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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter XIX - Third Period (1696 - 1858). Aberdeen University

THE century preceding the Revolution, with ever-recurring changes in staff and administration, had such an injurious influence on university life that even the stimulus of rivalry between the two universities in Aberdeen could only partially counteract it. The animosity and wrangling shown on both sides, though undignified, had probably one good result. It made them try to outstrip each other in aiming at fuller equipment of chairs, Marischal College as usual leading the way. At the beginning of the 18th century, laxity in many respects was the characteristic of King's College. Nepotism had crept in, and, to guard against suspected corruption, a commission decided that election to appointments should be settled by examination [Bulloch's University of Aberdeen, p. 133.].

Buildings were dilapidated; no records of graduation had been kept for over ten years; the Chancellorship was vacant for twelve and the Rectorship for five years. For negligence in these latter respects the authorities cannot escape censure. These officials were not, as now, almost purely honorary, but had attached to them important functions, the performance of which was essential to efficient administration. The Chancellor was the final court of appeal in professorial quarrels, he was consulted about the filling up of vacancies, and sometimes the patronage was put in his charge.

Finances also were at a very low ebb; some of the students' rooms were ruinous, and no funds for rebuilding them were available; the conduct of bursars was unsatisfactory; gowns were not worn, and public prayers not kept. Efforts to correct all this were made, but with only partial success. We find that, up to 1716, there are periods of considerable length, of which minutes were either not kept, or have been lost.

The Commission of 1690 which finished its work in 1700 insisted on the institution of a separate Greek Chair. In 1703 Bower was elected lecturer in Mathematics, but the "class turned to little account." He seems never to have taught at all, and resigned in 1717 [He was to have a salary of 200 merks and "be made free of the College table during the winter session." This salary was paid from a tax on ale sold in the town. Kennedy's Annals of Aberdeen, vol. II, p. 381.]. There appears to have been an attempted revival of the lectureship in 1732, but the final establishment of the Chair was not made till 1800, when Jack and Duncan were appointed Professors of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy respectively [Bulloch's University of Aberdeen, p. 138.].

There is evidence at this time of breaches of discipline, such as riots and release of prisoners from the Tolbooth. Laxity of this kind is found in all universities, and, though calling for punishment, may have youthful folly urged as a palliative. But the circulation of scurrilous verses, holding up to ridicule the weaknesses of Professors, bodes ill for academic welfare [In the "Student's Liturgy" there is a "Description of the useless, needless, headless, defective, elective Masters of the King's Colledge of Aberdeen 1709." All the verses are very poor. The least offensive and, in comparison with the others, almost kindly deal with Urquhart the Mediciner. From ane old Physick doctor that cairs not for pelf, Thinks every man honest just like himself, Libera nos Domine.].

There were also bickerings at Senatus meetings about the election of Regents. The Professors of Oriental Languages and Mathematics claimed the right to vote. The Principal denied their right, on the ground that they were not named in the original foundation. The case was taken to the Court of Session, which decided that they had the right. It would seem from this that in the Senatus matters were far from comfortable.

Queen Anne continued to show the traditional interest of the Stuarts in the northern universities, by granting, the year before her death, an annual sum of 210 sterling, to be divided equally between King's and Marischal Colleges for the benefit of the Principals and Professors.

Here, as elsewhere, the Rebellion of 1715 was a greatly disturbing element, and doubtless injuriously affected King's College. To what extent it did so is not exactly known, owing to the absence of minutes for that year. It of course made much difference to Marischal College, because Earl Marischal was outlawed and his estates confiscated. It is known that, in 1716, students were expelled for showing sympathy with the Pretender, under the name of James VIII, by drinking his health and kindling bonfires in his honour.

In the following year a Royal Commission was appointed to visit the colleges, the result of which was the deposition of almost the whole staff, because of their Jacobite leanings. After this sweeping clearance of a body of men, whose tendency was to obstruct rather than promote progress, there followed a period of over a hundred years, during which neither commissions nor visitations gave trouble, and reform was thus facilitated. Freedom from interference allowed the authorities to think of altering both the matter and method of university study, and giving it a more popular character.

An arrangement was made in 1720 and carried out for at least one session, for the delivery of public lectures by the Regents in turn before the whole college. It does not appear that this was repeated. About this time also a munificent gift was made to the college by Dr James Fraser for repair of the dilapidation of buildings. He also made a handsome contribution of books for the library, and in his will bequeathed large sums for bursaries, a salary for the librarian, and the purchase of mathematical instruments [Rait's University of Aberdeen, p. 194..].

From the middle to the end of the 18th century information about the history of the college is scanty, owing to irregular registration and recording of the minutes of the Senatus. The Rebellion of 1745 seems to have aroused little interest within the college walls, and to have been thought worthy of nothing more than an incidental and almost colourless reference.

But, though the condition of this and other universities was, at this time, in many respects far from satisfactory, there is, from the last quarter of the 17th to the end of the 18th century, no scarcity of great Scotsmen, whose names have come down to us, permanently inscribed on the roll of fame, for eminence in almost every branch of academic culture. Among the most conspicuous names connected with Aberdeen are the Gregorys - father, son, and grandsons - all of whom occupied with distinguished ability Chairs in Art, Science, or Medicine, in one or other of the Universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. We have also Colin Maclaurin, a mathematician of the first rank, Professor of Mathematics in Marischal College, and afterwards in Edinburgh; Thomas Blackwell, Professor of Greek in Marischal College; James Beattie, poet, essayist, and Professor of Moral Philosophy in Marischal College. Contemporary with these there are five whose names cannot be passed over-Adam Smith, the founder of Political Economy as a separate branch of human knowledge, and Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow; David Hume, philosopher and essayist ; Lord Monboddo, who studied in Marischal College and was raised to the Bench in 1767; Thomas Reid, the head of the Scottish School of

Philosophy, Professor of Philosophy in King's College, Aberdeen, and afterwards of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow; and lastly Sir Walter Scott. Of these five, Monboddo and Reid alone had any connection with Aberdeen. Hume was twice an unsuccessful candidate for a Chair of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh, and of Logic in Glasgow. The list of eminent Scotsmen could be lengthened by the addition of such names as James Watt, Allan Ramsay, Boswell, biographer of Dr Johnson, Lord Hailes and Lord Kames, both of whom were raised to the Bench, and had earned a reputation beyond their native country as men of learning and capacity. Enough has perhaps been said to warrant the statement that, notwithstanding the considerable laxity which characterised some university matters at this time, the century, which has placed on its permanent roll of great names those recorded above, is one of which we have no reason to be ashamed. An estimate of the intellectual condition of the middle and end of the century would not, however, be complete, which did not advert to the fact that the prevailing trend of thought was secular rather than religious or theological. Ecclesiastical matters had lost much of their interest and prominence, and their place had been largely taken by metaphysics, philosophy, and science, in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, and Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind. While Professor Gregory's statement that "absolute dogmatic atheism was the present tone of intellectual society" was probably an exaggeration, it contained an appreciable amount of truth.

When in 1751 Thomas Reid was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in King's College, the system of `regenting' had been abolished in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the King's College authorities clung to the old system, and were backed up by Reid who, though he saw that the Arts curriculum required important alterations, maintained that 'regenting' had a moral influence on the students, and argued that every Regent was "a Tutor to those who study under him; has the whole direction of their studies; the training of their minds; the oversight of their manners; and it must be detrimental to a student to change his Tutor every session [Bulloch's University of Aberdeen, p. 151]." This view coupled with the traditional conservatism of the college probably accounts for their retention of the old system till the end of the century.

The Regents of Philosophy had come to realise the barrenness of the scholastic Logic and Metaphysics, and decided to confine their teaching to such parts of them as were practical and useful.

The bursars' work seems to have been marked by the laxity already referred to, and it became necessary to threaten them with withdrawal of their emoluments, unless they showed satisfactory proficiency in their studies. The habit of living outside the college was also increasing, and it was laid down in 1753 "that for the future all the students shall lodge in rooms within the college, and eat at the College table during the whole session." With our modern ideas, there seems to have been good reason for complaint by some students at this period about the supply of food, and little wonder that it was necessary to have recourse to compulsion to make students eat at the common table. [There were two tables. For a seat at the first an additional fee had to be paid. Those who could not afford this fee sat at the second, for which the supper fare was "sowens, or bread with ale or milk," while at the first there were provided "eggs, or sowens, or roots, or pancakes, or bread and butter, or ox cheek or Finnan haddocks and ale." Rait's Aberdeen, p. 204. The bill of fare for dinner, though far from luxurious, was somewhat better, and varied from day to day.]

The attempt to enforce residence was for a considerable time successful, but it gradually lost its force, and 1824-5 was the last session of residence. Continuous espionage at prayer, meals, and in private rooms had, as in Glasgow, become intolerable.

Up to this time the degree of M.D. had been, as in Glasgow, conferred on the recommendation of well-known doctors, but Dr Chalmers, the Mediciner, anxious to promote medical teaching, prepared an examination paper in 1789 as under.

"(1) What are the principal peculiarities in the structure of the foetus, and are there any impediments to seeing or hearing at birth? What are they?

(2) In how far may Acrimony be considered as existing in the system, and what are its effects?

(3) In what proportion of our present diseases may debility be supposed to take place, and how may it effectually be obviated?

(4) What are the advantages resulting from the Brownonian doctrine?"

Dr Chalmers with the approval of the Senatus in 1792 renewed his attempt to revive medical teaching, but he died soon after, and the proposal fell to the ground.

At this time also (1792) an attempt was made to abolish `regenting,' but the professorial system was not adopted till 1799. In the following year somewhat stricter rules were laid down for graduation in Arts. A complete attendance at all the classes in the philosophical course was imperative, but even as late as 1826 there was no examination worthy of the name. The Professor of Natural Philosophy set a paper on Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, but the commissioners say "there is no instance of anyone being prevented from taking the degree in consequence of this examination."

Degrees in Medicine were dealt with in a much more satisfactory way in 1817. Evidence of classical, literary, and scientific education was insisted on. It was necessary that the candidate should have attended certain courses of lectures, passed certain public examinations, and produced evidence of practice signed by two physicians, graduates in Medicine. From this, it may be said, the Aberdeen Medical School took its rise, for in the following year the members of both colleges agreed to the establishment of a joint medical school [For the Articles of Agreement see Appendix A, p. 247.].

The impulse towards more thorough medical education came from Marischal College. When the joint school was established there were medical classes in Marischal, but none in King's. The strong feeling of jealousy between the two colleges deprived the scheme of hearty support.

That the work of King's College was, in several respects, culpably loose, is evident from the Chancellor's finding it necessary, in 1824, to make to the Senatus the most reasonable suggestion, that the Principal, the Civilist, and the Mediciner, should discharge the several duties of teaching Divinity, Law, and Medicine, to which they had been appointed, and for which they were paid. When the Senatus conveyed this suggestion to these officials, they all with one consent began to make excuse; the Principal, that he was officially exempted from teaching Divinity, the Mediciner, that his health was bad, and the Civilist, that he was too old. The question was handed over to a committee, whose injunction to the simple discharge of duty had only the meagre result, that the Civilist gave a few lectures, and the other two did nothing. In other words the Chairs of Medicine and Law were mere sinecures.

In these circumstances, it is not matter for surprise that reasons were found for discontinuing the scheme of a joint medical school between the two colleges. The Senatus of King's charged the authorities of Marischal College with "laying aside the rules" for the conferment of medical degrees, and with other infringements of the agreement entered into; and by unanimous resolution the scheme came to an end in 1839, after being in existence for about twenty years. There is a very strong presumption of an absence of uniformity in either the teaching or examination, from the fact that, between 1825 and 1839, there were only three medical degrees conferred by King's, and twenty-five by Marischal College [Bulloch's University of Aberdeen, p. 187.].

It now became necessary for King's College to reorganise a separate medical staff for itself.

The Professorship of Medicine had just been filled by William Gregory, grandson of John Gregory who, a little less than a century before, had been Mediciner in King's College. He had taught in Dublin and Glasgow, and, after occupying the Aberdeen Chair for five years, was appointed Professor of Chemistry in Edinburgh, a Chair which he occupied till his death in 1858. With the help of an energetic medical committee, of which he was the convener, he was able to advertise, for the opening of the session in October, classes for Materia Medica, Physiology, Botany, Midwifery, Surgery, and Medical Jurisprudence.

With a view to improvement of the Arts curriculum, a Parliamentary Commission was appointed in 1826, and its report was printed in 1831. By it the Rector and four assessors were constituted a Court having control over the university, and were also a Court of Appeal, whose decisions might be subject to review by the Chancellor. King's College had then an attendance of 235, of whom more than half had bursaries. The average age of entrants was 14. The classical attainments were consequently poor, and it was decided that Latin and Greek should be taught throughout the whole course thus:

Bajan year - Latin and Greek.
Semi year - Chemistry, Mathematics, Latin and Greek.
Tertian year - Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, Latin and Greek.
Magistrand year - Moral Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric, Latin and Greek [Bulloch's University of Aberdeen, p. 183.].

All these classes were imperative for bursars, and for others optional. The classical books to be read included, among others, Tacitus, Juvenal, Thucydides and the Greek poets. In this rearrangement of the Arts curriculum we have, in comparison with that of the southern universities, evidence of the greater attention paid to classical learning in Aberdeen, which has been its characteristic feature throughout.

The programme for Natural and Moral Philosophy was of the same satisfactory character. Some suggestions about the comparative importance of Mathematics, Moral Philosophy and Political Economy were not carried out.

Examination was by this time fully established as the only channel by which graduation could be reached. The pitch was satisfactorily high, the subjects sufficiently numerous, and remained practically unchanged for the next forty years. One third of full marks was requisite for a pass. The candidate for a simple pass at that time had a less toilsome ascent to climb at Oxford or Cambridge than at Aberdeen.

As an encouragement to industry in the Arts classes, prizes were offered, and awarded by the votes of the students. This was found to work satisfactorily for some time, but in 1833 it was discontinued, and merit was thereafter determined by examination. The Commission of 1826 suggested increase in the amount of teaching in the junior Humanity class, and the addition of a third class in Greek, which should be optional. Both suggestions were, but only after a long delay, adopted.

The mode of electing the Rector had undergone a number of changes into which it is unnecessary to enter. After considerable discussion as to who were, according to Bishop Elphinstone's foundation, the proper electors, it was agreed after a conference between the Senatus and the graduates in 1856 that the Lord Rector should be chosen by the Masters of Arts, and that the Senatus should confirm the election so made [P. J. Anderson's Officers and Graduates of King's College, p. 21.]. On this occasion Lord Ellesmere was elected, and on his death in the following year, John, afterwards Lord Inglis, Lord President of the Court of Session, succeeded him and was the last Rector of King's College.

Since the donation by Queen Anne in 1713 already referred to (p. 238), a large number of valuable gifts had been made to the university, some for bursaries, some for Sunday lectures and Murtle lectures. Among the most important are the Hutton Foundation, and the Simpson prizes of 60 each. The Hutton for some twenty-five years after the union was awarded to the best student in Classics and Philosophy combined. It is now a philosophical prize. The Simpson prizes were awarded, one for excellence in classics, the other for excellence in mathematics, an arrangement which still holds.

The permanent union of the two colleges was completed by the Commissioners of 1858. Since 1860 they exist as the University of Aberdeen.

At the Union the buildings of both colleges were retained, Arts, Divinity and the Library being assigned to King's College, Law and Medicine to Marischal. Dr Dewar, Principal of the latter, was in poor health, and Principal Campbell of King's College became the first Principal of the University of Aberdeen. Both Chancellors, the fifth Duke of Richmond, and the fourth Earl of Aberdeen, were retained, but within three months both died, and the sixth Duke of Richmond was elected Chancellor.

In dealing with the double Chairs all the senior Professors retired. One, Clerk Maxwell, though junior Professor of Natural Philosophy in Marischal College, retired in favour of Professor Thomson his senior. This was thought to be on the appeal of Professor Thomson, who had a young family and limited means, while Clerk Maxwell had a private fortune, and probably was not at all sorry to retire.

The union made an extension of the buildings of King's College necessary, at a cost of 20,000. Six new Chairs were created, Logic, Biblical Criticism, Physiology, Materia Medica, Midwifery and Botany. Medicine was at last satisfactorily equipped. The Act of 1858 gave to Aberdeen, as to the other universities, a University Court, and a General Council, and, under the " Representation of the People (Scotland) Act," along with Glasgow, a Member of Parliament.


(1) The two universities to have equal power over the Medical School.

(2) Courses of lectures to be given during the winter session on the following subjects:- Anatomy, Animal Economy, Surgery, Practice of Physic, Theory of Physic, Materia Medica, Clinical Medicine, and Midwifery, and a course of lectures on Botany during the summer.

(3) Lecturers to be appointed or confirmed before the ensuing session.

(4) The nomination of lecturers to be alternate, and the nominations of one university to be confirmed by the other.

(5) The already existing Marischal College lecturers in Anatomy, Surgery and Materia Medica to be confirmed by King's College and that body to have the first nomination of the other lecturers.

(6) The Theory and Practice of Physic to be reserved "in case the Professors of Medicine at either college should at any time wish to give courses of lectures."

(7) The lecturers to give regular courses.

(8) Appointments to be made within six months.

(9) Standing committees of both colleges to co-operate in organising and managing the school.

(10) An equal number of classes to be taught at each college; the anatomy class to meet at Marischal as hitherto.


The minimum specified ,for graduation in the Senatus minute of Nov. 1834 was as under:

Latin - Horace, Odes, two books; Virgil, Aeneid, two first books; Cicero, Tusculan Questions, first book.

Greek - Xenophon, Anabasis, first book; New Testament, two Gospels; Homer, two books.

Mathematics - Euclid, first six books; Plane Trigonometry. In Algebra, Simple and Quadratic Equations.

Chemistry - Leading doctrines of Chemistry and Geology, as taught in the class.

Natural Philosophy - Leading doctrines of Natural Philosophy, as taught in the class, or Playfair's Outlines.

Moral Philosophy - Leading doctrines of Moral Philosophy, as taught in the class, or Stewart's Outlines.

The above is practically the same as in Glasgow except that, in Glasgow, Chemistry and Geology were not specified.

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