Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College, King George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD
WITH MOST of the Staff and Fellows on vacation till the start of Martinmas Term in early October, the College should be mercifully quiet. It is not. These days, like all academic centres with lecture halls and accommodation, we make serious money during Summer Vacation by hosting conferences and seminars. We also supply three Venues for Edinburgh’s astonishing, and now gigantic, Festival Fringe. This latter activity has brought ‘comedians’ into College this year. The dress, language and general behaviour of these individuals is regarded by my colleagues as eccentric; a fact remarkable in an institution where the competition is already pretty fierce. But more of the Fringe comedians’ antics anon.
We were also privileged to have a visit from the distinguished Anglo-Greek philosopher and journalist Rocco Hector Simonides. His subsequent article in the Philosophical Journal describing Dinner with us at High Table he has kindly allowed me to reproduce below:
Through the subdued roar of conversation, a rapid and insistent clink and ping of Sheffield knife on Edinburgh crystal slowly permeated down to the lower reaches of the Great Hall. The pings sharpening in clarity as a tottering silence emerged. The Dons and Fellows of St Andrew’s College leaned forwards or back and gazed up to High Table.
The Dean rose, his black and threadbare gown silently sweeping a glass of Oloroso into the capacious lap of the Rector.
“The Prebendary,” he announced with precision, “will ask Grace in the name of…
“Christ !” shouted the Rector, recoiling in his seat as the first seepage of sherry reached his groin.
“Thank you, Rector, we are aware off protocol,” said the Master evenly, nodding to the tall dog-collared Prebendary, a divine, now standing at the lectern. The Prebendary closed his eyes and nodded to the Rector whose tuning–knife then produced the pure note of B flat in which the Prebendary habitually intoned his Graces. This, together with his insistence on Latin and his habit of dropping down from B flat to G for the last syllable of each line, gave them a definite aura of monkish plainsong, provoking scandal among the Presbyterian Dons and protests of nascent Popery to the Dean.
“Gratias tibi agimus, domine, christo pro bo-no aquam qui in vinum mutaa - vit , intoned the Prebendary, giving mutavit an outrageously long “a” and a powerful dying fall on the vit.
“Et pro his omnibus a quibus mox revertieee - tur.
Bowing to the Dean and High Table, the Prebendary swept back to his place down the hall. As he went he bestowed a huge wink on his fellow Classicists, followed by a pious deadpan as he passed the seething sons of Calvin.
“Did he say that?” said Yancey, a newly arrived American classicist to his neighbour, table napkin at his face, “I do not believe he said that !”
“And what, precisely, “said Anstruther, the philosopher dryly, “did he say this time? You have the Latin.”
“He actually said; thank God for J.C. turning the water into wine – and thank God for all of us - who’re about to turn it back again !”
“Yancey stared at his neighbour – nothing at Princeton had prepared him for this.
“Excellent”, said Anstruther reaching for the wine with a grin at the others, “We thus have a manifest impossibility linked causally to an absolute certainty. Remind me to speak to him – again.”
Yancey gazed at him. It was all too sudden, coming at his first Dining-In. He told me that he had been cautioned back home by Dean Horowicz of Princeton that of all the Colleges in all the Universities in all of Europe, St. Andrew’s was hard to match in terms of sheer eccentricity.
“You’re goddam lucky to be going, boy,” Horowicz had said at their parting,“ I was there in the fifties for a year and learned more about ancient history just gazin’ around, than in any goddam book. But you’re their Govan Fellow now. You’ve got two years. Use ‘em.”
Yancey and I gazed up the hall from his lowly position well below the salt. Three long tables - Dons and scholars facing each other across them – ran lengthwise up Great Hall and sprigged into High Table which lay transversely like a giant crossed T and contained the Dean, Bursar and Rector, plus other senior College Officers and any visiting academic fireman deemed worthy of a place.
All the black–gowned luminaries at The High, as the top table is known, faced down the hall thus allowing the Dons an uninterrupted view of the eating and drinking habits of their betters – and vice versa. It also allowed a stream of comment from the older Dons who stoutly maintained that tradition of academic irreverence inherited from Chaucer and Robert Louis Stevenson.
“What, young Yancey of Princeton,” said the philosopher Jack Anstruther, indicating The High, “is the difference between yon black-gowned Dr. Hamish Auchincloss and Diomedea melanophris, the black-browed albatross ?” Yancey grinned. He already knew this format.
“I Dunno. Go right ahead.”
“There is no existential difference. Both circle the world in a downwind direction pausing only to consume and excrete – and both are notoriously unstable at slow speeds, particularly when approaching the nest
”Considerable hilarity followed this from our neighbours; we then learned that the large Professor of Gaelic Literature had recently returned to Edinburgh from yet another extended visit to Australia and New Zealand. Whether due to jet-lag, Isle of Jura 10yr old, or both, the wandering academic had tripped on tip-toeing into the darkness of the conjugal bedroom, ramming and bringing down the cage of Ossian the parrot whose screams not unreasonably led the sleeping Mrs Auchincloss to activate her personal alarm and summon the constables while spraying her husband – and Ossian – with Mace.
The subsequent news articles in The Scotsman had dwelt at considerable length with Ossian’s successful fight for survival in, and noisy reluctance to leave, the Dick Vet Institute. This led to a stern call to the Dean of St Andrew’s from the President of Edinburgh University. This personage, technically the Dean’s superior, had opened the paper hoping to read a glowing report of his new Strategic Plan only to discover the headline, Maced academic Parrot refuses Discharge on Page 1 and no coverage whatever of his great vision.
Such tensions are nothing new, apparently. The financial independence guaranteed to the Dean and Council by the Foundation Settlement ensured that the University could not lay its hands on the great core bequests. St Andrew’s pays its own direct and indirect costs, maintains its buildings, salaries its academic and domestic staff and keeps one the best wine cellars in Europe. I shall describe the academic activities to my readers in a subsequent article.
Suffice it to say that the spirit and scepticism of David Hume lives on in Edinburgh.
[St. Andrews, an affiliate of the University of Edinburgh, is a research institution, specialising in the Humanities and the Physical sciences. Known to irreverent scholars as McAll Souls from its similarity to its Oxford cousin, it has no undergraduates; only Postgrads and Research Fellows who complement the permanent Academic Staff.
The Dean is assisted, and betimes thwarted, by the Bursar, the Prebendary and the Bedellus who sit on the ' Estaitis ', an ancient Scots word for Council, dating from the Foundation by Queen Mary in 1562.]