THE New Year opened on a sad note for me, when I learned of the death on January 2 of Ted Cowan, emeritus professor of Scottish history at Glasgow University, and before that at Guelph University, Ontario.

There had been no inkling of this for Ted’s wide circle of friends and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Until two weeks before, he did not even tell his son David, who works for the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, what was coming. It was typical of the man not to make a fuss or risk causing distress to others. The practise of good humour was to him a guiding principle.

Both countries benefited from the fact Ted divided his career between Scotland and Canada. Born in 1944, he went to Dumfries Academy and graduated in 1966 from Edinburgh University, where he won his first academic post only two months later. In 1979 he was head-hunted for his chair of history at Guelph. In 1993 he came back to the corresponding chair at Glasgow, where he finished his teaching career in 2009.

For much of this last period Ted was also working to develop a branch of the university at the Crichton campus in Dumfries. The purpose was to raise the standard of academic studies in a town where, despite local efforts, they had never been properly established.

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Distance from central Scotland made this an awkward mission, but a firm foundation had been laid by the time he finished. Ted was a man of wide and generous interests who effortlessly spanned the gap between learning and life. In politics he was, to use his own term, a “lefty”.

In his writings too, Ted was always pushing out the boundaries with his interest in people and activities that had been neglected. Yet he cast fresh light on more familiar matters, too, and he gave students with novel ideas the confidence to pursue them.

Unfamiliar reading gave rise to unfamiliar writing. He penetrated fertile fields such as the history of Viking Scotland, of early modern Scottish political thought, of the popular culture of the Scots and of their emigration history.

The catalogue of the books he wrote is an unconventional one, with volumes on Scottish fairies, chapbooks and ballads. He wrote less about individuals – exceptions were the Marquess of Montrose and the signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath – but always in his own style.

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His literary and oratorical skills transformed the nature and the academic standing of Scottish history at Glasgow. The chair had been established in 1933 but remained small and specialist, manned by scholars talking for the most part only with each other and attracting no great body of students.

But the outside world’s rise of Scottish nationalism would reach the academic world, too. At length it became quite a popular subject. Ted Cowan was equal to the new character of the new department and to its success. He retired in 2013.

Ted deserves the write-ups he has been getting for his huge contribution to the resurrection of Scottish studies. In a number of fields he showed how the country’s historic culture was capable of still bearing fruit today, in a way that could hardly have been imagined half-a-century ago. He enriched the understanding both of students and of a wider public.

I would say Ted had placed himself at the forefront of a cultural movement with many offshoots – for example, the appearance of The National as Scotland’s only daily newspaper supporting the SNP. Once upon time the country had nothing but Unionist newspapers. There was no special reason why it should not have had others. All it needed was for people of imagination to fill the gap. In history, Ted Cowan was one of those who filled the nation’s gaps in yet another cultural sphere.

Ted and I were on good terms even if we did not agree on much in history or in politics. He is gone but I’m still here, and from now on I’m going to try to raise my voice in place of the one that has been silenced in him.

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I’ll write every week about one of the historical controversies that Scotland’s record abounds in. I’ll not try to settle every disagreement, which would take me several lifetimes. But I’ll try to equip readers with the materials they need to decide for themselves, and not fall for Unionist chicanery.

Even for historians, venturing into modern times is still something of a novelty. Until the end of the last century they tended to stop at 1707, and leave the rest to colleagues in other departments. The subject of “Scottish history” often required a syllabus of its own, omitting all other history, while “history” included everything but Scotland. Right up to today teachers can be slow to extend the scope of their courses, partly because of a lack of corresponding textbooks. Most students have some explicit reason for choosing Scottish history, often because of their interest in present-day politics – say, since 2014. The better part of a decade later, the selection of texts to read remains quite meagre.

But conditions have been improving, and perhaps the time has come for a more ambitious rewrite of the whole subject. In my own column I can try to cut through to a new non-Unionist look at Scotland. Some historians have even yet not got fully away from an underlying purpose of arguing that the destiny of Scotland is to remain in the Union. The time has come to explain other destinies that might have awaited us.

At least we can say Scottish history is a subject on the move, with the generation of novel topics identification and exploration. We talk, write and think more about Scotland than we used to, with the result that the country is envisaged as a distinct community in far many more ways than it once was. A newspaper can enrich the process, just as it is itself enriched by the novelties.

In Scotland, history has been renewed as just one facet of a distinct culture with a character being steadily detached from the UK’s dominant narrative, which is an English one. In this country we can see how far we will go treating it as a separate nation with a separate culture expressed in separate languages. We should also understand why the Victorian project of creating a unitary culture over the British Isles ground to a halt.

Yet English had become the main language used in Scotland in the 18th century and remains so up to the present. That does not alter the fact that today a wide range of different languages, accents and dialects is also to be found across the country.

Scots is the most extensively current, because it has a long and distinguished literary pedigree going back to the Middle Ages. It provides us with access to the materials that have been employed to defend Scottish culture from more powerful forces. This, too, deserves a new look for a new age.