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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter V - First Period to 1560. Aberdeen University


THE forty-four years which separate the founding of the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen were little favourable to educational progress. Twenty-eight are covered by the reign of James III whose hands were kept more than full by an unbroken struggle against powerful and rebellious nobles whose chief grievance against him was that he was interested in art and literature. His favourite friends who were hanged over Lauder Bridge were almost all people of culture. They were hanged by Archibald Bell-the-Cat whose character in respect of culture is quite fairly expressed by Scott's

"Thanks to St Bothan son of mine
Save Gawain ne'er could pen a line."

Though there was no concentrated public action with respect to education till 1494, the century that can lay claim to such literature as the Kingis Quair, Christis Kirk on the Grease, and the poems of Blind Harry, Dunbar, and Henryson has no cause to be ashamed. From Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris it is clear that a very large part of the literary production of that age is lost.

On Elphinstone becoming Bishop of Aberdeen he found in existence a studium generale of humble pretensions, which probably suggested the idea of a third university in that city. With the cordial co-operation of James IV, whose full confidence he enjoyed, he succeeded in his project. The King forwarded to Pope Alexander VI a request for sanction for the erection. This was freely given and a Bull was issued. In the preamble to the Bull, which is too long to quote at length, the Pope gives his reason for granting it, viz. that the King had presented a petition, desiring to improve the condition of his people, especially in the northern parts of his kingdom, where there are places cut off from the rest by arms of the sea and high mountains ; that the people living there are ignorant and almost barbarous, owing to their distance from a university, that proper men cannot be found for preaching and administering the sacraments ; that the city of Old Aberdeen is near these places and suitable for a university, where all lawful faculties could be taught both to ecclesiastics and laymen, who would thus acquire the most precious pearl of knowledge, and so promote the well-being of the kingdom and the salvation of souls.

It can scarcely be doubted that the terms of this petition greatly exaggerated the extent to which barbarism and the absence of education prevailed in the north and east of Scotland. In the 12th and subsequent centuries there were schools in Aberdeen. More than a hundred years before this petition was presented, Barbour Archdeacon of Aberdeen wrote his Brus in the vernacular. In Aberdeen Fordun the historian was a chantry priest. It may be fairly presumed that both wrote for an educated people, who had some appreciation of literature. A more certain proof of this is Barbour's taking students to study at Oxford and Paris. The Legends of the Saints-a Ms. in the Cambridge University Library-is clearly an Aberdeen production of the 15th century. It is to the last degree unlikely that, in view of the possession of schools, monastic or other, for three centuries, the priesthood were so unlettered as to be unable to conduct the services of the Church with efficiency. The mountainss and arms of the sea are very real obstacles to the spread of education, and are with us still, but they are not insuperable and seem here unduly pressed.

Cosmo Innes's comment on this may be quoted.

"Centuries before the era of our oldest University, the whole fertile land of Scotland was occupied by the same energetic tribes, whether Saxon or Danish, who colonised England. Towns were built wherever a river's mouth gave a haven for small ships in the dangerous coast. Trade was carried on with the kindred people of Flanders, Holland and Normandy ; and the hides and wool of our mountains, the salmon of the Dee and the Tay, and the herring of our seas, were exchanged against the cloths of Bruges, the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhine; and the table luxuries, as well as the ornaments of dress and art, which found admirers among us long before we appreciated what are now counted the comforts of life. A trading and friendly intercourse with the continental nations would, of itself, go far to prove some intelligence and education [Fasti Aberdonenses, p. iv.]."

In connection with the statement that Elphinstone on his arrival in Aberdeen in 1495 found in existence a studium generale of humble pretensions, it is necessary to refer to John Hardyng's Chronicle (p. 423 Ellis's edition), in the 15th stanza of which we find the following:

Than ryde Northeast all alongest the see,
Ryght from Dunde to Arbroith as I mene,
Than to Monrosse, and to Barvye,
And so through the Meernes to Cowy as I wene,
Then xii myles of moore passe to Aberdyne,
Betwyxt Dee and Done a goodly cytee,
A merchaunt towne and universytee.

His history is not above suspicion, but it is certain that he was sent on confidential missions to Scotland by Henry V and Henry VI whose reigns cover the period from 1413 to 1461, and that he spent over three years in the country.

"The precise date when Hardyng visited Scotland cannot be determined; but it must have been early in the reign of Henry V. His Chronicle, written in his advanced age, was originally intended for the special behoof of Richard, Duke of York. As it was not completed in its, final form, however, till York's death, Hardyng presented it to his son Edward IV [Hume Brown's Early Travellers in Scotland, p. 20, ed. 1891."

However untrustworthy he may be in some respects, we have on a subject, about which he had no motive for deliberate falsehood, a statement of the existence of a university in Aberdeen seventy years before Elphinstone found only a studium generale of humble pretensions. A probable explanation is, that it is another example of what seems to have been the case, as already mentioned, at the foundation of Glasgow University, that there was in the northern city a learned corporation having a vigorous virtual existence long before it obtained legal recognition as a university. This is perhaps a feasible explanation, but it is further to be observed that if the building

was not completed till the reign of Edward IV (1461 - 1483) this brings us not very far off Elphinstone's date. We have however still to account for Hardyng's "goodly cytee and merchaunte towne." Here we are met by a conflict of authorities -on the one hand Buckle, who describes Scotland at this time as almost a wilderness, and on the other Pedro de Ayala, a Spanish statesman and historian, ambassador at the court of James IV, whose residence in the country was a little earlier than Hardyng's, and who speaks of it as fairly prosperous, inhabited by a people hospitable, courteous, and generally in comfortable circumstances. Though not definitely stated it is highly probable that Aberdeen was included in this general survey. Dunbar, on James and Margaret's visit in 1511, in a poem of nine verses of eight lines each, speaks very highly of Aberdeen, the last line of every verse being "Be blithe and blissful burgh of Aberdeen."

It is not safe to say more than that De Ayala's account so far lends probability to Hardyng's statement. It may be summarised thus-The towns and villages are populous. The houses are all good, built of hewn stone, provided with excellent doors, glass windows, and a great number of chimneys, and well furnished. The people are handsome, and hospitable to foreigners, but vain, and spend too much in keeping up appearances.. They are courageous, strong and active. The women are exceedingly courteous, really honest, though very bold, graceful and handsome, absolute mistresses of their houses and even of their husbands, and take the management of income and expenditure. They are better dressed than English women, especially as regards their head-dress, which he thinks is the handsomest in the world. He ends by saying " There is as great a difference between the Scotland of old time and the Scotland of to-day, as there is between bad and good [Bergenroth's Calendar of Spanish Papers, I, pp. 169 - 175.]."

It is not necessary for our purpose to enter into a detailed account of Elphinstone's career, beyond saying that, after making a liberal discount from the marvellous qualities ascribed to him by Boece, - who is characterised by Cosmo Innes as "quite unembarrassed by facts,"-he was a man of very great ability as a statesman, untiring energy and devotion as a churchman, .a conspicuous benefactor to the north-east of Scotland, free from the slightest taint of selfishness, and "has left a name to be reverenced above every other in the latter days of the ancient Scottish Church [Fasti Aberdonenses, xi.]." In Dalrymple's translation of Leslie's History a fine description of Elphinstone's character is given : Part III, 152, S.T.S. His experiences in Glasgow and Orleans, and as Rector of Glasgow University, eminently fitted him for giving a promising start to the third Scottish University. Glasgow had so far not been successful. In its constitution he discovered two serious defects. "No salaries were provided for regular lectures in the high faculties, and there was not sufficient power over the university to remedy disorders when these became general and infected the whole body." In Aberdeen both these defects were remedied. Salaries were provided for teachers in the high faculties by handing over to the university the churches of Arbuthnot, Glenmyk and Abergarney with their revenues, and a visitorial power was established, the Chancellor reserving to himself a dictatorial authority to be used at his discretion depending on the reports given by the visitors.

Here as in the other Scottish universities teaching was commenced before any special buildings were erected. An inscription over the door of King's College chapel bears that the masons began to build early in 1500. The name given to the erection was the College of St Mary in nativitate but it was soon thereafter named King's College, and was completed probably in 1505.

In Elphinstone's charter of foundation we find the first use of Principalis Collegii as a designation of the head official, who was to be a Master in Theology.

In the universities of the middle ages the subjects taught were the seven liberal arts arranged in two divisions. In the first, called the trivium, there were three subjects, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, and in the second, called the quadrivium, there were four, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. This was the arrangement in Aberdeen, but in addition to these Canon Law, Civil Law, Medicine and Theology were taught. It is noteworthy that Elphinstone's scheme was at least in theory more comprehensive than that of any university in Britain, prescribing not only the three Faculties, Arts, Theology and Law, but also Medicine, for which no professorship was established in Oxford or Cambridge till near the middle of the 16th century, nor in Glasgow till 1637, nor in Edinburgh till 1685. Instruction was given in Latin, not so much as a subject of academic study, but as necessary for the prosecution of the higher studies, the teaching of which was all conducted in Latin. Philosophy based on the treatises of Aristotle was the backbone of the teaching. From the scarcity of books, dictating from the text-books was the usual method. These dictations were accompanied by notes supplied by the teacher. This practice continued for a considerable time after the supply of books made it unnecessary.

There were at first thirty-six members of the college for whose endowment provision was made. Six of these were permanent teachers of theology, canon law, civil law, medicine, the liberal arts, and grammar respectively. Five were students of theology who had taken their degree of Master of Arts, and combined with their own studies in theology the duty of regents, by taking part in the teaching of thirteen bursars who were proceeding to the degree of Master. The other twelve were prebendaries and choristers to whom less important duties were assigned. The Chancellor and Rector were usually not resident members. They were superior to all the other members. Their duties lay outside the details of teaching, and were almost entirely supervisory. The Bishop ex officio was named Chancellor in the Bull, the Rector was elected by the votes of the students in `nations [The earliest record of the King's College nations is Aberdeen, including Aberdeen and Banff, Angus, including Angus and Mearns, Moray, all north of the Spey, Lothian, the rest of Scotland.].' It is noteworthy that the Bull introduced a new element into the governing body of the university, by giving authority for the admission of two outsiders, Privy Councillors, to be associated with the Chancellor and Rector in its management. The experience of St Andrews and Glasgow, which enjoyed complete immunity from interference by statesmen, perhaps suggested that a practical lay element would be valuable for keeping within bounds the too ecclesiastical views of men who had breathed only the atmosphere of the cloister.

The Chancellor nominated the six teachers above mentioned, the chief of whom was the Principal. His duties were to teach theology and undertake the general government of the university. He could command the obedience of his five colleagues. The theological students could not reside more than seven years. They as well as the bursars were admitted on the recommendation of the Rector, Principal and sub-Principal, but the bursars could reside for only three years and a half, at the end of which they were expected to graduate.

As compared with St Andrews and Glasgow, Aberdeen was in several important respects fortunate. The Pope and the King combined to promote its prosperity. From various sources to which considerations of space permit only a general reference funds were contributed. The revenues of a hospital which had long ceased to serve the purpose for which it was founded ; the revenues of at least five churches ; and a series of gifts from private individuals were turned to the use of the university. Taught by the misfortune of the two older institutions in having no salaries for regular lecturers, Aberdeen was able, through the untiring zeal of Elphinstone, to remedy this serious defect. This improvement came by degrees. It was at first a regulation in all European universities, that a master or doctor after taking his degree was bound to teach for a certain time. As there were no salaries, teaching could not be satisfactorily provided in any other way. After a time however this was changed for a system according to which graduates received a fee from each student, which was further followed, thanks to Elphinstone's personal influence, by the endowment of Aberdeen with an amount sufficient for the whole body of professors, within less than a dozen years after its foundation.

It is impossible to form an exact estimate of the amount which a sum quoted five centuries ago would represent at the present day. The revenues of the hospital above referred to are quoted as being thirty pounds. On this Mr Rait remarks," It is not easy to say what this sum really represented ; for during the 14th and 15th centuries both King and parliament were constantly altering the coinage. But seeing that the buying power of money was very much greater then than now, we shall not be far wrong in supposing that this sum would represent probably not less than 300 at the present day [Rait's Universities of Aberdeen, p. 43.]." It is at any rate reasonable to assume that emoluments sufficient to induce scholars of the reputation of Boece and Hay to accept the principalship were fairly on a level with those of modern principals and professors. Unless the coinage was much depreciated-and James IV was in this respect better than most Kings of his race-they were very considerably more.

In addition to the pious zeal of Elphinstone and the falling in of endowments, Aberdeen was fortunate in having as its first Principal a man of the experience and ability of Boece. Notwithstanding the admitted inaccuracy of his history and his tendency to exaggeration, he had many admirable qualities. He was a fellow-student and friend of Erasmus, had felt the influence of the Renaissance, and infused into the new institution a healthiness of tone which it retained after his death. There were however other circumstances which contributed to the early success of the university. The awakening effect of the Renaissance was becoming more general, and the art of printing was first introduced into Scotland in 1507.

On this Professor Hume Brown remarks, "The art had not come too soon to Scotland, for among the other glories of the time was the appearance of men of learning and genius, whose productions form part of the national inheritance. To the reign of James belong the poems of William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, who in any age must have been among the first literary figures of their time What is of further historical interest both in Douglas and Dunbar is the blending in them of the middle age that had gone and the new age that had come. By their larger view of life and their more direct knowledge of the classical tradition they show that they have been influenced by the revival of letters; while in the moments when they remember the profession to which they both belonged, they fall back on that cloistral attitude towards men and things which is the note of medieval christianity [Hume Brown's History of Scotland, vol. i, pp. 346-7.]."

As already mentioned, in the universities of the middle ages every graduate was taken bound to teach for a certain time if his services were required [Burton's Scot Abroad, i, p. 257, ed. 1864.]. The student on entering did not necessarily find professors ready to teach him each in his own subject. He was obliged to place himself under the charge of a qualified graduate, who carried him through the whole of his studies in all subjects. Such graduates were as already mentioned called Regents. This continued to be the regular system in Scotland till about the middle of the 18th century. To quote Sir William Hamilton, "The business of instruction was not confided to a special body of privileged professors. The university was governed, the university was taught, by the graduates at large. Professor, master, doctor were originally synonymous. Every graduate had an equal right of teaching publicly in the university the subjects competent to his Faculty, and to the rank of his degree ; nay, every graduate incurred the obligation of teaching publicly for such was the condition involved in the grant of

the degree itself As the university only accomplished the end of its existence through its Regents, they alone were allowed to enjoy full privileges in its legislature and government ; they alone partook of its beneficia and sportulae [Dissertations, pp. 391-2 (Sir Wm. Hamilton).]."

There is an absence of exact information as to the steps by which graduation was reached. The Bull gives to the Aberdeen authorities the power of granting degrees to deserving students after due examination, but what constituted a due examination is not specified. There is nothing more definite than what is stated by Professor Laurie in his Lectures on the rise and early constitution of universities. " Graduation was, in the medieval universities, simply the conferring of a qualification and right to teach (or in the case of medicine, to practise), given after a certain length of attendance at a university, and an examination conducted by those already in the position of teachers [Lecture xii, p. 214.]."

On the death of Elphinstone in 154 Bishop Alexander Gordon became Chancellor. His short tenure of office for three years and delicate health prevented him from exercising any important influence on the Institution. With the appointment of Bishop Gavin Dunbar as Chancellor, a man of zeal and force scarcely inferior to Elphinstone, and the addition of fresh funds from various sources, some consisting of money, others of land, and others of fishings, the new Chancellor was enabled to complete the most of the schemes which Elphinstone had contemplated but only partially carried out. In 1531 Dunbar's Charter was confirmed, involving important changes in the constitution of the college and in the allocation of the revenues. The number of members of the staff was increased from 36 to 42, and their functions were altered, some having been found to work unsatisfactorily. The precise character of these changes is not certainly known. To enumerate them in detail is for the purpose of this work unnecessary. Suffice it to state that, dictated as they were, by experience of former defects, they were found to be on the whole improvements, and secured for the university such an access of prosperity as caused Ferrerius in 1534 to characterise it as " the most celebrated of the Scottish universities at that time." Mr Rait gives the following estimate of Dunbar's influence [Rait, p. 79.].

"Gavin Dunbar. deserves a very high place among the benefactors of King's College. The piety with which he carried out Elphinstone's designs, the zeal which he showed in his office of Chancellor, and the liberality with which he gave to the needs of the university entitle him to our respect and gratitude. In his time the college attained its highest pre-reformation success.

The preceding century had been rich in inventions and discoveries, the inspiration of which remained. The revival of learning had awakened Europe from the 'dogmatic slumber' of the middle ages No shadow of coming evil was projected across the busy scene. The college was in the full tide of prosperity at the close of Dunbar's life, and that prosperity was in great part due to Dunbar himself."

Mr Bulloch's appreciation of Dunbar is not less hearty. He speaks of him as the true successor of Elphinstone, and as putting the 'coapstone' on the Founder's schemes in respect of both university and public matters. By his exertions two chaplainries were endowed in the Elgin Cathedral, and a hospital was founded in Aberdeen for the maintenance of old men. He drew up a new constitution for the university, and by limiting the autocratic power of the Chancellor, and instituting the election of the Rector by `nations,' he broadened the administration and increased the independence of the university.

From the appointment of Boece as Principal at the beginning of the 16th century to 1531 the success of the university was all that could be wished. Dunbar had the benefit of the hearty co-operation of his friend and fellow-student in Paris, William Hay, as sub-Principal, and of the zeal and ability of Vaus as grammarian.

There is nothing more inexplicable in the history of the Scottish universities than the contrast between the condition of King's College in 1530 when Dunbar died, and in 1549 when Alexander Galloway made his rectorial visit [He was a man of the highest reputation and a zealous coadjutor of Elphinstone in all his projects. He was Rector in 1516, again in 1521, and lastly in 1549. Boece gives him the credit of having discovered that geese grew from shellfish, for on a visit to the Hebrides, he says, " Galloway openit some of the musyll schells, but then he was mair astonyt than before. For he saw no fische in it but ane perfect shapen fowl, small and great, aye effeiring to the quantity of the schell."]. There is very little information concerning the college during these I9 years, and no evidence that the visitorial power assigned to the Rector was regularly exercised. Reference has already been made to the visit of James V and his suite in 1541. The King's high commendation of the scientific deputations and linguistic skill in Greek, Latin and other tongues seems to indicate a maintenance of zeal and hard work for the first I I of these years, even after allowance is made for probably generous and lenient judgment on the part of the King. The first rectorial visit was made in the following year, no report of which seems to have been given or at any rate recorded. Unless the King's praise produced a sudden slackening of the reins, there could not be a great falling off in the course of a single year. The next rectorial visit was paid by Galloway in 1549, and in his report we have an absolutely appalling and inexplicable account of wreck and ruin in every direction.

What havoc these seven years had wrought! The high officials were grossly negligent, and discipline was lax. The most stringent provisions of the foundation were disregarded. The regents had to a large extent given up lecturing. There were scarcely any lay students; practically instruction was provided only for the bursars who were being educated for the Church, and even they were not attending to their work. Academic dress did not receive enough, while the growth of hair and beards received too much attention. The authorities were instructed to discourage the growth of hair and beards [The heinousness of the misdemeanour making this instruction necessary is not specified, but that it formed the subject of one of the fifty-one suggestions for improvement indicates the drastic character of the visitation, and the sincerity of the efforts which Galloway made for putting matters right.]. Financial matters were in a bad way; buildings were neglected and falling into decay. The question of food and drink required the creation of a new official-an Economus who was specially charged to see that the food was `new,' and whose accounts were to be examined at least once a month by the Principal and sub-Principal. The regulation that Latin alone was to be spoken in the college seems also to have been broken through. No female bakers or brewers were allowed to enter the college, and no women were to be present at religious services. The students on graduation days had carried their gaudeamus proceedings to discreditable excess, and new restrictions were necessary.

Galloway introduced some changes in the course of study involving a partial return to Elphinstone's scheme. He ordained also that bursars should be `poor persons' who were to be exempted from payments of any kind, but candidates for bursaries were to be examined in grammar before entrance. This is the first mention of a bursary competition. How much this competition which has come down to our own days has done for the prosperity of the university is universally recognised. Long before its example was followed, as it has been during the last thirty years or so, in the southern universities, Aberdeen secured by it a satisfactory guarantee for such preliminary training as to make advanced teaching profitable for the great majority of the students.

It is remarkable that in the records of Galloway's visitation no reference is made to the violent religious conflict which had fairly commenced three years before in Scotland. This seems to warrant the comment of Mr Innes that the members of the college belonged " to that party who acknowledged, and would willingly have corrected, some of the corruptions especially in life and morals which had crept into the Church, while they were not prepared to take the great leap of the Scotch reformers [Fasti Aberdonenses, pp. xxiv-xxv.]." Aberdeen seems to have maintained for twelve years this halfhearted attitude towards the Reformation.

Of the probable changes in the college and addition of fresh endowments during these years there is no trustworthy record. The abstention of the authorities from what was a burning question in the south may be due either to its distance from the centre of the melee, or to the powerful influence of the Gordon family who were strong adherents of the old faith. It is clear that towards the end of the 16th century, Aberdeen, like St Andrews and Glasgow had all but reached the vanishing point. The history of King's College after 1560 belongs to our second period where it will be resumed.

The outstanding names in Scottish literature in the 16th century are Douglas, Lyndsay, Bellenden and Knox. Their writings afford the clearest evidence of the influence of the revival of learning on their thoughts and modes of expression. Lyndsay was much the most popular. This was due to his perfect command of the popular speech, to his intimate knowledge of the manners and feelings of the time, and to the geniality of his fancy and humour. But it is remarkable that his vivid portraiture of the lives and character of the clergy, against whom he shot his shafts of scathing satire in his Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, did not bring upon him the vengeance of a church which, though it was losing, had not yet lost its power.

From the preceding accounts that have been given of the three earliest universities it will be seen that they have many points in common. They were all based more or less completely on the model of the medieval universities of the Continent. We have seen that Papal authority was required and obtained for giving them as learned communities self-government, immunity from taxation, power to give degrees, and liberty to teach ; that owing to the poverty of the country, and the selfishness of the nobility and proprietors, they were obliged to be content with these powers and privileges ; that they were dependent on the support given them by only such church dignitaries as took a warm interest in them; that such support was individual, and by no means so general as might have been expected from a wealthy catholic church ; that their aim was primarily ecclesiastical and secondarily educational; that their progress and expansion were hindered by international struggles, and that at last in 1560 from a variety of causes their very existence was all but extinguished.


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