In the Scottish Intellect Billy Kay celebrates 600 years of Scottish university history, explores its distinctive traditions and discovers why, at the time of the Enlightenment, leading figures like Voltaire could write, "It is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilisation".
In the first programme we focus on the creation of the three pre Reformation universities - St Andrews founded between 1410 and 1413, Glasgow founded in 1451 and King's College Aberdeen founded in 1495. All were founded by Bishops and all prepared boys for work in the church. We hear of the strict regime they faced, so strict that the only female allowed in one of the cloistered colleges of St Andrews was the laundress and she had to be over 50 years old! Boys will be boys though, and fighting frequently broke out among students from different colleges in Aberdeen and St Andrews. In one incident, arrows were fired into a faculty meeting in St Andrews. Historians like Roger Mason and Steven Reid point out that students at this time could be as young as 14, while their Regent masters could be as young as 19, so these were teenage boys living away from their parents and trouble was endemic!
Throughout the series, Billy speaks to students today and they compare and contrast their university experience with that of students down through the ages - both academic and social. At the Glasgow University Union, for example, after a drink in the famous Beer Bar, Billy is astonished to learn that one of the thriving societies that uses the Union is an august institution called the G.U.P.D.C.......the Glasgow University Pole Dancing Club!! Over in St Andrews equally eclectic societies include the Fine Chocolate Society, the Doctor Who Society and the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society!
What the students in medieval times would have made of these is anyone's guess, but the daftness and excessive behaviour of students throughout history is recalled by Madame Catherine Béranger of Orléans who recalls that the Scottish law students there in the 15th century were criticised by the townsfolk for their high jinks, pranks and "drinking too much".
Yet along with the reputation for boisterous behaviour, even before the foundation of the Scottish universitieswhen Scots were travelling to Paris and Bologna for higher education, they were already establishing the country's European intellectual credentials. John Duns Scotus e.g planted the illustrious tradition of Scottish philosophy in Cologne as early as the turn of the 14th century.
If there are similarities in student life down through the ages, one of the major differences is that across Europe right through till as late as the 1720's, no one used their native vernacular at all, as all instruction was given in the international lingua franca of Latin. Fortunately, we were good at it, producing at the time of the Reformation the great Humanist poet and master at St Andrews and Glasgow University, George Buchanan. Throughout 17th century Europe in all of the universities across the continent, Buchanan was regarded as by far the greatest writer to come out of the British Isles at a time when vernacular writers like Shakespeare were comparative unknowns!
Among those also taking part in the programme: Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell, Norman Reid, Robert Crawford, Claire McLoughlin and Isla Woodman from the University of St Andrews; David Birrell, Jordan Stodart, Lesley Richmond, Professor Andrew Hook and Professor Alexander Broadie from the University of Glasgow; Siobhan Convery, Professor Peter Davidson and Professor Jane Stevenson from the University of Aberdeen. Shona Reid, Lisa Darroch and Paul Stewart from the University of the West of Scotland.
An Odyssey Production for Radio Scotland.