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From Scottish Rivals to Carlisle Friends:Eileen Baird and Debbie Bentley reconnect in a town that s

Pride runs deep in Scotland, especially between “weans” and “bairns.” Glasgow and Edinburgh, separated by a mere 40-minute train ride, boast a deep-seated urban rivalry of history and culture, of east vs. west, of business vs. industry, of vinegar vs. brown sauce. Professor Robert Crawford of St. Andrews University proposed that the bickering actually began in 1656, when the Glasgow town council complained about poor local baking standards, and several Edinburgh bakers stepped up with an offer to bake bread for Glasgow of much higher quality. “The gloves were off and the jousting between Edinburgh and Glasgow had begun,” said Crawford.

Eileen Baird and Debbie Bentley recall the rivalry vividly, and continue to poke fun at each other even now as they both live in Carlisle, thousands of miles from their Scottish homeland. Despite being born on opposite sides of Falkirk, Eileen and Debbie have much in common, and relish memories of their college exploits together and the circumstances that have reunited them in Carlisle so many years later. Eileen went first. She’s older.

Eileen Baird was born in Edinburgh, the youngest of four children in a middle-class family. “I’m not sure if I was destined to end up somewhere else,” she quipped, “but I remember sitting one day with two friends I had known since birth in the vacant land between our houses. The whole question of the year 2000 came up, and we made a pact that day that, no matter where we were, we would meet at home on New Year’s Eve of 2000. For some reason I said I wasn’t sure that I would be there, and my friends were amazed that I could imagine being anywhere else. Obviously there was some wanderlust in me even then,” Eileen laughed.

From age three to 18, Eileen attended the Mary Erskine School, one of a group of Merchant Company Schools that were founded by merchants and later supported by the Scottish government. She proudly noted that her school was unique for being founded by a female merchant in 1694, as there were few women in the merchant trades 300 years ago.

Debbie asked Eileen what color uniform she wore in school. Eileen sported a jumper topped with a navy blue sweater with red collar and cuffs. Debbie wore a simple brown uniform all through her school years. “Obviously, I grew out of it,” she joked, and Eileen laughed out loud at the mental image of Debbie wearing the same exact uniform for 12 years.

The Other City Debbie Bentley, born in “the other city,” a suburb of Glasgow, said her early education was the “Glaswegian equivalent” to Eileen’s. She attended Jordanhill College School from ages four to 16, a training school attached to teacher training college, and also government-funded. Debbie, too, was one of four children, and her parents were physicians, her father a pediatric surgeon and her mother an epidemiologist. Debbie’s father grew up in India, and she described him as one of the third generation of Scottish people who went to India to make a better life for themselves.

“I never went to Edinburgh. That was the other place,” Debbie stated flatly. “The rivalry was pretty big between the two cities, probably because of wealth. Edinburgh was powerful since it was the capital, but Glasgow was bigger and had more wealth.” Debbie said she did not travel much to Edinburgh until after she moved to the U.S., when she could take inexpensive flights directly from Providence. “I love it now,” she added.

Eileen said, “Someone once told me that they are the two closest cities in the world that are the most different.” Debbie said the distance between the two cities is about the same as Dallas and Fort Worth. Eileen offered a memory to show the difference between the two cities. “I went to Glasgow for university. One day I was standing at the bus stop and someone started talking to me. I kept looking around, wondering who could possibly be talking to me! In Glasgow, people talk to each other at the bus stop. That would never happen in Edinburgh.” Debbie laughed heartily in agreement.

The road to architecture school Debbie and Eileen met in college, when they both were accepted to the Mackintosh School of Architecture, a combined course between Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a renowned arts and crafts style architect, an artist who was “up there with Frank Lloyd Wright as a star in the architecture field” according to Debbie.

While slightly younger than Eileen, Debbie graduated from secondary school early, so began university one year earlier than Eileen. In Scotland, students can finish secondary school in five rather than six years if they desire. “I knew I wanted to go on to university,” said Debbie. “I knew what I wanted to do, so at end of my fifth year I went straight on to university at the age of 16.” The law has changed now and students in Scotland cannot enroll at university until they are 18.

Debbie said there were five universities that had desirable architecture programs, so she applied to all of them, with Glasgow as her last choice. “When you go to architecture school, you actually have to interview in person and show your portfolio. They even give you a test.” After she interviewed at all of the schools on her list, Debbie realized that Glasgow truly was her best option. “I loved Glasgow and loved the school, so I came home and told my parents that I was going to Glasgow. Unfortunately, the way the fees worked then, if you went to university in your home town, you had to live at home. Since I was somewhat of a rebel teen, my parents were really looking forward to me leaving. I had to go home and disappoint them with my news!”

Neither woman remembers the exact moment they met, but both recall that it wasn’t hard to pick out other women in the program. There were only five women and 30+ men in Debbie’s first-year class at Glasgow, and two women dropped before the second year. Debbie said second years mentored the first years when they arrived, although she did say she would have to “phone a friend” to remember what project they worked on together when Eileen first joined the studio.

The small group of female architecture majors soon bonded, and for two years lived a typical college existence, where Debbie implied that Eileen might have had a little more fun than the others. But after two years, Eileen decided that she was not architect material. “I realized that in architecture, there were just too many possible answers. I like to have something that is defined where there is just one correct answer.” Eileen decided to switch to a math/physics track, so transferred to a different department within the university. She still lived with her architect friends, though, which was key in reconnecting with Debbie years later.

New careers divide old friends

About the same time Eileen changed her major, Debbie completed the first part of her undergraduate degree and headed to Brighton, on the South Coast of England to work for a year before finishing up the final two years of her degree at the University of Creative Arts (Canterbury School of Art) where she graduated in 1983, then took a job in London with Pollard Thomas and Edwards, a firm renowned for designing and developing affordable housing projects. Debbie said she was also pleased that the firm actively supported young women architects, and that to this day it remains committed to the 50:50 Initiative to even the male-to-female ratio at all architecture and design firms.

Back at Glasgow, Eileen changed her major once again, this time taking advantage of a new joint degree program in physics and electronic engineering. Debbie said Eileen switched because she was determined “to find a course with even fewer women than architecture!” Eileen graduated in 1984, and on the advice of one of her professors, decided to apply to graduate schools in the U.S. “I’m still not sure how I REALLY did on the GRE exam,” she joked, but she did receive a Fulbright Scholarship and believes that was the key factor in her being admitted to a Master’s program at MIT.

Eileen said her first few months in the U.S. were difficult. “I was getting used to a new country, trying to settle in, but at least I didn’t ‘quite’ have to learn the language. My professor was on my case right away because I hadn’t invented anything since I arrived.” Eileen said she was eventually assigned a mentor who happened to be taking a course in the newly opened Media Lab and invited her to visit the class. “I can remember seeing the first Mac, Lisa, and being completely blown away by the graphics.” While Eileen contemplated switching majors, she had already completed the core requirements for her EE degree, so instead she convinced a professor in the Media Lab to allow her to do her thesis there. “It was the early days of the Media Lab, and I was so lucky to be surrounded by such brilliant people from all different backgrounds.” Eileen completed her thesis in combining computer graphics and dance notation and her Master’s degree in 1987.

Debbie’s path to the U.S.

Debbie took a hiatus from work when her boss offered her the option of taking a leave in lieu of overtime she had accrued. Debbie wanted to visit India since her father grew up there, so she took the offer and booked an adventure. When she arrived in New Delhi in the middle of the night, she got a room at the YMCA, only to be awoken a few hours later by a call from the tour director, Richard Holiday (the irony of his last name did not go unnoticed). Holiday told Debbie that there had been a roommate mix-up, and asked if she would mind sharing her room with an American man. “Being very British, I told him that I didn’t know how I felt about it. I’ll have to have a look at him first. I was just trying to buy myself some time,” she said.

“I had a shower, went downstairs and Richard introduced me to John Kaufman. I turned around to Richard and said, ‘No! Fix it.’” John Kaufman is Debbie’s husband, but their first meeting was hardly true love at first sight. “John was miffed that I had turned him down without acknowledging his presence.” Debbie was assigned a female roommate and John roomed with Holiday.

Debbie was in the Thar Desert near Pakistan when Richard broke the news that the tour company had made another mix-up. She wasn’t actually booked on the trip she was expecting—three days exploring Jaisalmer, a massive 13th century middle eastern fort built on a stone outcropping. Instead, she was booked on a camel safari, and they had no hotel room for her. “They arranged that I would sleep in the desert on the tour, then I would come back with the supply group and spend the time in the town walking around. It was actually fantastic—I was a tall, white, single woman walking around and women really enjoyed talking to me. It was so interesting.”

Debbie said that on the last night of the trip, she found herself in an uncomfortable situation, alone on a carpet with a local man who tried to make some unwanted advances. Her knight in shining armor appeared just over the sand dunes on his camel, and just in time. It was John Kaufman. “It was that night that we really started getting to know each other, and we ended up getting married ten months later.”

John had taken a year off from work to travel, so he continued on while Debbie went back to work in London. Soon Debbie decided “John was having too much fun,” so she quit her job and joined him in Thailand to travel together. The couple married in Scotland, then moved back to London where Debbie took a new job with a boutique design firm that she described as “award-oriented.” “If you want to win an award, you need to do it before you have children,” Debbie said, “and I did want my version of the Oscar.” She got that “Oscar” in 1994 when she won a RIBA Regional Award for the Maldon Library and Social Services Offices with Greenberg + Hawkes.

After Debbie and John had their first child, Anya, in 1995, John asked Debbie to move to the US. “He wanted his daughter to be brought up in America and not question where she belonged, like he always had. So I said ‘let’s go.’” They moved to Newton until they found a house in Carlisle. “We love deck houses. They are so different from what you can get in the UK,” Debbie said. “But we ended up in Carlisle because I sat in the library one day and just listened to the people around me. Everyone knew each other and seemed so friendly, and we wanted to be a part of that.” They had a second daughter, Marinna, in 2000 while they were living in Japan (stories of their world travels are worthy of another feature).

Lives converge once again

After Eileen graduated from MIT, she had one year remaining on her VISA, so got a job with Digital Techniques in Burlington. The company wanted to keep her in the U.S., but restrictions on her Fulbright Scholarship made it difficult to stay. She returned to Scotland until the company could secure a green card for her to return. But after a year being back in the U.S., Eileen changed jobs.

Eileen recalled that, “The previous occupant of my office was an Edward Sullivan. I had this picture in my mind that he was an old guy.” Young and single, Eileen eventually asked one of the men from work if he knew anyone he could set her up with on a date. Her friend suggested Ed Sullivan. “I said, ‘you mean the old guy whose office I have?’ He said, ‘he’s not an old guy!’” Eileen and Ed were introduced, and the rest is history.

Ed lived in Billerica when they met, close to the Carlisle line. After a few years of marriage, the couple decided to build a house in Chelmsford, just north of the Carlisle town line off of Lowell Road. It was around that same time that Eileen returned home to Scotland and visited with a close college friend, Karen, who told her that Debbie was also living in Massachusetts, in a town that began with the letter “C.”

Karen and Debbie had also been keeping in touch over the years, so she gave Eileen Debbie’s contact information. Nearly 30 years and 30,000 miles later, Eileen and Debbie reconnected when Eileen invited Debbie and her young daughter, Anya, to her house in Chelmsford. “I might possibly have worked out that you were here by now,” Debbie joked. Eileen, Ed and their daughter, Catriona, became unofficial Carlisle residents when Debbie invited them to join the Carlisle Kids Connection Play groups.

In 2002, the Sullivans finally crossed town lines and officially moved to Carlisle.

On their Scottish heritage, citizenship and life in America

Debbie and Eileen have fully assimilated to life in the US now, and said if they have a hankering for something they miss from home, they can usually find it locally. Both women maintain close ties to Scotland, and Debbie’s oldest daughter decided to attend boarding school and university there. Eileen maintains close relationships with family in Scotland, and is in regular contact with a few childhood friends even today. Eileen said she has noticed many cultural differences between Scotland and the US over the years, and mentioned one event in particular when friends from the U.K. visited for New Year’s Eve and tried to kiss Boston police officers. In Scotland, it is tradition for people to queue up on New Year’s Eve to kiss officers. Police officers in Scotland do not carry guns, though.

Debbie and Eileen have not become US citizens, although both revisit the idea on a regular basis. Debbie said she has not felt a strong need to become an American yet because her views are largely in line with Massachusetts voters. Eileen said that, in order to become a US citizen, you have to agree to “give up all allegiance to foreign princes.” “Some have told me they lied about it, but for me, those words really mean something and I don’t take them lightly,” she said.

Both women said that President Trump’s presidency was a wake-up call, especially his position on immigration, and worried that their visa status was in jeopardy during his administration. They also agreed that becoming US citizens would be a practical move that would make estate planning easier for their families in the future.

And, speaking of New Year’s Eve, Eileen did meet up with her childhood friends in Edinburgh for Y2K. “I think what is probably more amazing is that we have remained so close, in general, even though I moved here. They really are like additional sisters to me and we meet up all the time.”

This article was published in The Carlisle Mosquito on April 15, 2021.

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