of a year of lectures and essays the full-timers did their dissertations over a few months, while us part-timers had a year to complete. My dissertation was on Melrose regality court (local court) records in the late 17th century, and when the results came in I was the first Dundee history MPhil student to achieve a distinction in the Masters. Charles was delighted for me. I remember meeting him in the city centre by chance, and him saying that my MPhil dissertation was the best-written one he had ever read. I was ever so proud.

After that I started a part-time history PhD, studying reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820. Bob Harris was my supervisor, but a few years later he moved from Dundee to Oxford. Initially I carried on with him acting as my supervisor, long-distance, but there were some drawbacks to this, and at a Thesis Monitoring Committee meeting – the system at Dundee to keep a check on how research postgraduates are getting on, and deal with any problems – Charles volunteered to take over as my supervisor. I was delighted, and accepted his offer gratefully. Although it was not his specialist area he was well able to supervise the topic, based on his knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scottish society and culture.

Initially it was a slightly difficult supervisor-supervisee relationship. Charles’s brain thought about historical problems in a different way from mine, indeed I had more in common thinking-wise with Bob. And Charles was also keen, at least initially, for me to do a lot of new research, for example looking at an extensive collection of pamphlets and chapbooks. But I was far through my part-time PhD, and didn’t have time for this, especially alongside my disabling neurological disease. However, together with advice from my former supervisor, Charles and I found a really good working way forward, that was productive, and still inspiring. Discussions at supervisor meetings would still leap about unpredictably, as Charles’s quick-thinking brain would latch onto new, unexpected ideas. But we were making forward progress, and both knew what we needed to do – and in particular what I needed to do – to get me to the end. He was my supervisor for the last three years of my part-time PhD, essentially the writing up period, which also saw me finish off necessary research using primary sources. And he was wonderful at helping me through the difficult writing stage, always giving constructive feedback on chapter drafts, and keeping me going.

I will always remember the coffee that Charles served in his office: usually flavoured, often slightly peculiar, but still nice. And he always had a wonderful collection of biscuits on offer: always unhealthy but ever so tasty! He was also always lending me books. His office was a tower of piles of books – I was never quite sure how he found anything – and he often had something new (or old, sometimes very) to show me, and often lend me. Best of all I always felt inspired and motivated by the supervisor meetings, ready for the next challenge ahead.

Most helpful were his penetrating questions about my research. He was never backward in asking “So what?!” about what I’d done, forcing me to put the research into the broader context and explain why it was important. And he made a big contribution to the analytical side of my PhD thesis by suggesting a higher-level subject categorisation method that I could use throughout my thesis to produce some numbers for relative weights of entertainment, improvement and religious reading, and thus permit meaningful comparisons between different pieces of evidence for reading habits and reading choices.

After my successful viva I had a meeting with Charles where we discussed my plans for the future, and in particular ideas for publication. He was keen for me to aim for extremely ambitious journals: some of which have paid off since, others not so successfully. But all of his suggestions were good, and worth trying. And we kept in contact ever since. The last time I saw him for an extended length of time I was in the university on an off-chance, and after visiting the library I ended up in College Hall, then thought I’d phone his office just in case he was around and free, so I could come and have a chat. And he was welcoming as usual, said come on over, and served me biscuits and coffee, and we nattered for an hour.

It’s impossible not to be sad about his passing, but I’ve been trying really hard over the last few weeks to remember good times with him. For example during our MPhil course he took the students on a walking tour around historic Dundee, at least the city centre parts. I had to use a wheelchair for the walk, with my husband Martin pushing, and we went up the most amazingly tiny wynds. Enormous fun, and we all learned so much. There’s now a Dundee Heritage Walk website based on the tours he did.

I’m also inspired again to pursue some of the interests he fostered in me. For example I’ll continue to photograph interesting examples of old architecture around Dundee and further afield: I’d never noticed them properly until he taught us so much architectural history. And I want to do more urban history research, following both the Masters he taught, and the year’s Research Asssistant work I did with Bob Harris on his pilot small Scottish towns study. And even simpler things, like eating houmous and pitta bread. I’d never tried houmous until Charles suggested I might like it, and I did. Even that brings back pleasant memories.

I am so sad that he has died, and my thoughts are with his family at the moment, and their great loss. But I am honoured to have known him, and am grateful for the difference he made to my life. A kind, wonderful human being.

For more information about Charles, including his research interests, see (at least for now) the history department web page about him.

There is an upcoming conference to celebrate Charles’s contribution to Renaissance architecture research: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies. This is to be held at Perth at the end of October. Originally, of course, Charles intended to be there. Now that can no longer happen, but we go ahead in his honour, celebrating what he did.

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I’ve been learning Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic) on and off since about 1990. At the time I was prompted to start learning it by my appreciation for Gaelic music groups such as Runrig and Capercaillie, and wanting to understand their lyrics better. Even just listening to their Gaelic songs you start to absorb the language by osmosis. I bought myself a copy of Maclaren’s Gaelic Self-Taught. What I didn’t realise at the time was my future husband, from England, was doing exactly the same thing for the same reasons!

Sadly I fell ill in late 1994, with what would turn out to be a progressive neurological disease, similar to multiple sclerosis. This causes huge difficulties in learning new languages, particularly vocabulary, because of the memory problems from the brain damage. For example I signed up for a Latin course with the Open University about a decade ago, and was doing very well in the tutor marked assessments, but each time I was effectively having to start from scratch, being unable to learn and remember the grammar or vocabulary from the previous time. It became increasingly difficult to continue, and I dropped out.

Maclaren's Gaelic Self-Taught

But I still want to learn Gaelic. And I am going to give it another go. I’ve dug out my old self teaching book, and set myself the challenge this week of having a go at it for 3 days for 15 minutes each time. And I started today, in the coffee shop in the Angus Gateway above Monifieth. And it went very well. I was able to remember a lot of the things I had learned before my disease struck, and worked out a way forward. I am going to skip for now the less useful chapters like subjunctive cases, and jump ahead to those chapters that are of more use to me. Fingers crossed it works.

Gaelic learning in nearby coffee shop

I am still inspired by Gaelic songs when it comes to learning Gaelic. I recently bought a bargain copy of Anne Lorne Gillies’s book about Gaelic songs, which includes the original melodies in sheet music form, as well as the Gaelic lyrics and a parallel English translation.

Songs of Gaelic Scotland

And I am also looking forward to an upcoming book about understanding Gaelic place names. I was prompted to search for this on our recent drive home from Inverness to Dundee, the scenic route down the west side of Loch Ness and then across country. I was delighted to find a perfect book was due to be published in February. I have it on preorder, and am looking forward to getting stuck into it. But maybe I can improve my basic Gaelic before then.

Reading the Gaelic Landscape

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My husband and I recently returned from a trip north to Inverness. I was attending an academic conference, and giving a talk there, and we used the opportunity to have a break in the Highlands and a small holiday. On our way back to Dundee we called into Culloden, and then drove down the west side of Loch Ness for the scenic route.

Culloden battlefield lies to the east of the city. It’s near a small village of the same name, so there are a lot of modern houses around. But the battlefield itself is undeveloped, and stands as a permanent memorial to the lost in 1746. In 2008 a new visitor centre was opened at the site. It’s not the prettiest building by any imagination, but it’s very functional, and I was impressed at how it houses the exhibitions and information for visitors.

Once inside there’s a shop to the left, and a cafe with free Wifi, and then you are at the tickets desk and on your way in to the exhibition. There are scooters and wheelchairs available for people to use who need them, especially when going out onto the battlefield, but they could also be useful for people with mobility problems when going through the long winding exhibition.

The exhibition is based around a series of linked corridors, with display cases and exhibits in the centre and on the walls, and the two side walls telling respectively the stories of the Government forces and the Jacobites. This covers the background to the battle, the run up to it, with the Jacobites marching south into England, and then the time before Culloden itself, the battle and the aftermath.

It’s a very difficult story to tell. It’s complex, there’s a lot to take in, but I was impressed with the information boards and displays, and felt that they communicated things pretty well. I also liked the exhibits. As well as lots of maps and for example Stuart family trees there were clothes from the time, of course weapons, medallions, Jacobite emblems, books, basically lots of interesting personal items that made you feel close to the time.

It took us quite a while to work our way through this section of the visitor centre, taking in the information. Both my husband (English) and I (Scottish Borderer with Jacobite ancestry) drifted inevitably towards the Jacobite side each time. My main emotion was anger, growing all the time, at the inept decision making of Bonnie Prince Charlie which led to the huge sacrifice. We both learned masses. I also wondered if my Border Jacobite ancestor James Veitch was at the battle. He was apparently a life guard for the Prince, so may have been there.

After working through the visitor centre we reached the back door, where you can walk out onto the battlefield. There are regular guided walking tours around the battlefield, and one was about to start as we got there. I passed on this – due to my MS-like illness it was never going to be that feasible a thing for me to do, even if I’d used a scooter. Instead we went outside ourselves, and made our way up to the custom-built viewing area on the visitor centre roof, that gives you a 360 degree view of the battlefield. On the downside there were no seats there – I suggested afterwards to the visitor centre that they might like to add some. But we spent some time there, taking in the landscape. I also bought a guide book to study at home.

I’m very glad I went there. It’s horrific, and highly moving, but an important site. And I think the new visitor centre does an excellent job of communicating the history to visitors.

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I spent an enjoyable day today at the first day of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland conference at Inverness. Sadly due to my neurological illness I was only ever able to contemplate attending the one day, but am very glad I managed what I did.

The conference theme is a two parter: on the one hand economy and society in rural Scotland, and on the other a tribute to the late historian Malcolm Gray. I regret to say that I wasn’t as familiar with Gray’s work as I should have been. But now, largely thanks to the keynote opening talk by Eric Richards, I know more, and plan to read more of his work. I also discovered that I need to reference him in a journal paper I am working on at the moment, even if it concerns a very non Highland location.

There were eight other talks today. Another that I particularly enjoyed was Alistair Mutch’s talk, very much a work in progress project, about architecture of north east Scottish home farms in the 18th century. He used as some of his reference material the architectural guides written by my former supervisor Charles McKean, which was nice.

Another talk that related more closely to my work was Elizabeth Ritchie’s paper about Gaelic and English literacy and teaching, and the consequences for reading and wider life. My history PhD looked at reading habits in Scotland at the same period, but regrettably with rather a blind spot when it came to Highland, let alone, Gaelic reading. So it was eye opening to hear Elizabeth’s research into this, and I look forward to reading the resulting published article.

Yesterday in Leakey’s secondhand bookshop in Inverness I bought Haldane’s classic history of drove roads in Scotland. So it was timely to hear David Taylor’s paper about the cattle trade, on a gigantic scale, in 18th century Badenoch. Trying to visualise now remote hills covered with thousands of cattle was a challenge!

My own talk was to be last, but we rejigged the order a bit, so I was the penultimate speaker. I was also the only person on the day speaking about southern Scotland, talking as I was about my postgraduate Masters dissertation research into 17th century local court records in the Melrose area of Roxburghshire. I was really worried whether I would be strong enough to speak by the time my time came. Last time I spoke at a conference I was very weak, due to my illness, and struggled to talk, even with a microphone to help. This time I had no microphone, so had to project my voice. But adrenaline or something got me through, my talk came in on time, and the audience laughed at the appropriate moments and seemed to enjoy the topic. I also, not to plan, dropped in terms like “CSI Melrose” and “Murrrdddeerr” as in Taggart! My conference talks are always rather improvised and unpredictable, and that was certainly the case here. I had some good questions at the end, and also got a good reference to a relevant work which will help me improve the paper I am working on based on the research, which I am targeting – with a revise and resubmit offer already in place – at an eminent British-wide history journal. So all good.

It was also an enormous help that the conference organisers allowed my husband to attend free as my helper. I was using my wheelchair for most of the time there, to keep me going for as long as possible, and would have struggled with the doors and things without him to help. So thank you very much.

My only regret is that I can’t be there tomorrow. But I had a wonderful time today, and am having a lovely visit to Inverness.

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