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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 22. Scottish University Studies

The Scottish universities were directly clerical in origin; and the briefest examination of the statutes of their colleges demonstrates their thoroughly ecclesiastical character. The Scottish episcopal founders worked hand in hand not only with monks but with friars. It is noteworthy that bishop Kennedy founded a Franciscan convent in St. Andrews, where the Dominicans had been established by one of his early predecessors (1272–9); and the provincial sub-prior of the Dominicans was, with the minister of the Franciscans, included among the seven electors to the provostship of St. Mary’. In the result, while the Scottish university was, in its first days, an ecclesiastical seminary, its education assumed, with the advent of colleges, the purely conventual type. St. Leonard’, which may be selected as a typical college, was, under its canon regular principal, as a college of philosophy and theology, a glorified monastic school.

The subjects of instruction comprised grammar, oratory, poetry, Aristotelian philosophy and the writings of Solomon as preparatory to the study of divinity. Prior Hepburn for-bade the admission of a student under fifteen years of age; but the university statutes permitted determination at the age of fourteen.

From mere boys, in the Scotland of the fifteenth century, no serious preparatory equipment could be demanded. The council of Edinburgh, in 1549, urged the rectors of the universities to see to it ne ulli ad scholas Dialectices sive Artium recipiantur nisi qui Latine et grammatice loquuntur; and called upon the archdeacon of St. Andrews to appoint a grammar school master for that city. Other indications assist to show the low standard of the current Latin. There was no professor of the Humanities in St. Andrews, “the first and principal university” in the sixteenth century.

A reforming commission, in 1563, complained of the lack of teaching of sciences and “specially they that are maist necessarie, that is to say the toungis and humanities.” James Melville testifies that, in 1571, neither Greek nor Hebrew was to be “gottine in the land.” When at length, in 1620, a chair of Humanity was endowed in St. Leonard’s college, the local grammar master complained that its occupant drew off his young pupils by teaching the elements of Latin grammar. There was no professor of Greek in St. Andrews until 1695. The modern superiority of Scotland in philosophy is traceable, in fact, to a belated medievalism. The Scottish reformation caught the universities of the northern kingdom still directly under church control, the clerical instructors clinging to their Aristotle and their Peter Lombard. The results were temporarily disastrous. In spite of the assertion of Hector Boece that in early days, the university excrevit in immensum, the numbers of no Scottish university in the fifteenth or sixteenth century exceeded the membership of one of the smaller English colleges, such, for example, as Peterhouse. In 1557, there were thirty-one students in the three constituent colleges of St. Andrews; in 1558 there were but three. Glasgow and Aberdeen dwindled in like fashion. Yet the Scottish universities reproduced the Parisian distribution into four nations under the local quarterings of Fife, Lothian, Angus and Albany. The description which John Major gave of his contemporary Glasgow is, with the variation of the local reference, equally applicable to St. Andrews or to Aberdeen: “The seat of an Archbishop, and of a University poorly endowed and not rich in scholars; but serviceable to the inhabitants of the west and south.”

In one particular the northern kingdom advanced beyond her southern sister. A Scottish act of parliament of 1496 declared that:

  • It is statute and ordanit throw all the realme that all barronis and frehaldaris that ar of substance put thair eldest sonnis and airs to the sculis fra thai be aucht or nine yeiris of age and till remane at the grammar sculis quhill thai be competentlie foundit and have perfite latyne. And thereafter to remane thre years at the sculis of Art and Jure sua that thai may have knowledge and understanding of the lawis. Throw the quhilkis Justice may reigne universalie throw all the realme.
  • This enactment was enforceable by a penalty of forty pounds.

    That net of compulsory education, with which nineteenth century England enmeshed her lower orders, was endeavoured to be thrown over her young nobility and lairds by the Scotland of that gallant monarch, whose courage disastrously outran his generalship on the slopes of Branxton Hill.