Four Weeks in Aberdeen

For the past four weeks, I taught a Comparative Crime and Punishment course at the University of Aberdeen. Teaching in the summer school was a very enjoyable and enriching experience for me and all of the students in the program. I know a lot of planning by University of Aberdeen staff and faculty, including Carol Lawie, Anne-Michelle Slater, Susan Stokeld, and many others, went into putting the summer session together, and it really showed. The sessions on law in the United Kingdom were very informative, whether the topics were violence reduction (in a talk by guest speaker Karyn McCluskey, the head of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit), the history of surveillance (in a lecture delivered by Dr. Philip Glover), or medical malpractice or the National Health Service (in discussions I sat in on as part of Prof. Diane Hoffmann’s Comparative Health Law class).

In the United States, I teach courses on civil procedure, contracts, capital punishment and international human rights law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Over the course of the summer session in Aberdeen, everyone in the program got an introduction to Scots law, U.K. penal practices, and the City of Aberdeen courtesy of the Lord Provost and local residents. We got to do everything from visit the Scottish Parliament and the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh to tour the new prison and prison museum in Peterhead. Seeing the new prison and the old prison facility side-by-side was a particularly eye-opening experience for the American law students in the program. And the trip to the new prison and the Peterhead Prison Museum sparked lots of conversations and debate about America’s correctional system.

The students in the Comparative Crime and Punishment course had the chance to research and write papers on topics of their choice. After learning about the Scottish legal system and the difference between American and Scottish sheriffs, a number of the students chose to explore and write about the differences between American law and Scots law. One student chose to write about Scotland’s unique “not proven” verdict (especially after hearing a poster presentation by a Ph.D. student at the University of Aberdeen who highlighted the contrast between 15-person juries in Scotland and 12-person juries in the U.S.). Another student chose to write about the differences between policing in Scottish cities and in Baltimore, while another decided to explore Scotland’s corroboration rule compared to American rules of evidence.

Scotland is a beautiful place, and like many of my students, I got a chance to see lots of historic sites during my stay. A visit to Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle was a particular highlight, and train, ferry, bus and taxi rides allowed me to experience the sights of Inverness and Urquhart Castle, the Isle of Skye and the Fairy Pools, and Glasgow’s impressive cathedral and city hall as well as its streetscapes. In Aberdeen itself, I really enjoyed spending time at the university’s impressive library and strolling through Stewart Park and St. Machar’s Cathedral. As part of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, which coincided with the summer course, I also got to see a wonder concert involving a joint performance by an Icelandic choir and a choral group from Glasgow.

My time in Aberdeen could not have been more fulfilling or rewarding. The study of comparative law allows students and faculty members alike to gain new perspectives, and by meeting and hearing from new people who are experts on another country’s laws and practices, the opportunity for learning is amplified and increased exponentially. A visit to the Tolbooth Museum in Aberdeen–formerly a seventh-century jail–reminded me and other students who paid a visit of just how far we’ve come since the Scottish Enlightenment, which we also discussed at length as part of my course. In-class student participation was tremendous, and a lot of that is attributable to the intellectual atmosphere created by the chance to study abroad.

The Scottish tradition of coffee, tea and snacks between classes made time for additional conversation, and it also made the exchange of ideas particularly sociable and fun. And the closing lunch, with a bagpipe performance by a member of the law faculty, turned out to be a perfect way to end the course of study. The food, drink and celebratory remarks capped off a near perfect summer, with the only glitch I experienced during my whole time in Aberdeen being a seagull swooping down and snatching a big bite of a ham-and-cheese sandwich I’d been nonchalantly eating as I walked along King Street after class one day. Now I know why a sign on a little eatery near Aberdeen’s Union Street reads “Beware the Seagulls”!

One of the many things we learned outside of the classroom is that Aberdeen’s ancient motto is “Bon Accord” (French for “Good Agreement”). The city’s official toast, in fact, is “Happy to meet, sorry to part, happy to meet again – Bon Accord!” I was extremely pleased to meet everyone in Aberdeen and it was hard to say goodbye, but I know that I’ll see everyone again soon. There is already talk of a reunion of summer school alums in the works. In the meantime, I’ll carry my fond memories of Aberdeen with me as I head into a new semester of teaching at the University of Baltimore and the Georgetown University Law Center.

John Bessler is an Associate Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author or editor of multiple books on capital punishment, including most recently The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2017) and Justice Stephen Breyer’s Against the Death Penalty (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2016).