By Christoph Otte |

For many PhD students (or any researcher, really), travelling is an important aspect of their work. You are likely to visit, or to have visited, archives, special libraries and collections, conferences and excavations. Much of this is already covered in Richard Parfitt’s Research Trip post. What I would like to do is to draw your attention to a different type of travelling and to the usefulness of exploring your PhD’s ‘local perspective’. Although perhaps not applicable to every single research topic, this approach can give a new quality to your research, PhD or otherwise. interesting, this is not what I mean by local colour.

I should perhaps illustrate my points with an example from my own ongoing PhD odyssey. My thesis is concerned with the rural settlement patterns and early medieval agriculture of the former county of Dumfriesshire (south-west Scotland), roughly from AD 600 to 1000. There is a good deal of geographical analysis to be had in this topic, as different landscape patterns can play an important role both in agricultural land use and in the extent of settlement activity. It is quite clear that I had to travel to the areas I study to get a sense of what I am dealing with. Of course, time and financial constraints are always potentially limiting factors when planning these trips, but, luckily, in my case, Dumfries is not particularly far away. I decided to go there in May 2015 and have a cycling trip through the parishes that make up my study area.

Image2My cycling route through central Dumfriesshire, with Dumfries (to the west) as starting and finishing point.

While this might be an intuitive realisation for people working on historical geography and archaeology, I would like to go further and argue that PhD theses with other foci might equally benefit from adding some ‘local colour’. Let’s be honest: the majority of scholars in our respective fields are interested in human activity and interaction, and these two aspects do not usually occur outside any geographical context. Every historical (in the widest sense) person we study is bound to call or have called some place their home, a place where they grew up or lived, surrounded by a specific landscape which shaped local life and society. It might be useful, therefore, to explore these places, even if only to experience what modern inhabitants of that landscape might think (or not think) of their ‘pre-dwellers’. For example, during my two-day excursion to Dumfriesshire, I became more and more aware of the various benefits of visiting a location which is strongly associated with my PhD topic, not just from a standpoint of getting to know the landscape. Here are four of these benefits:


Maybe starting on a slightly mundane note, travelling through your study area or an area related to your study can provide some nice background pictures for your presentation (PhD thesis, powerpoint slides etc.). This is not just a matter of added aesthetic value, but can also emphasise to your audience that you have engaged with the ‘spatial’ component of your research. Where did the author of your literary study come from? How does the newly-settled landscape of a diaspora community compare with the area they stem from? What can we still see today of a monument or geographical feature described in an ancient, medieval or modern text?

Image3When out and about, you might even find an interested audience to test your next conference paper!

Local people.

It’s not a bad idea to talk to local people. What they will tell you might not always be quotable in an academic piece of work, but it can give you the right ideas or spark new theories. As I was cycling past a little village called ‘Greenhill’ (parish Lochmaben), I stopped at one of the houses and asked the man who was busy painting his window frames why this place was called Greenhill. I was quickly made aware of my blindness, as the man kindly pointed in the direction behind me, where a little elevation towards the River Annan could be seen.

Image4The ‘hill’ at Greenhill.

He didn’t leave it at that. In the ensuing conversation he elaborated that some four years ago, when the River Annan flooded its banks, said ‘hill’ was the only place in the vicinity still looking out of the waters. A millennium ago the Annan might have behaved differently, maybe even had a slightly different course, but it is tempting to think that this little elevation or hill not only provided Greenhill with its name, but was also one of the primary reasons to settle there.

Image5Spot the ‘R’! Another example of what can be learned from local people. Apparently, some estate managements like to plant their initials into the forest, as seen here at Rammerscales Estate, south of Lochmaben.

Local museums.

If possible, visit a local museum. It is always great to see how much amazing work some local history societies put into studying and displaying their heritage. In contrast to many exhibits you would see in, say, the British Museum, local museums have the benefit of being only a few miles away from where their exhibits have been found, providing you with a much better context. You might even have cycled past that hill fort where archaeologists dug up the Iron Age plough now in front of you!

Image6The beam of a prehistoric ard or scratch plough.

Landscape immersion.

Try to walk or cycle. In addition to being a good exercise, this will give you a better idea of how everything is connected (sounds very esoteric, right?). Distances and infrastructure still play a big role today, but would have done so even more in a time before cars, motorways and office jobs. How long does it take to get from A to B? Where do the routes lead through? And can you really see village X from mount Y? This would have affected the lives and thoughts of the people you study, be they peasant or philosopher, and may be reflected in whichever legacy they left to us.

Image7Any excuse to visit a castle. Here: Lochmaben Castle.

Each of the above points could be elaborated on for much longer, but I hope I managed to encourage some of you to take out your walking boots or bicycles and to embark on your own journeys to explore local perspectives and bother random villagers with odd questions.

Image8A Dumfriesshire specialty?


Christoph Otte is a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in the early medieval (AD 600-1000) agrarian history and settlement patterns of eastern Dumfriesshire and studies how agriculture and land use are affected by the location of settlements and vice versa.

(Cover Image and Image 1 (c); Image 2 (c) Crown Copyright and Database Right 2015 Ordnance Survey; Images 3-8 (c) Christoph Otte)