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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter IX - Second Period (1560 - 1696). Aberdeen: King's College


WE have seen that the religious turmoil which was violently agitating the south of Scotland since 1546 left Aberdeen untouched till the Reformation in i560. The successors of Rector Galloway did nothing worthy of record, and there is no evidence of the extent to which effect was given to the recommendations based upon his visitation in 1549. In 1561 Principal Anderson and John Leslie were summoned to appear before the General Assembly to answer charges made against them in the management of the university. Between them and their accusers. Knox and others - there were "very sharp and hard disputations" especially about transubstantiation which ended, as might be expected, in neither party convincing the other, the only result being that the accused were ordered to remain in Edinburgh and were forbidden to preach. No further action was taken till 1569 when the condition of King's College was again enquired into by a Commission of which the Regent Moray was a member. On Anderson and four of his staff refusing to sign the Confession of Faith they were deposed.

The charges brought against Anderson of embezzlement of college revenues were probably groundless, and were at any rate never brought to proof during the eight years after he was deposed. One charge, that of the destruction of university charters, was certainly false, for the charters are still in existence.

The eight years ending with Anderson's deposition were disastrous to the university. At Queen Mary's visit in 1562 it is described as "one College with fifteen or sixteen scholars [By scholars it is almost certain that we must understand students to be meant. It does not appear that in Aberdeen scholars meant bursars]." Nor does it seem to have become more prosperous under Arbuthnot, a man of many excellent qualities, who was made Principal in 1569, and held that office till 1583. The transference, twice proposed to him, from academic to ministerial work in Aberdeen and St Andrews, seems to suggest that he lacked the qualities which the head of a university should possess, but he had great difficulties to contend with. There was in Aberdeen a strong party violently opposed to Protestantism, and the new order of things. He felt that this and the impoverished condition of the university made his retention of office imperative in the general interest. It is pathetic to see a man so true to himself, so universally beloved, and with qualities which in less troublous times would have earned success, compelled to face difficulties with which only a man of coarser fibre could grapple. He is one of the comparatively small number of public men of whom, at that contentious period, allies and opponents alike speak with respect and affection, " a man of singular gifts of learning, wisdom, godliness and sweetness of nature." Archbishop Spottiswoode, an ecclesiastical antagonist, speaking of him says " He was greatly loved of all men, hated of none, and in such account for his moderation with the chief men of these parts, that without his advice they could almost do nothing." It is scarcely possible that a man who could be thus spoken of, and who was besides the fellow-worker of such an educationist as Andrew Melville in his schemes for university reform, could have been an inefficient Principal. However this may be, it is not far from the truth to say that the condition of King's College was in 1583 much the same as at the time of Galloway's visitation, remaining practically unchanged for upwards of thirty years.

We have seen that the first efforts of the Reformers were in the direction of changes in the university system. A sketch of the proposals in the Books of Discipline has been given (supra pp. 106-7). By these proposals, largely fruitless though they were, the character of the universities was considerably altered. They lost to a large extent their international stamp in their efforts to adapt themselves to modern local conditions. Their aim, hitherto mainly ecclesiastical, became largely educational, but not to the exclusion of the former. Interchange of students between the Scottish and foreign universities was common during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the most noteworthy instances is that of Thomas Dempster (1579-1625) who was a native of Auchterless, and whose career, as given in his autobiography and in the Dictionary of National Biography, is a strangely mixed one. He was a man of great ability, vanity, and, if the Biographical Dictionary is to be trusted, of as great a disregard of truth. At three years of age he mastered the whole of the Alphabet in one hour. He entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, in his tenth year, and was connected, either as student or Professor, with at least ten continental universities - Paris, Rome, Douay, Toulouse, Nimes, Lisieux, de Plessy, Beauvais, Pisa and Bologna. His first Chair was that of the Humanities in Paris when he was less than seventeen years of age. He was Professor of Oratory at Nimes, and of Civil Law in Pisa. He was a man of very violent temper and his whole career is punctuated by a succession of serious quarrels. The Dictionary says "he hardly ever allowed a day to pass without fighting with either sword or fists," adding however that in treating of his career "it is impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction." He was a man of exceptional industry, and was knighted by Pope Urban VIII. He published among other learned works the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum which is the best known, but is "chiefly remarkable for its extraordinary dishonesty [Dictionary of National Biography. The description of Dempster given by the D.N.B. is largely taken from Janus Nicius Erythraeus as quoted in Irving's edition of the Historia Ecclesiastica, p. iv.]." Even in view of his undoubted vanity and mendacity, he stands out as a man of by no means ordinary type.

The interchange between Scottish and foreign universities fell off considerably for some time, but revived again from increased facilities in travelling, and continued till the beginning of the 19th century. Among the last was William Laurence Brown, son of the English Church minister in Utrecht, who became Professor of Moral Philosophy, Church History, and the Law of Nature in that University. He was subsequently appointed to the Chair of Divinity in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1796 became its Principal, and held office till 1830.

Of educational reformers after Knox Andrew Melville is the most prominent. Returning from his studies in Paris in full sympathy with the opinions of Ramus who taught that Aristotle was not infallible, he was appointed in 1574. Principal of Glasgow University, which he found in a state of utter confusion and poorly equipped with teachers. With characteristic energy he drew up a scheme in which Greek was introduced, and wider study of the Latin classics and Mathematics formed a part. The result was so entirely satisfactory as to warrant the opinion in his nephew's Diary that " Scotland receavit never a greater benefit at the hands of God nor this man." In the following year we learn from the same Diary [Melville's Diary, p. 53, ed. 1842.] that his uncle and Arbuthnot had a conference about the studies and management of Glasgow and Aberdeen. From this conference was produced the Erectio Regia for Glasgow (p. 120), and from a Commission appointed in 1579 a new scheme for St Andrews (p. 110).

The question of a Nova Fundatio for Aberdeen is one of great complexity and conflicting testimony. For its full discussion, which quite exceeds our limits, reference must be made to Mr P. J. Anderson's Officers and Graduates of King's College. [New Spalding Club, p. 324] Mr Anderson says "it is not now possible to give a complete account of the origin of the Foundation, or to reconcile the contradictory statements made as to the extent to which its provisions were enforced." It may be safely assumed that his attempt at reconciliation is the best possible. Mr Rait also admits that it is almost hopeless to attempt a satisfactory explanation. [Rait's Universities of Aberdeen, pp. 108-117.]

A very incomplete summary of what was done in connection with it may not be out of place.

Parliament passed an act in 1578 "anent the visitation of the Universities and Colleges." Commissioners were sent to the three universities with full powers (p. 110). In the following year the St Andrews Commissioners sent in their proposals. There is no record that the Aberdeen Commissioners did so. In the parliament of 1581 mention is made of the " Reformation of the College of Aberdeen " as being ready for confirmation. Nothing more is known of the document thus designated. During the next three years, the attempts made to have the Nova Fundatio formally established were either opposed or evaded, and for another thirteen years nothing further was done. In 1593 Earl Marischal, despairing of seeing it introduced into King's College, founded the University which bears his name. In 1597 the Nova Fundatio was sanctioned subject to revision by certain Commissioners. What and whether any emendations were made during revision is not known. The original document is lost, but some copies of it are still in existence. Let us suppose that we have a copy of a duly ratified original document. It bears that the King is anxious to give to Aberdeen a constitution like that of St Andrews and Glasgow. It confirms previous grants and specifies new endowments. The number of members of the college, the mode of election, the duties and salary of the Principal are all detailed. The most important changes are that each Regent is to have only one department instead of conducting one class through the whole curriculum, and that the offices of Canonist, Civilist, and Mediciner are to be abolished. It contains a list of the Arts subjects, and specifies their distribution among the teaching staff. Aristotle is not excluded, but it is only a selection of his Organon, Ethics, and Politics that is included in the list.

There are other details but these may suffice.

In the relegation of Aristotle to a subordinate position, and the assignation of professorial duties to the Regents we see the hand of Melville. In the abolition of Law and Medicine we see, as events proved, a source of dissension and a line of cleavage of university authorities into two factors-on one side the supporters, on the other the opponents of the new foundation. Nor is this to be wondered at. It seems unaccountable that for over twenty years neither medicine nor civil law was taught in the university. It is beyond doubt that here, as in St Andrews, the Nova Foundation was to some extent observed. While there is conflicting evidence about the extent to which the regulations on `regenting' were carried out, it is tolerably clear that on the whole the authorities did not take kindly to them. They were alternately adopted and abandoned at comparatively short intervals on personal, political, or ecclesiastical grounds, according as one party or another had greater influence on the vacillating moods of the reigning monarchs. Bishop Patrick Forbes in 1619 restored the old foundation. Nine years afterwards a professoriate was established, and in thirteen years a return was made to the old foundation. "If," says Rait, "the reason for instituting a professoriate in 1628 is doubtful, the cause of its abandonment in 1641 is a complete mystery."

It seems impossible to state with precision when and for how long the Nova Fundatio was fully or even nominally in force. Between I592 and 1638 several Acts of Parliament were passed confirming the old foundation. In 1638, the Presbyterians being in power, an attempt was made to restore the new foundation. A commission was appointed with the Marquis of Huntly as president. The majority of the college officials including the Rector and Principal were in favour of the proposal; the Professors of Law and Medicine, whose occupations were in danger of being extinguished, were opposed to it. The commissioners had been ordered by Charles to confirm the old foundation and they did so. [Rait's Universities of Aberdeen, P. 137.]

Gordon in his Scots affairs says that the Nova Fundatio was in 1592 prepared by Principal Rait and presented to James VI, "and it went near to be ratified by Parliament, had it not been opposed by Secretary Elphinstone," and that the document fell into the hands of Bishop Patrick Forbes, who instead of setting it on foot as requested threw it into the fire. This may or may not be true. There is certainly no clear proof that the Nova Fundatio was ever sanctioned by Act of Parliament. It is true that the party, who were anxious that it should be held as ratified, offered to produce witnesses who had seen and read the document. It does not appear that witnesses were produced. There is no evidence that it was really placed in the statute book. That it expressed the wishes of the Protestant Reformers is beyond question. It had received the approval of the General Assembly in 1583 and thence acquired such authority as caused it to be intermittently acted upon for nearly a hundred years.

In the early years of the 17th century there were few entrants, the number ranging from twelve to thirty-eight. Few of the officials were men of special note, - but in 1618 we find the name of one who was not only a great benefactor of the university, but universally beloved and revered alike by allies and opponents, Bishop Patrick Forbes. Melville in his diary speaks of him as the "guid, godly, and kind Patrick Forbes." He was asked in 1619 by King James to examine into the condition of King's and Marischal Colleges. At Marischal College the gates were shut against him and the porter speaking from a window said that he was locked in and the Rector had taken away the key. The Rector was arrested, but he declined to "deluyer ony keyis or open ony yettis." A few days after application was made to Earl Marischal, but the refusal was repeated. [Bulloch's History of Aberdeen University, p. 100.] David Rait was then Principal of King's College. Its condition was far from satisfactory in respect of both teaching and finance. Rait had taught practically nothing, and had so mismanaged the revenues that there was a deficiency of three thousand pounds. Graduation fees had been "invertit to privat use," buildings were dilapidated and had become ruinous, the churches which were connected with the university had no ministers, and there was "lamentable hethenisme and sic lowsnes as is horrible to record." Instead of proceeding to a sentence against him the Commissioners gave him four years to repair the dilapidations and clear off the debt. Whether he kept his promise is not recorded, but it is probable that he to some extent satisfied the Commissioners, as he retained the Principalship till his death. The Commissioners restored the old foundation, and elected a canonist, a civilist, a mediciner, and a grammarian.

During thirty years of Episcopalian ascendancy at the beginning of the 17th century the university has, in respect of classical scholarship and general culture, a, very good record, and can point to some famous names--the brothers Johnstons, Wedderburns, Leeches and Reids. " This was," says Bulloch, "indeed the Augustan Age of the University, and if there was a dash of pedantry about it, that, as Cosmo Innes has remarked, was the misfortune of the age, rather than the fault of Aberdeen [Bulloch's History of Aberdeen University, p. 115.]."

It was to Bishop Forbes that the university owed the establishment in 1620 of a theological chair to which his son John was appointed. The money (10,000 marks) which he collected for this purpose was invested in lands in the parish of Kinnellar, which at the present day bring to the college 400 a year. After his death in 1635 election to the chair-now called a chair of Systematic Theology-was settled by competition. This mode of appointment, which is still adhered to, is (outside China) perhaps unique. The composition of the examining body, and the subjects of examination, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, History, Philosophy and religious controversies, are practically the same as in 1642.

In 1628 the Bishop, as Chancellor, made another visitation of the college, which seems to have been followed by only one recorded enactment. It was found necessary to impose a check on the hospitable intentions of students towards their professors at graduation seasons, because parents complained of the expense of banquets which had become customary. It was accordingly enacted that they must cease, "except it sall please the saidis studentis so to be graduat [at] the tyme of their examination to bestow upoun the saidis maisteris and examinatouris ane drinke upoun fute for recreation allanerlie, without anie forder addition." The expense thus saved was appropriated by the college, every graduand being held bound to pay four pounds Scots for books to the library. There was probably behind this some general university practice. A graduate of Upsala at the present day incurs in this way considerable expense.

At this time the antagonism between Episcopacy and Covenanting Presbytery was more pronounced than at any former period. Bishop Forbes took the side of the anti-Presbyterian party. His strong personality had gathered around him, among others, the brilliant coterie of scholars and theologians known as the six Aberdeen Doctors, four of whom belonged to King's College, viz. Principal Leslie, John Forbes the Bishop's son, Alexander Scroggie, and Alexander Ross, both subsequently Rectors of King's College. The two belonging to Marischal College were Barron, Professor of Divinity, and Sibbald `ane eloquent and painefull preacher' and Professor of Natural Philosophy.

Bishop Forbes and Principal Rait were succeeded by Bishop Bellenden and William Leslie as Chancellor and Principal respectively. Both were deposed in I639 on their refusal to sign the Covenant.

Between the visitations in 1628 and 1638 the life of the College seems to have been uneventful and at any rate not progressive. A few unimportant changes were made, but even these were carried out with difficulty, owing to the political turmoil of the time. When the Presbyterian party came into power in 1638, the Chancellor and Principal were, as already mentioned, deposed and with them a regent "who was fled of set purpose" from the meeting, but the other officials subscribed the Covenant. Teaching was discontinued for a short time as the students had fled at the approach of Montrose with his army. Dr John Forbes, Professor of Theology, was deposed in 1641. He had appeared before the Assembly which met in Greyfriars Church, Aberdeen, in 1640, and pleased them so well by his 'ingenuitie' that, rather than depose him at once, they had "given him yet tyme for advysement." Still refusing to sign the Covenant he was deposed, "to the gryte greif of the youth and young students of theologie."

About this time Aberdeen suffered severely from the constant raids of Montrose and the Covenanters, and at last in 1640 the magistrates signed the Covenant, and the town was held by a covenanting regiment for nearly two years.

In 1641 parliament passed an act for the union of King's and Marischal Colleges in a joint university to be called in all time coming King Charles' University. For twenty years the union was merely nominal. The presence of the Principals of both Colleges at meetings in 1650 is evidence of intercourse of some kind, but it does not appear that the administration of the two institutions was in any way affected by this statutory but nominal union. Mutual jealousy prevented the union from being hearty. By this act it was proposed that the revenues of the see of Aberdeen should be divided between the colleges in the proportion of two to King's and one to Marischal College. The Episcopal residence was given to the Principal of King's to be used as a manse.

A meeting was held in Edinburgh in 1647 to which each university sent a representative to arrange for uniformity of doctrine and government in all the Universities. A summary of the leading features of the courses in King's College must suffice.

To the first class Greek, covering among other books orations of Isocrates and Demosthenes and a book of Homer.

To the second, the dialectics of Ramus, the rhetoric of Vossius, Aristotle's categories and analytics, and some arithmetic.

To the third, logic, ethics, physics and geometry.

To the fourth, mainly astronomical subjects, and geography.

The courses of the other universities were similar, with slight differences, such as Hebrew to the first class in St Andrews - in Edinburgh and St Andrews Anatomy was taught. The session was to last from October to July.

In 1651 Cromwell paid a visit to King's College, and dismissed Guild and Middleton, Principal and Vice-Principal, and put in their places Row and Rule. Row was a man of much the same masterful type as Cromwell, and such a man was required. Since the execution of Huntly in 1649 the chancellorship had remained vacant. The college had not been visited by order of parliament, Church, or Rector. Row had all power and he made a full use of it. Though a strict disciplinarian he recognised the necessity of recreative games. Bowls, golf, football, and archery were practised, and he even fitted up a billiard room in Cromwell's Tower, but all under due supervision as to time and place.

This tower is a square building erected in 1658 in the North-East corner of the quadrangle at Row's suggestion, and largely by funds provided by Cromwell's officers, General Monk himself being a liberal contributor. It is probable that this extension of the fabric in King's College set an example which was followed by the authorities of Marischal College, who in the course of the next year erected a new school, to which Oxford and Cambridge, and the Episcopalian clergy furnished handsome contributions.

When brother teachers from Marischal College paid a visit to King's they were supplied with "wyne, tobacco, and pyps." As Row kept elaborate accounts of expenditure, it is probable that indulgence in these luxuries was kept within reasonable bounds. Notwithstanding the vigour and care which characterised his administration he did not satisfy the Reformers. Cromwell's policy was set aside at the Restoration. The union of the colleges was rescinded, and Row was dismissed from the principalship in 1661.

Living in college was not popular with the students, but those who lived outside were subject to the same discipline as the others, and returned to supper and studied till ten. They had to attend religious services and declare themselves Protestants. A hurried summary of the way in which the day was spent is all for which space can be found. From six o'clock in summer or half-past six in winter till ten at night the student was under constant surveillance, except for a short recreative interval three times a week. After breakfast morning prayers at six, classes till ten, roll call and Scripture reading till eleven, revision and repetition of lessons till twelve, dinner [Their manners at dinner were not above suspicion. They are warned not to throw bones at each other, but to place them on their plates or on the floor. Rait, p. 161.], secular and Scripture reading till two, lectures on theological subjects till five, classes from five till six, evening prayers and Scripture reading till supper at eight, after supper singing psalms till nine, study till ten, filled up the day.

During the twelve years of his principalship Row adhered to the system of' regenting.' By this time, Episcopacy being again in the ascendant, there were depositions and fresh appointments. Though parliament had a large share in guiding academic affairs, these constantly recurring ecclesiastical changes were not favourable to steady progress or strict discipline. By an edict of the Privy Council the two Colleges were visited in 1669, when it was found that there was great laxity in respect of graduation. Degrees were being conferred privately by Regents, and without the responsibility of the Chancellor. The commission forbade degrees to be conferred except with the consent of the leading authorities in each College. They also forbade the admission of students for graduation passing from one college to another without sufficient testimonials from the college whence they came. About the same time the Privy Council thought it necessary, in the interest of the university, to forbid private tutors to lecture on university subjects. This prohibition was addressed to all the five Universities.

As already mentioned there was no love lost between the two colleges, but at this time the rivalry became accentuated. Recourse was had to undignified touting for students by the Regents of both institutions "intyseing the scholleres of the one College to the other." Commission after commission was appointed to keep the jealousy within bounds. It became at last necessary to ordain that should Professor A of one college admit to his class a student from Professor B of the other college, Professor A was bound to hand over to Professor B the student's fees.

This petty rivalry however was not an unmixed evil. Each College was put upon its mettle, Marischal College with the ardour of youth leading the way by the establishment of fresh chairs in Mathematics, Divinity, and Hebrew, King's College following suit somewhat tardily. The former had its professor of Hebrew in 1642, the latter its chair of Oriental languages in 1673. This was an event of great importance. Though Hebrew had been taught in all the universities since the Reformation, it had always in Aberdeen been conjoined with some other subject, and the instruction was wanting in thoroughness.

When Presbytery was re-established in 1690 a Parliamentary Commission visited the universities. It was ordained that all Regents except "Principals, Professors of Divinity and other Professors" should be appointed by examination. [It may be inferred from this that in some of the universities `regenting' in the old sense had been given up, and that Regents were on a lower level than Professors.] The examination seems to have been conducted in much the same way as the final graduation disputation. Reforms of greater or less importance were 'made in all the universities, but security for the loyalty of the candidates and their subscription to the Confession of Faith were the main objects of the Commissioners. Among other reforms they shortened the session to eight months, and ordained that students should wear red gowns. This latter ordinance was obeyed everywhere but in Edinburgh.

Before their labours were ended the Commissioners revived the consideration of a scheme which had been proposed in 1647. The proposal was to divide the philosophical subjects among the four universities-Metaphysics to St Andrews, Logic to Glasgow, Ethics and Mathematics to Aberdeen, and Physics to Edinburgh. This 'cursus philosophicus' met with little favour and dropped out of sight. Nevertheless there was much sense in the scheme. The Scottish Universities cannot afford such a staff as to make them copies of Oxford and Cambridge in spite of all the efforts of the last twenty years. But in the seventeenth century the difficulties of travelling made the scheme impracticable. The vexed question of the Nova Fundatio was again in evidence before a Commission in Aberdeen in 1696 but no satisfactory conclusion was reached.


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