A Scholar Abroad

by Liam Riordan
Liam enjoying pub culture while abroad.
Liam enjoying pub culture while abroad
photo: susan Thibedeau

Most college and university faculty probably share a goal of trying to figure out a way to spend a term living, teaching, and researching abroad. Thanks to support from a Fulbright Fellowship, the University of Maine, and a semester’s leave for my wife (who teaches English at Bangor High School), my family was able to relocate to Glasgow, Scotland, from January to July 2012. We all found it richly rewarding in ways that we often didn’t anticipate. We loved big city life with its never-ending choice of things to do, and what a joy to have good mass transit—six months without a car was liberating!

We all found getting to know the many different faces of Glasgow, Scotland, and Britain to be an extra-ordinary education, one that forcefully reminded me of how the humanities gives our lives fuller meaning. When we arrived, Parliament had just approved a popular referendum on Scottish independence, which is expected to be held in 2014. While most observers agree that it is unlikely to pass, the coming vote triggered widespread discussions about the crown, the pound, membership in the EU, and the very meaning of Scottishness and Britishness. Given my specialty as a historian of the Anglo-American 18th century world, which opened with the Union of Scotland and England in 1707 and closed with US independence, the persistence of many similar themes of political self-understanding and debate up to the present was especially fascinating. Moreover, much of the impetus for the referendum comes from a broad dissatisfaction with contemporary British political life, a potent reminder of the many ways that British and US politics and culture continue to run along parallel tracks in the 21st century.

Alan Cumming’s Macbeth poster
Alan Cumming’s
Macbeth poster
photo: susan Thibedeau

While Scotland is famed for its Highlands and low population density by European standards, we thrived in urban Glasgow from the dining and shopping options in our fashionable pub-filled West End neighborhood near the university to the city’s great live music scene. We also attended a huge number of plays from a weekly one-act lunchtime series (a play, a pie, and a pint for under $20!), to Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, and even an adaptation of King Lear that one of our sons performed in as part of an acting class at the famed Citizens Theatre. My wife, already a great fan of British lit from classics to Christie, probably embraced life abroad even more quickly and fully than the rest of us—shopping at local markets daily, voraciously reading Scottish literature of all kinds (her current top recommendation is Denise Mina’s mystery Garnethill), and developing her skill as a photographer and travel blogger. And the gardens! I never really appreciated the glory of the British garden until I lived two blocks from the “Botanics” and the Kelvin River. Seeing this tremendous urban green space come to life from darkest January to the incredibly long days of July was transformative. Moving 11 degrees of latitude further north really makes a difference.

Everyday life and family adventures were a wonderful part of my Fulbright experience, but I also learned a great deal as both a teacher and a scholar. My upper-level undergraduate course on the American Early Republic taught me that Maine and Glasgow students were by-and-large quite similar, but British higher education is remarkably more structured and standardized than in the US for both good and bad. Research took me to several archives in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the fussy National Library of Scotland and the warmly welcoming Mitchell Library offered spot-on representations of their respective cities. In some of my research, I continued work on the trans-Atlantic nature of opposition to the American Revolution and its consequences. I also began a new project examining Glasgow’s ties around the British Atlantic World by following Glaswegians from Virginia to the British West Indies, Canada, and back home again from 1760 to 1820.

It was my good fortune that this new research coincided with the Kelvingrove Museum planning a major exhibit on 18th century Glasgow (its first “history” exhibit in three decades). The curator and I hit it off, and I got to play a role in its initial design. I hope to continue the collaboration from Maine, and it may even give me an excuse to return to Glasgow before the exhibit opens in summer 2014.

I also did quite a bit of public speaking on a range of topics as a Fulbright Scholar. First at York University in England, then at a couple of Scottish universities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling), and our stay ended with three different European lectures over ten days: from Paris, to Heidelberg, and then Muenster. This intense trio of talks helped us to rationalize a family trip to the continent just before closing our expatriate escapades with a Highlands tour to visit as many castles mentioned in Macbeth as possible.

Given the heady pace at which we tried to see and do everything that we possibly could in our fleeting half year in Scotland, we’re happy to have returned to Maine this summer and have begun our recovery and preparation for a new school year. We all feel fortunate to have had this experience outside the US and look forward to discovering how it will change our sense of ourselves and our perspectives of Maine. Surely among these changes is a deepened appreciation of the essential place of the humanities in a life well lived.

Liam Riordan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maine, a scholar for MHC teacher programs, author of Many Identities, One Nation: The American Revolution and its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), and a member of the MHC Board. Professor Riordan will be giving a lecture entitled The American Revolution and the Origins of American Multiculturalism on December 10, in Portland, as a University of New England Center for Global Humanities seminar.


Left to Right: One of Cawdor Castle’s many gardens; a peek at Brodie Castle, home base while touring castles mentioned in Macbeth.
Photos: susan thibedeau