Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College King George IV Bridge Edinburgh EH1 3TD
THE COLLEGE, a geographical offshoot of the University of Edinburgh, is a research institution in which I am assisted by the Warden and the Bursar, plus the Prebendary, Bedellus and a couple of Proctors, all of whom sit on the 'Estaitis', an ancient Scots word for Council, dating back to our Foundation in 1562. We are often termed All Souls (North) since, like our Oxford namesake, we have only Postgrads and Research Fellows to the number of about 60, who complement the permanent Academic Staff.
Despite having no students ourselves, the Principal expects us to contribute to their education in various ways, such as interrogating applicants (great fun), lecturing and seminaring (occasionally fun) and invigilation at the Final Examinations (no fun at all, until last week…) Invigilation means wearing an academic gown and looking severe while quaking inwardly at the difficulty of the questions on the exam paper. However, it usually just involves dozing in a chair at the front of the vast Founder’s Hall while the examinees, known here as ‘candidates’, scribble away; or reading Trainspotting concealed behind a copy of the Times Higher Education Supplement. However this year, there was an interruption… I was invigilating the Classical Greek Finals with the learned and appropriately named Dr H.A. (Hector Aeneas ) MacKenzie. It was a warm Edinburgh afternoon; flies occasionally buzzed, sunbeams slanted through the high windows, highlighting motes in the still air; all was peace and rustling concentration as the students wrote for their lives.
Then, without warning, the outer door opened. In came a student wearing a waiter’s white jacket and carrying a tray upon which was a pint glass and a canister of Baird’s Special Export Ale. He marched down an isle past the hunched candidates and smacked the tray down on the table of a man who proved later to be his flatmate. He then attempted to leave. He did not get far; Hector collared him. ‘And just what are you about, creature?’ demanded he. In response, the ‘waiter’ pulled out from his jacket what proved to a copy of an Ordinance of the University, dated MDLXVIII (1568). With the Latin title ‘De cibis vinisque Discipulorum’ this remarkable Edict decreed in rich mediaeval Scots, that during written examinations, undergraduates might be ‘slockened wyth ale,’ i.e. have their thirst quenched with a brew. A hurried call to my friend Bertie Wood the University Archivist confirmed the waiter’s stout claim that this Ordinance had never been rescinded. It was still in force. Hector and I looked at each other in horror; for we knew what might now happen. It did. Five more times during the examination, the door opened. Five more times a canister of Baird’s best brew was placed before the increasingly ‘slockened’ candidate and five more times the smirking waiter swept out past us, Ordinance sticking cheekily out of white jacket. Next morning, the recipient of the ale appeared before the Vice-Chancellor. The exchange was classic:
V-C: I am aware of yesterday’s performance in Founder’s Hall.
Student: Good, Sir.
V-C: Not good, Sirrah. Do you really believe that an Ordinance of 1568 should retain today the power it exerted at its promulgation half a millennium ago?’
Student: I do indeed.
V-C: So do I. Now,read this other Ordinance, dated MDLIX. You are fined 50 Merks for not wearing a sword.
And furthermore, since you advocate that Ordinances retain their original force, let me tell you that today 50 Merks amounts to some £275.50. Pay the Bursar. Now, Out!
Students don’t change; they still get up to the same old tricks we remember from our distant youth but occasionally there’s a new angle. One such was reported to me by the Head Proctor who is in charge of discipline. He had caught a student coming, or rather weaving, out of his Hall of Residence with a certain recognisable woman. This person would have formerly described by our plain-speaking ancestors as ‘ane hure aff the streetis’ and more recently as being ‘of uncertain virtue.’ The exchange between Proctor and Student was a gem:
Proctor: Halt! Now Sir, who is this woman?
Student: Thish is… is my sister!
Proctor: Come now Sir, let us not play games; she is a common and indeed notorious prostitute!
Student: I know, I know. Mummy’s absolutely furious about it…
There is an interesting term in the Ordinance quoted above. The old Scots verb to slocken means to assuage thirst – and, according to Angus Og MacLeod of Bragar, our Professor of Scots Literature, it probably has the same etymological root as slake in English. It can also mean to quench, at least it did to Lord Buccleuch in the famous Ballad of Kinmont Willie, published by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy. In this ballad, the eponymous hero was a man deeply committed to the cross-border livestock transportation industry. Caught red-handed in England by the Warden of the Marches, Willie of Kinmont had been quite understandably banged up, or rather banged down, into the dungeons of Carlisle Castle. He had been also promised a fair trial, i.e. one with a fair expectation of ending with the gallows. His feudal boss back in Scotland, known as ‘The Bauld (bold, not bald) Buccleuch, was incensed at the loss not only of a top reiver – but also of the dozens of rump steaks being escorted back to Drumlanrig by Willie. He burst out with a great blast of Scots, the old language redolent as always with graphic imagery and verbal firepower:
"I will sett Carlisle Castell in ane Lowe [conflagration] And slockene itt wyth Englyshe Blude! [douse, quench] Till there’s nae man in Cumberlande Wha kens whaur Carlisle Castell stude!"
Buccleuch then mounted one of the classic commando raids of our history. He entered England with an elite squad of cross-border livestock transport executives, forded the Eden, scaled the walls of Carlisle Castle, sprang Kinmont Willie from durance vile – and so back to Scotland. Queen Elizabeth I was not amused…
Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end; but they did – thanks to the Union!