Ye good olde days

Hannah Currie delves into the archives to reveal Glasgow University’s colourful history

These young folk have it easy

Exams in the olden days were as much of a drag as they are now, though conducted quite differently. Paper was not readily available, so examination consisted of oral questioning and active debate, lasting for as long as the sand ran in a timing glass. Until the 19th century, students sat on a Black Stone, which was thought to empower them during the exam.

Students were ranked against their classmates and it was a bit more obvious if you didn’t do well, as there were only about 20 to 30 people in the whole university. Numbers gradually increased over the years, and a huge rise in the 20th century left us where we are today, with 20,000 students.

Freshers are nothing new

The Freshers of the new millenium might fancy themselves to be footloose and fearless when it comes to student fun and games, but they have it easy compared to medieval first-years. In 1476, the unfortunate Robert Ross was blinded in one eye after being struck by a cabbage stalk while playing makeshift football with another student.

Averaging out at the age of eleven to fourteen, new students also engaged in golf and archery. But there were no late nights for these poor boys, who rose at 5am to start classes … in Latin. Today’s students might think twice before complaining about nine o’clock lectures.

Location location location

Loafing around in the University or amid the buzz of the west end is one of the pleasures of living Glasgow, but our university didn’t arrive at our pretty-city setting by accident. Over 500 years ago Glasgow was chosen because it had a moderate climate, an abundance of provisions and a convenient central location. Originally, the University was on the High Street, only moving to its current home in the 19th century to satisfy demand for more space and better buildings.

The idea for a University came from Bishop William Turnbull, who believed it would enhance the status of his Cathedral and provide Scotland with an educated clergy. Universities were Catholic institutions that had to be approved by ‘papal bull’, a letter from the Pope: in 1451 Nicholas V issued a bull, and Glasgow University was born. The quadrangle layout of the main buildings was inspired by the traditions of the enclosed monastic life: back then the grassy courtyard would have been used to grow vegetables.

Not Just a Pretty Mace

Despite years of development and change, Glasgow University is steeped in tradition. The University Mace is a symbol of this continuity: in the 1460s funds were raised for an especially fine mace, and a super-sexy silver one, with a gilt and enamel crown, was purchased.

It has been used ever since, save for a period of thirty years when Archbishop James Beaton ran off to Paris with it and a load of other loot in 1560. This was the year of the Scottish Reformation, when Glasgow converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, prompting Beaton to flee. Most of the valuables were lost during the French Revolution, but the mace was sent back in 1590. It is now kept in the Hunterian Museum and carried at ceremonial occasions and graduation.

Courting Controversy

Throughout history the University’s Principals have raised eyebrows almost without exception. Brave Scot Thomas Smeaton took over as principal of Glasgow University in 1580 during very tricky times indeed.

The sixteenth century Reformation had thrown the city into a period of unrest, and ye olde Smeato was involved in a six-hour student riot sparked by government moves to set up a new archbishop in Glasgow. To this day it is not clear whether Smeaton took part or resisted the riot, however Steven Reid, a lecturer at Glasgow who specialises in early University history, is currently researching Smeaton’s mysterious role.

High Achievers

Getting straight As today is no easy task, but imagine the pressure to achieve brilliance in the midst of the advances of the Scottish Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, Glasgow wasn’t short of its whiz kids. Notable alumni include outstanding mathematician Colin MacLaurin, an undergraduate at Glasgow in the 1710s who wrote such a good dissertation on Newton that Newton himself was impressed.

Lab worker James Watt worked closely with Joseph Black to develop the steam engine, while we have Francis Hutcheson to thank for lectures being taught in English (he was the first Professor in Glasgow to do so). Alexander Broadie, professor at Glasgow University and author of ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’, says: “The unique thing about Glasgow’s geniuses was that they were multi-talented: they didn’t just do one impressive thing; they did many.

This was thanks to a large number of societies in Glasgow where experts from all sorts of fields could join together and discuss ideas.” Perhaps the most famous student at Glasgow was economist Adam Smith, who attended the university in the 1730s and later returned to become Professor of Logic and Rhetoric – a position which Professor Broadie now holds.

Pulling a Sickie?

Nowadays, nobody so much as bats an eyelid if a student misses the occasional  lecture. Had you been one of the boys at Glasgow University in the 15th and 16th centuries you would have received a severe beating, (women were not allowed in until 1892).

According to lecturer Steven Reid corporal punishment was popular – with the regents, at least. “There were often complaints that some of the masters enjoyed caning a bit too much,” he says. “University education was very regimented – you simply weren’t allowed to misbehave or slack off”.

Debt-Ridden Students

From hastily-spent student loans to maxed-out overdrafts, we’ve all experienced the unwelcome sting of financial difficulty. Up until very recently the quality of a student’s life depended much more upon their ability to pay.

16th century rich kids ate well with their regents (teachers), whilst cash-strapped students often acted as their servitors, hungrily eyeing the lavish meals as they dished them out. Unfortunately for the poor ones, neither tins of baked beans nor Farmfoods were in existence during the Middle Ages.


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