An advocate of German in Scotland

29 August 2014

She founded the Society for Scottish Studies in Europe and is the head of the largest Sir Walter Scott research program. She acts as an advisor to the Scottish Parliament and set up an internship program that brings students of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to Scottish schools. It is remarkable what Dr. Sigrid Rieuwerts has already achieved in terms of promoting the relationship between Germany and Scotland.

At present, she can be found in her office in the Department of English and Linguistics at Mainz University, but Dr. Sigrid Rieuwerts will soon be departing once again for Edinburgh. She wants to be there when a very important decision is made. On September 18, the people of Scotland will be voting on whether or not their country should become independent of the United Kingdom.

"This is an exciting time, even if it gets little mention in the media over here," Rieuwerts begins. "If plan A is approved, Scotland will become independent and Berlin will have to consider what to do about Germany's relationship with this new sovereign state. But if, on the other hand, the voters favor plan B, Scotland will remain part of the UK and the country will have to do some serious re-thinking. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that Scotland will need powerful friends abroad. And the best way to establish the necessary partnerships is through universities and the German federal states. This means that Rhineland-Palatinate and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz are particularly well-suited for the job."

Scotland's traditions

It is unlikely that she will remain on the sidelines when things start to happen. Rieuwerts seems to vibrate with energy and drive. She can barely remain in her seat, talks unbelievably fast, and has a lot to say. Her relationship with Scotland has so many aspects; how on earth, she wonders, is she supposed to fit them into a single interview?

"I brought something back with me," says Rieuwerts and places a big book on the desk. "I bought it for £12 at a flea market." It is a beautiful old volume with charming illustrations. "Scott's Critical Works" can still be read on the spine, although the words have become slightly faded. "The works of Sir Walter Scott can be said to epitomize the traditions of Scotland but many now see him as fusty and old fashioned."

Rieuwerts is doing her best to resuscitate his reputation. In 2011, she started a bi-national academic project that has as its focus Scott's collection of ballads, "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border". A joint venture of Mainz University and the University of Edinburgh, where Rieuwerts works in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, it is the largest humanities project of its kind. Originally set up for three years, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and Britain's Arts and Humanities Research Council sponsored it to the tune of EUR 500,000. "We have now been granted an extension," explains Rieuwerts.

As in the case of the Brothers Grimm, Scott was also interested in the orally transmitted folk tales of his native country. He collected the ballads of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands. Scott did not merely record what he heard but also added his own creative touches, entirely in keeping with the spirit of his times.

Society for Scottish Studies

"Can you believe that there is currently no critical edition of this book?," Rieuwerts asks. She is working with her teams in Edinburgh and Mainz to create such an edition and this requires moving well outside the realm of standard academic practices. She visits cemeteries with her students to find clues about the individuals who supplied Scott with the ballads. "They were often women and he usually identifies them using only a single letter. I want to give them faces."

Rieuwerts even staged an exhibition dedicated to the links between Scott and the Brothers Grimm at the Edinburgh National Library – and this brought her into contact with the only living Grimm descendant, who lives in Scotland and has access to important manuscripts.

When the Scott project was up and running, it was Rieuwerts' initiative that resulted in the formation of the Society for Scottish Studies in Europe, the first society of its type in Europe. Rieuwerts does not even mention the fact that she was elected as the society's president. She would much rather talk more about her links to Scotland.

It was while visiting the German Consulate General in Edinburgh that she discovered that there was a serious problem with the teaching of German in Scottish schools – and this in a country where classic German literature used to be read in the original. "In 2013, there were only nine German teachers in the whole of Scotland."

German lessons for Scotland

Rieuwerts stepped in. She imported 33 prospective German teachers of English to Scotland. "In order to qualify as teachers, our students need to provide proof that they have completed a three-month foreign internship." Many were thrilled with the idea to go to Scotland. The German Educational Trainees Across Borders program is now supported by both the German Consulate General and Scotland's National Centre for Languages.

Rieuwerts has created a vast network. Many institutions turn to her to benefit from her expertise when it comes to Scottish-German affairs. She is even a member of the Scottish Parliament's Cross Party Group on Germany. She recently heard that the German-Scottish student exchange program is in a state of gradual decline. "So I submitted an official question on the subject," she says. "I'm looking forward to the answer."

Rieuwerts is involved in so many activities that it is only possible to outline a selection here. On one occasion, she found out that a library in the Scottish Borders needed a specialist to read some Latin documents it held. She found a suitable student – and he found a surprise: "He discovered royal decrees that nobody knew about." Yet another academic project involving Mainz University was born.

"In Edinburgh they now think that all German students come from Mainz," says Rieuwerts with a twinkle in her eye, before adding more seriously: "We really are considered important there." And now, with the big decision pending, Rieuwerts needs to head back to Scotland. "We would love to be involved when the country reinvents itself," she says. "Education is one of the fields in which Scotland already has the right of self-determination. So I tell them: In finding and defining yourself, please give us some room, too."