Symbolism on and around campus

Daniel Santamaria

As students of the University of Glasgow, we are part of a long history that goes back to the Middle Ages. Although this past seems utterly divorced from us, while we rush to  lectures or wander the library in the hope of finding a computer, we can get to know it better. One way of doing this is by paying attention to the symbols found in the campus buildings: plates, carvings, glasses and sculptures; all tell stories about those who shaped the University before us. Touring  campus searching for these details can help us to understand the University we experience today, but you may well  discover some detail you had ignored up to now. If the meaning of a piece of architecture has been bothering you as you pass it on your travels, you may find the answer herein.


1. The Beginning

We can start our tour at the south front of the Main Building by having a look at the flag; this depicts the elements of the University coat of arms in yellow over a blue frame. The university coat of arms is ubiquitous on campus, from stone and glass to recycling bins it’s impossible to miss. As the city of Glasgow arms, it also shows the tree, fish, bird and bell of St. Mungo, or Kentingern, the VIth century monk credited for the founding of the city. I recommend reading the poem based on these symbols. The coat of arms also bears an open book and the XVth century University mace, which is still used on ceremonial occasions. The arms also show the motto, ‘Via Veritas Vita’ (The way, the truth and the life) taken from John’s gospel. You can also have a look at the tower spire; this was originally designed to include a big clock. At the main entrance of the building there are two carved coats of arms: that depicting a bull is that of Bishop William Turnbull, who together with Pope Nicholas V and King James II was a founder of the University back in 1451 and its first Chancellor. The one with the shells is that of the 4th Duke of Montrose, who was the Chancellor in 1870. The next building is the James Watt South (1958), in one of the walls we see Eric Kennington’s the ‘Progress of Science’ (1959) stone mural, if you manage to put the inscription of this unorthodox Greek pantheon together it says, in Latin, ‘Through sea and land; by science and genius; learn, teach’.

3. The Main Gates

To the other side of the avenue we find the Quincentenary Memorial Gate (1951) featuring the University‘s most notable alumni. Behind the gates we see the Hunter Memorial (1925); it commemorates brothers William and John Hunter, donors of the collection that started the museum that bears his name and surgeon to the king George III respectively. Here we find two of the most important University symbols facing each other: one in the centre of the monument and the other at the top of the arch in the reading room, this is the University Seal. It depicts Saint Mungo at the centre, a hand with an open book to his right and a fish with a ring in his mouth to his left. Around the almond-shaped frame of the seal we read the Latin for ‘University of Glasgow Common Seal’. It can be seen all around campus in many of its variants: here, at the GUU, the Bower building or in the John McIntyre. This is precisely the building next to the memorial, it was executed in three phases (1885, 1893 and 1907) it was the GUU Building until it moved to its current seat in 1930. The monograms in the façade are AM and JM, for Anne and John McIntyre whose £5000 donation funded the building, this is remembered by the plate in the façade.  Above the door we see the symbols of the four nations, these can also be found at the GUU. It is often said that our University is like Hogwarts, but we do not only share with that school the architecture of the Main Building, here students were also sorted into four houses, or as they were called, nations until 1977 and for the purpose of voting at the rectorial elections according to their place of origin: Glottiana (Clydesdale) whose symbol is the two-headed eagle, Loudonina  (Teviotdale) bears an anchor , Transforthiana  (Albany) the one with the axe and abundance horn  and Rothseisana (Rothesay) whose symbol is a sailing boat.


4. Hillhead Street

In front of this building, on Hillhead Street, we notice Dhruva Mistry’s bronze sculpture ‘Diagram of an Object’ (1990) in front of the Hunterian Art Gallery. Opposite, you can read ‘To be set and sown in the garden (Christine Borland, 2001)’ on the plate at the edge of the grass, you may ask where is the sculpture; the answer is found by inspecting the white ceramics at the end of the benches where you have possibly had lunch before: notice the carvings of some flowers, these are a tribute to the medicinal plants that grew in the Old College Garden, the benches themselves are supposed to resemble dissection tables. Back to the avenue we find the University Gardens. Most of their development occurred between 1882 and 1904; along their balconies we observe again the symbols of the four nations, number 7 we see the initials CH and coat of arms from Charles Hepburn who owned the house. The jewel of the gardens is number 12, a fine example of Glasgow Style, the art Nouveau style featured by Mackintosh; there is also an iron fasces symbol whose meaning is open to interpretation. Number 16 (1960) is named after the lawyer Sir Alexander Stone, the sculpture at the wall is that of Glasgow artist Walter Pritchard. ‘Knowledge and inspiration’ depicts a man studying a scroll inside of a shell where a girl releasing a bird seats high above the ground.


5. The Gregory Building

If you are keen on murals you could get into the Gregory Building (1968) at the end of the Gardens, in the foyer you’ll see George Garson’s 1977 allegory of Geology, it has a title difficult to guess: ‘Theophilus Paton Esq. and His Highness the Maharana of Cacheypore’, two donors of minerals to the museum. Outside this building we find the most famous University sculpture: you’re not a true Glasgow student until you take a picture emerging from the stone vagina. The stone is actually a fragment of Ballachulish granite presented in 1977 and cut from a culvert in the West Highland Railway. There is another mural by George Garson in the Adam Smith Building ground floor.


6. Science Way

We now cross the avenue to get into Science way. First we encounter the Bower Building; it is named after Frederick Bower who was regius professor of botany. Note that the coat of arms carved above of the door depicts a crown over the University mace; this is the last version of these arms to be made, as the crown was removed from the coat in 1900, when the building was finished. The interior was completely refurbished as the building was devastated by the fire in 2001. Next is the Kelvin building’s extension (1947-1959), the most striking symbol here is the sandstone carving of a star inside a triangle surrounded by a snake biting its tail. This symbol is relates to the Astronomy department and can be seen in the design of the 1938 Observatory in the University Gardens, demolished in 1966, it could even date back to the 1841 Dowanhill Observatory.


7. Chemistry and Zoology

At the other side of the road we find the 1936 Chemistry Building named after the 18th century chemist Joseph Black, discoverer of carbon dioxide, who is commemorated in a plate facing the avenue. It was a truly modern building at its time, being the first on campus to be built in brick. Black is not the only Joseph to be commemorated in the building as there is a plate celebrating the English chemist Joseph Priestly inventor of soda water, but with no connection with the University. Another interesting feature is the frieze showing animals facing the Graham Kerr Building; apparently this was added when the then professor of zoology complained that the new building would spoil the view from his office. At the end of Science Way we find the West Medical Building (1907) and the Kelvin Building (1906), these are similar in style to the Bower Building or the James Watt North. The other building here is the Graham Kerr (1923), named after the professor and evolutionary biologist John Graham Kerr, and apart from the big sign on top of the door you can tell it is the Zoology department by the snaked-shape door handles.


8. Professors’ Square and the Chapel Facade

Walking up the hill and turning left we enter Professors’ square, the name is precisely the same as the court where the professors of the Old College would live at High Street. It is to number 11 that Lord Kelvin moved in 1870 and this was one of the first houses to be completely lit by electricity. Today the only house still used as a residence is number 12, the Principal’s Lodge at the south end. At the centre of the Square you will see Andy Goldsworthy’s slate urn-like sculpture presented by former Principal Sir Graeme Davies. Along the section of the main building facing the square and especially at both entrances of the Chapel, built by Glasgow architect Sir John James Burnet in 1929, you will find plenty of carved stones showing animals and other motifs, can you spot the spider? At the bottom of the Chapel’s façade you’ll see a pelican giving his blood to its chicks, it is an image of the sacrifice of Christ, and it makes sense here as the Chapel honours those fallen at both World Wars. Here you also have the opportunity to climb an XVIIth century staircase, the Lion and Unicorn Staircase was moved here stone by stone from the Old College, curiously, it had to be completely reassembled when the Chapel was built so that it turned left.

9. Inside the Chapel

Upon entering the Chapel you’ll be overwhelmed by the wealth and number of wood and stone carvings, the highlights are are the stained glasses; most of them by the Scottish artist Douglas Strachan. The coat of arms in the stalls are those of the Chancellors of the University, the empty spot one at the north side is for the current Chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman, you can try and figure out what will happen next as this is the only space left. The cushions showing rather imaginative motives were knitted by the Universities Ladies Club, see if you find the one showing a tooth. Near the altar we find the plates with the names of those University members who died in the World Wars, two of the chairs found there were made from wood of Glasgow Cathedral’s roof.

dave wilson chapel

10. The Cloisters

We now exit towards the Main Building to find the panels of George Rickey’s ‘Three Squares Gyratory’ (1972) at the corner of the East Quadrangle. We are finally at Sir George Gilbert Scott’s gothic revival colossal building. The first phase of the building was finished in 1870, and has many references to the Old College which also possessed the two quadrangles and the tower. The cloisters under the Bute Hall may be a reference to the crypt of the Cathedral, the University’s first setting. If you want to have an idea of how classes were back in the XIXth century, the only original lecture theatre that remains is the Humanities one at the south-west corner of the Building. The building has two ceremonial staircases; at the one to the south we find a statue of one of our most famous alumni Adam Smith. The staircase to the north leads to the Bute Hall built in 1885 by the endowments of shipbuilder Charles Randolph and the 3rd Marquis of Bute, whose coat of arms we see above the hall’s entrance. Inside the graduation hall we find numerous stained glasses; the one at the south end bears the coats of arms of the University Rectors and the one to the north-west corner celebrates the legacy of Isabella Elder and Janet Galloway champions of higher education for women. On top of the door there is a colour version of the University Seal.

11. The End

That’s the end of our tour, now go out there and check all this for yourself! If you are really keen on architecture you could have a look at Nick Haines’ Building Knowledge book or the guide Architectural Treasures of the University of Glasgow, the Geology department has also a leaflet with the interesting trail ‘Building Stones of the University of Glasgow’. There are always new things to discover on campus.



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