Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College, King George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD
THE COLLEGE’S new academic year is now beginning to loom, with the Commencement Ceremony being scheduled for Founder’s Hall on 1st October. The Dons and Fellows are now arriving back in Edinburgh in numbers, bringing with them the usual stories of Honorary Degrees awarded, lectures given and seminars conducted - and sometimes disrupted - from here to Pnomh Penh.
Casualties have been light this Summer: I have one Don in jail in China, one out on bail in Manila and a paternity suit, citing our Professor of Biblical Exegesis, of all people; he’ll have a job explaining that one to the missus.
As usual, I have been out on the road when duties here permit. Last night it was a Lecture in Ayrshire on the new Edition of the Burns Encyclopaedia which I co-edit with two colleagues from Glasgow University, my own alma mater. Talking about Burns to a group of aficionados in his native county is always a nervy business and this was no exception. I faced fifty men all of whom, it seemed to me, knew precisely where and when Burns sneezed.
The story of Scotland’s national Bard is a truly remarkable one. His father William Burns arrived in Ayrshire from Edinburgh, but had begun life in the old county of Kincardineshire in the north-east of Scotland between Dundee and Aberdeen. It’s believed that he set off from Clochnahill, the family farm, near Stonehaven about 1748. Scotland was then just settling down again after the upheavals of the great Jacobite rebellion which had ended in the spring of 1746 with the bloody carnage at Culloden. It was a new world; never again would there be a civil war in these islands.
The Enlightenment was dawning; David Hume was publishing his Essays, Adam Smith was lecturing on rhetoric, the geologist James Hutton was literally chipping away at the Kirk’s absolute assertion that the Earth dated from 4004BC. Arriving here in Edinburgh, Burns Sr. worked for a couple of years as a landscape gardener on the laying out of the great park we know today as The Meadows and which was then called Hope Park. The site was an ex-loch, the Burgh Loch, which had supplied the mediaeval city with water, but was now redundant. Sir George Hope Bt., of Rankeillour had been deputed by the City Council to drain the loch and create a park for public recreation and it was on this project that Burns worked.
Right next to it, then as now, was the ancient Bruntsfield Links. This is holy ground to golfers as many historians of the game believe that it was here, about 500 years ago, that the famous stick-and-ball whacking began in earnest. It was then known, splendidly, as Ye Ancyent & Healthfulle Exercyse of ye Golffe and was illegal. The game had been banned by James II in 1457 on the grounds that his subjects seemed more interested in driving golf balls than in driving their formidable neighbours back to Hadrian’s Wall. Instead of practising their archery and spear thrusting, they were practising their bunker recoveries and controlled fades, to the uncontrolled irritation of the King. However, his enlightened grandson James IV, seeing the futility of trying to separate the Scots from their beloved pastime, would unban it and take it up himself. A further two monarchs later, James VI would take his clubs, balls and caddy with him on his triumphal progress through England to succeed Good Queen Bess. His new subjects would take up the game with relish and that is why Ian Poulter and Paul Lawrie are partners this weekend, under a Spanish Captain, in a meadow somewhere near Chicago.
To return to William Burns and his journeying; he arrived in the village of Dundonald in Ayrshire, which was the territory of the Cochrane family who are still Earls thereof. After two years there he departed for Alloway near Ayr where in 1759 his eldest son, the poet Robert Burns would begin the first of his thirty-seven years. On leaving one parish for another in those days, it was essential to carry away a Certificate of Good Conduct from the Minister. Now, William Burns’s document was signed by the Rev Thomas Walker of Dundonald, whose sister was married to another cleric, the Rev. John Witherspoon. That name is unfamiliar to many Scots today, but it’s a different matter on the other side of the Atlantic. Witherspoon, a fine scholar and teacher in addition to his sacerdotal duties, was invited to become Principal of what was then the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Like most Scots emigrants to the 13 Colonies he was all for the Revolution; the cry went up; no taxation without representation! King George III wouldn’t hear of it; hostilities commenced and on 4th July 1776, the fiery cleric was the only man in holy orders among the fifty-three Signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Witherspoon was in good company; there are twenty-three surnames of Scottish provenance on that celebrated document, many of whom a decade later would be involved in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States. Both the Declaration and the Constitution contain elements originating here. Both echo the political principles set out in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 and of the doctrine of Common Sense enshrined in the teaching of the philosophers Francis Hutcheson at Glasgow and Thomas Reid in Aberdeen.
This Diary is becoming as rambling as the footsteps this week of its author. All will change, however, in three days’ time ! Then, High Table in our Great Hall will resound to the clash of cutlery – and personalities – as we convene for the Martinmas Term and the choir sings the ancient College anthem; Limites Scientiae Pulsamus. This enjoins us to pursue the difficult task of simultaneously shoving back the frontiers of knowledge - while pulling forward the recesses of ignorance into the light of Reason.
What rubbish - but it sounds good in Latin…. More next week.