"Telling old stories, and singing songs, that make me think about where I came from"

Posts tagged ‘Dundee University’

I will not be run over

A month in and I may not speak a word of Swedish – well, beyond the odd word to get me by in a shop and the necessary ‘I don’t speak Swedish’ phrase – I may not have tried canned rotten fish, or experienced unusually cold weather, yet. But at least I have now internalised which way to look when crossing the road. Gone are the early days of repeated left-right-left-and-right-again, every time I approached the kerb, a routine which must have made me look like I was having some form of convulsion. I’m settling in. Each day that goes by the inevitable confusion of culture clashes becomes less frequent, and I am beginning, slowly, to understand Uppsala.

Like Dundee, Uppsala is a student city. The University is not merely the lifeblood of this city, but it is the vital organs which preserves its life. Last week was Kulturnatten, a day when the city played host to various cultural events, stalls, and festivities. In the evening Julie and I took a trip up to the castle and watched some fire dancers in the botanic gardens. There was a wonderful carnival atmosphere in the city, but again, it had a student feeling. I couldn’t help thinking about Raisin Monday in St. Andrews, or Scotland’s best Freshers Week in Dundee.

As I walk down any street in Uppsala I am becoming blind to the differences from home. In the beginning they were everywhere; from the American style suburbs with boulevards lined with trees, to the incessant flag flying, or merely the architecture. Close your eyes for a second and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in New England. Not that I’ve ever been, but it’s certainly reminiscent of how I imagine Maine, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire to look.

The differences that I am still struggling with are the academic idiosyncrasies. Instead of a 3,500 word essay, I have to do a ’20 page project’. The lecturer seemed confused when I quizzed him on the required font, font size, line spacing, and margins. I mean, come on, a slight tweak of any of the formatting and you could drastically increase, or decrease, the length of the piece. Added to that, classes in Uppsala start at quarter past the hour, and some begin at 8:15am. I felt like death warmed up when discussing useful theoretical frameworks in early modern history at that time in the morning. Without caffeine it just wouldn’t have been possible.

All of these ‘issues’ are really minor complaints. I’m loving my course and I will be eternally grateful to Uppsala, and the Swedish people, for allowing me to study here free of charge. The country is welcoming and very interesting for anyone, like me, who has a passion for early modern history. Sweden’s answer to St. Giles in Edinburgh is the Domkyrka in Uppsala. This is where the reformation in Sweden began and it’s a 2 minute walk from my department.

If I stayed here for a lifetime, there is one thing that I would never get used to. For all the good that Sweden has done me, I now hate cyclists with the passion of a, well, a thing with a lot of passion.

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Sour yoghurt doesn’t go well with coffee

Not for coffee

As the title suggests, I had my first little accident in Sweden. Surviving without coffee was not something I was ever going to do, but when I bought sour yoghurt – thinking it was milk – and added it to the already cheap and nasty coffee, I got a fairly revolting surprise which left me caffeine-less for an evening. It’s a mistake I have no intention of repeating, and I’m pleased to announce, that I have now figured out the Swedish word for milk – mjölk. Don’t ask me why that was hard.

Settling in a new country is a little like being a recovering alcoholic; you have good days, you have bad days. Today is a good day. Everything seems a little easier now and I’ve regained some of my focus; if not really started any serious reading. Being a masters student is rather different from my time as an undergraduate. We have access to a study room exclusively for postgrads, we have a little kitchen to prepare food, 24hr access to the buildings, and an air of superiority – maybe that’s just me. Having been set some reading for one of my courses I was surprised to notice a name

Chris Storrs

I recognised. The book in question was written by Chris Storrs, a Professor at Dundee who taught me during honours. I have to admit that I’ve never read any of his work before. It feels a little strange coming all the way to Sweden to read the works of my former teachers in Scotland. I’ve also decided that most of what I’ll be tackling for my assignments will be Scottish history – which begs the question why I’m in Sweden. Well, I suppose there’s the little fact of no fees.

In the last week I’ve realised how poor Scottish football is, not only because of our defeat to the Czechs (which was hard to swallow), but by watching the Swedish third division and noticing a parity with the SPL, I’ve continued to be sunburnt – Scottish skin is not made for this climate – settled into my new home, enjoyed class, played football with Swedes, drank coffee, had fika, liked fika, refused to eat raw heron, and began to enjoy the whole experience.

Julie visits on Wednesday… I’m counting the days. So much to catch up on, so much to see. For now, spare me a thought as I tackle the mountains of reading that I have been set. I need to make space for my favourite Scottish girl who will have my undivided attention for the latter part of this week.

Neil Oliver, Scotland’s answer to Marmite

From the Scottish public to foreign visitors, students to professional historians; everyone has an opinion of Neil Oliver. To those of you who fit none of the categories above, Mr. Oliver is the rugged, long-haired presenter of the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’ series. His gruff Ayreshire accent provides the same opening line to each programme, a line which reverberates around my head, a line that is so tempting to imitate, ‘Welcome to Scotland’.

That the BBC has seen fit to create this series is evidence of the growing interest in Scottish History. There seems no coincidence that since the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999 a barrage of books on the early-modern Scottish Parliament have been written. However, between 1900 and 1999 only a handful were released. The correlation seems too obvious to discuss further. Like any television broadcaster, the BBC create programmes which respond to the interests of their audience. There is no doubt that the ‘History of Scotland’ series has been successful, with impressive viewing figures to support this evaluation. The problem, for some, arises when we consider that this series is the only source of Scottish History which many people are exposed to.

Admittedly it is an ambitious project, with a £2million budget to boot. But it was hit by controversy when Professor Alan MacInnes of the University of Strathclyde resigned from the advisory board. He was angered by the ‘anglocentric’ nature of the programme, an early indication of the objections which would be repeated by many others, that with the creation of this series the BBC had an obvious political agenda to downplay Scotland. It was then revealed that Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh – a historian who holds an almost God-like position in Scotland’s academic community – had refused a position on the project’s advisory board. Without any meaningful academic contribution to the programme’s creation, could the programme go beyond the repetition of tired and outdated myth?

As if to confirm this, the BBC then compounded the problem – in the eyes of many – by hiring the charismatic archaeologist Neil Oliver as the programme’s presenter. Note ‘archaeologist’, not ‘historian’. I’ll always remember the disdain with which the academics at Dundee discussed Neil Oliver in a panel lecture I attended.

I find it hard to believe that from the plethora of academics in Scotland the BBC could not have found one who was articulate enough, charismatic enough, attractive enough, to present a programme on Scottish History. I am confused as to why they would not have tried harder to maintain the support of the academic community by having an advisory board with appropriate credentials. And I don’t understand why they felt it necessary to traipse over the same old stamping ground that we are taught as children in primary school. But, and you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, despite these minor objections I actually really like the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’. I even really like Neil Oliver (please, please don’t tell anyone).

The objections are motivated by academic snobbery, political victim mentality of the ilk of ‘the BBC are an arm of the British establishment and will do anything to undermine Scotland’. The reality is that this series has filled a vacuum in Scottish broadcasting. It has brought what is too often the reserve of students and geeks alike, to the mass public. Through Neil Oliver’s idiosyncratic style he provides excitement to what can often be dry subject matter.

For better or worse, one thing is undeniable, the ‘History of Scotland’ is the BBC’s contribution to something far bigger than History education. It is playing a part in the awakening psyche of a nation which is desperately trying to define itself. That the mouthpiece for this series doesn’t have a History degree seems irrelevant to me.

Scumdee?

Ever noticed how Dundonians are permanently moaning about Dundee but equally are the first to defend it?  They’ll also probably live here for the rest of their lives. People who live in Dundee for any length of time tend to adapt to this schizophrenic relationship with the city.

Dundee is an anomaly. It’s not obviously beautiful and prestigious like Edinburgh, it lacks the middle-class financial district that Glasgow boasts, and it doesn’t have distinguishing features like Aberdeen’s perma-grey sky. But it does have a unique charm. Take a step back for a second and truly think about it. The student bubble is concentrated in a tiny area of the westend surrounded by iconic pubs like the Speedwell (known as Menies to the locals). If you visit Speedwell’s facebook page it has fans from places as far afield as Vancouver. Dundee is a city that infects you deep down. I’m sure everyone thinks fondly of the city they studied in but there’s something magical that lights the eyes of Dundee alumni when you mention our grotty little city. The problem is I can never pin down exactly what it is that makes us feel this way. It seems simplistic to say it’s the student night life. The Union is great but there must be something more.

A friend has just this second changed her facebook status to ‘just watched the sun going down over the River Tay this evening. That’s why I go to uni in Dundee (the only reason)’. Maybe that’s it. Dundee is in a beautiful geographic position with the city rising from the banks of the Tay and the sunsets are enough to put everything into perspective – even if it lasts merely seconds. There’s also something different about the kind of people that come to Dundee to study. Something a bit more real, down to earth, and rebellious. Like the city, the University has a unique character. We’re not like the other ancients but we’re not one of the new kids about town either.

To me Dundee embodies modern Scotland. It has a plethora of ‘old man bars’, dwindling industries and the scars of those that have already left. Pulling in the other direction is a Scotland embodied by the cultural quarter (by that they mean the DCA) but also investment in the water-front project, the Victoria and Albert Museum and a burgeoning biotechnology industry. Look at the city’s politics: a microcosm of the trends in Scottish politics, where we see Labour gripping on to one MP – the only bulwark to total SNP domination over the city. To me this is what Dundee is all about. It doesn’t hide itself away like St. Andrews or Edinburgh, it doesn’t have localised concerns like Glasgow but instead has all facets of Scotland and unashamedly presents them.

The mentality of Dundonians is also a representation of Scotland. We harken to the past but there is a confident, forward looking and progressive beast that is slowly awakening. Dundee is an exciting place to live and study – I just hope it can retain its charm as it strides forward into the unknown.