Higher education postcard: Marischal College, University of Aberdeen

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag tells of football, argumentative professors and an outbreak of poetry

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Scotland’s ancient universities outnumber England’s by four to two. Where England has Oxford and Cambridge (which to be fair are older than anything in Scotland), Scotland has St Andrew’s, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Let’s take a trip north to Aberdeen.

In 1593 Aberdeen had already had one university – King’s College had been founded by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, following a petition supported by James IV, King of the Scots. But times change, and these were times of intense religious conflict. The Scottish reformation had led to the replacement of Catholicism with Calvinist Protestantism as the state religion, and despite a purge of Roman Catholics in King’s College, change was slow. And so George Keith, the fifth Earl Marischal of Scotland, founded Marischal College. Aberdeen two, England two.

George Keith seems to have had quite a life. Lots of notable political activities, but most excellently, it is said that in May 1583 he was playing football at Linlithgow Palace with Francis Stewart, the Earl of Boswell and the Lord High Admiral of Scotland (these were all one person, you understand). Francis Stewart knocked George Keith over; Keith retaliated by kicking Stewart on the leg. As a result, they decided to fight a duel the next day, but were reconciled by the King and Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus.

Marischal College had offered the principal of King’s College the chance to play a part in appointing staff to the new college, but King’s had declined. The two colleges were clearly set on rivalry. There are accounts of street brawls between students. But with two universities so close together there are obvious synergies, and Charles I was the first to try to take the benefit of these.

In 1641 he created the Caroline University of Aberdeen by merging Marischal College with King’s College (Caroline meaning “of Charles” – it wasn’t some rogue offshore university equivalent of Radio Caroline). After Charles I had been deposed and executed, Cromwell consolidated the merger via Parliament. But it didn’t stick: once the monarchy had been restored, all of the laws passed by the republican parliament were annulled, and so in 1661 the Caroline University of Aberdeen ceased to be, and Marischal College resumed its independent life. This was probably an unintended consequence, but who knows?

Merger rebuffed

Further attempts were made to unite the two colleges in 1756, 1770 and in the 1780s. This latter became a matter of some local controversy. There were blasts and counterblasts in the local newspaper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Here’s a flavour, from a letter published on Monday 31 July 1876:


THE Principal and all the Professors of Marischal College are sorry to be obliged in this public manner, to take notice of an advertisement published in the last Journal, in the name of some Members of King’s College, with whom they have ever been desirous to preserve the most perfect harmony.

Those Gentlemen complain that an attempt for obtaining an Union of the two Colleges, has lately been renewed, without their knowledge or any communication with them. But can it be reasonably thought either necessary or proper for the friends of the Union, to consult about it with those persons who had absolutely refused to have any further communication with them on that subject, had declared their determined opposition to it, and who have since taken every measure in their power to defeat it?

There was even poetry:

William Ogilvie, Professor of Humanity at King’s College Aberdeen at the time, was a reform minded man. He was pro-merger, and published a paper entitled “Outlines of a Plan for Uniting the King’s and Marischal Universities of Aberdeen, With a View to Render the System of Education More Complete”. This was in response to objections by the principal of King’s, John Chalmers, and six of the professors (these were known collectively as the sapient septemviri, or the wise seven. It was truly a more deferential age).

Sadly I haven’t been able to track down a copy, but judging from his correspondence in the Abeerdeen journal, a significant part of the issue was the perception by the Marischal College academic community that their pedagogic practice was better than King’s, and King’s should adopt it. Reading between the lines, I suspect that King’s was also seen as more successful and prestigious.

Needless to say, the poetry was insufficient. Self-interest beat reason (this is higher education after all) and the merger did not go ahead.

Merger prevails

But by 1858 the momentum for merger was too great. Parliament legislated, and section 1 of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 merged the two colleges:

King’s College and Marischal College, Aberdeen, to be united under the title of “University of Aberdeen.”

The University and King’s College of Aberdeen, and Marischal College and University of Aberdeen shall be united and incorporated into one University and college, in all time coming, under the style and title of the “University of Aberdeen”; and the said united University shall take rank among the Universities of Scotland as from the date of erection of King’s College and University, viz., the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-four; and all the funds, properties, and revenues now pertaining or belonging in any manner of way to the University and King’s College, or to Marischal College and University, shall in time coming pertain and belong to the University of Aberdeen.

Critically, the act reserved the ancient status of the University, without it being said that it was a takeover of Marischal by King’s. The merger came into effect in 1860.

And there our story ends – Marischal College has become part of the University of Aberdeen. Another day I’ll tell the King’s College Aberdeen story, and wrap up the rest of the university too. There’s two final points.

Firstly, the buildings, which look very impressive. They’re not the original buildings for Marischal College, but nineteenth century: begun in 1800, finished by 1841, and subsequently extended at a cost of over £200,000. They’re very granite, which is apt for Aberdeen; the extended buildings were opened by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1906. They’re still owned by the university, but since 2011 have been mostly used by the city council as its headquarters (the university still uses the ceremonial hall, and archival/museum space in the buildings).

And secondly, the card itself was sent on 18 August 1927 to Mrs Whiley of Spondon, near Derby:

Had a beautiful day, quite warm. Holiday now drawing to a close, return to London shortly, love to all, Peter. Many happy returns on your birthday.

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