"Northern Lights: The Arctic Scots" by Edward J. Cowan is a fine book that helps put right a significant historical oversight: the lack of recognition awarded by their peers and by posterity to the contributions made by Scots to Arctic exploration. The author of this attractive and beautifully-produced book was Chair of Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow and Director of Glasgow's Crichton Campus until 2009. He had also taught at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Guelph and written widely on various aspects of Scottish history. It is therefore no surprise that "Northern Lights" simply exudes the superb quality of the research that underpins it.
The author takes a largely chronological approach to his subject and the period covered is set out in the dust jacket blurb: "The awakening of the Scots to the magnificence and dread of the hyperborean regions – as places of discovery, of inspiration and, regrettably, of exploitation – is traced, with particular emphasis on the first half of the nineteenth century until the search for the missing Franklin expedition mid-century."
The scene is set in the opening chapter and we then move on to John Ross's expedition of 1818; James Clark Ross; John Richardson; the Ross expedition of 1829-1833; a look at "The Scots and the Inuit"; Thomas Simpson; John Rae; and then three chapters on the search for the Franklin expedition. As the author notes: "The search for Franklin became one of the largest rescue efforts in history. Spread over two decades, it entailed over thirty expeditions, by land and sea..." The final chapter covers "Discovering the Northwest Passage". The book concludes with a fascinating timeline followed by extensive notes and a bibliography.
You get another view of the content from the publisher's description: "Surprisingly, the remarkable story of the Scottish role in the discovery of the Northwest Passage – a long desired trade route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific – has not received a great deal of attention. This book charts the extensive contribution to Arctic exploration made by the Scots, including significant names, such as John Ross from Stranraer, veteran of three Arctic expeditions; his nephew, James Clark Ross, the most experienced Arctic and Antarctic explorer of his generation and discoverer of the Magnetic North Pole; John Richardson of Dumfries, a medical doctor, seasoned explorer and engaging natural historian; and Orcadian John Rae, who discovered evidence of the grisly demise of John Franklin and his crew. The book also pays tribute to many others too: the Scotch Irish, the whalers and not least the Inuit, with whom the Scottish explorers cooperated and generally enjoyed good relations, relying on their knowledge of the environment in many crucial cases."
The author's preface is dated November 2021 and in her editor's note his wife, Lizanne Henderson Cowan, says that her husband died on 2 January 2022, having recently completed his first full draft of this book. She, and Birlinn, are to be congratulated for bringing "Northern Lights: The Arctic Scots" to publication. The book is dedicated by the author to his "eight grandchildren, four in Canada and four in Scotland..." It is fitting that they should have this book to remember him by.