An Alumnus Alphabet

St. Andrews,  clinging to the edge of the Fife coast, is an oddity in so many ways.   With a skyline to die for and a wind you just want to avoid,  it’s  overrun for most of the year by students and for the rest of the time by those  who come to worship at the  mecca of golf.  And yet despite these shoals of visitors (not to mention royal affiliations) it somehow clings on to its small-town identity.

And what does it mean to me? Born and brought up in Fife, I knew it first as the bearer of a bucket, spade and swimsuit.  Later, for four whole years, it became my alma  mater, and more recently I’ve found myself  drawn back there. A trip to Fife in 2007  sparked A  Kettle of Fish, which in turn sent me digging up events that took place there long before as part of a new novel.

But soon it will be in the news again for very different reasons, and I’m taking the opportunity to launch a series of blog posts about St. Andrews, to acknowledge and celebrate its importance in my life  as  well as the lives of so many others.

Although I’ve missed the A-Z  blog challenge I’ll probably keep to the same format, but won’t promise to finish in any particular timescale (and certainly not by April 29th!) as  I’d like to take  time over a trip which will be mostly unashamed nostalgia with a few digressions along the way,  some of them related to my other interests as a writer.

Of course I’d love any other St. Andrians out there to  come along to add impressions,  memories or suggestions.  the Pier St. Andrews

The blog format means, by the way, that it will read as Z-A rather than A-Z.

Do use the sidebar to find older posts, and contact me if you’d like to add posts of your own. (Lords and commoners equally welcome!)

I’ll try to keep embarrassing photos to a minimum, but you might like to try guessing the year this one was taken.

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D is for Disability

I’m grateful to Charles Coventry  (1962-66, 1977-8), a sufferer of Cerebral Palsy, for sending me his memoir of the particular difficulties he faced in the 1960s and 70s and of why  St. Andrews was a special place for him.  Despite his previous ‘grudge against sport’ I hope he’ll forgive me for linking it to the start of this year’s Paralympic Games.

Charles writes:

St. Salvator's Hall St. Andrews

St Andrews University was my only choice.  The town was already  familiar from holidays at Kinkell Braes Caravan site.  First degree
started in 1962, staying in Sallies.  Because I had a disability I spent  my entire period there in a single room, in first year looking over the
lawn to the quad, and from second year across the passage looking out at  the castle.  I had the  benefit of the freedom  of university life.  At school I lived with the stigma of “non-sports” but here I developed my own form of physical exercise, a regular system  of walks, sometimes down Kirkhill to the end of the pier and back up Pends  Road, at other times the other way, and going to and from classes, tutorials  and societies was also on foot.  My main problem is partial vision which  rules out driving, and before the push-button crossing made crossing  city streets very difficult.  This would have made getting around in  Glasgow and Edinburgh a problem, but St Andrews was ideal with very  little traffic and everything within walking distance.

Undergraduate meals weren’t of very good quality, but full board meant
that I didn’t need to cope with gas cookers, and the residences were
being converted from gas fires to central heating.  Sallies had already
been done when I arrived, but there was still one barrier to full
participation in social life.  I couldn’t invite people in for coffee
because it still meant using a gas ring, which, with my partial vision I
couldn’t manage.

Old Union Building
Old Union Building

My main leisure activity was centred round music. Apart from the musical side and
subject societies I met friends in the Union beer bar on ground floor of  the Old Union building, the two historic houses on the corner of Butts  Wynd.  In my first few months there were separate men’s (the Admirable  Crichton’s House) and Women’s Unions (the adjoining Georgian  terrace). Something that no longer seems to exist, although it still  happened in my first year in Edinburgh (1983-4) is the Charities Day  collection, visits to places down the coast and then the actual procession
in St Andrews. Although never a participant in it, I always turned out for
the Kate Kennedy procession.

I was indoctrinated at home with political theories and anti-English
prejudice.  I was ordered to join the Liberals, but as soon as I got to
St Andrews all that was forgotten.  I got into trouble back home when I
couldn’t tell my father where the university tobacconist was and
couldn’t remember how many “coloured” students there
were.  It was always a relief to get back away from the tobacco culture and
the political indoctrination which I couldn’t understand.  Of course there
were political societies and Union debates, but nobody at home was to
know that I wasn’t going to them.
Once back on the right academic course, classics, I discovered my
real interests such as oral composition in Homer as Sir Kenneth Dover
said  when we met up (this was after I had come to Edinburgh and was on a vacation
course in St Andrews).

Despite this I didn’t get  get Honours, partly because of poor school  teaching, and also on account of  the  compulsory philosophy subject  – a far worse experience than my  original learning difficulty with number which I discovered extended to problems with abstract ideas. All the Scottish universities had this [compulsory philosophy] regulation, but I was lucky being at St Andrews because with the small size of  the phiolosophy department the staff questioned  my exceptionally poor  performance in Moral Phil .  A tutor with a disability (he was deaf) wondered about this and contacted Frederick MacNeilly who took over and having had experience of a cp student before in South Africa who was a brilliant philosopher, was interested in my form of the disability and my extreme difficulty with the subject.  When they  couldn’t arrange an exemption he fixed up extra tuition and I got through at the autumn resit.  I met the deaf tutor again in quad the next session when he stopped me to congratulate me on getting through, realising just how difficult it had been.

It took a while for attitudes learned at school to wear off. I soon lost my grudge against people involved in sport, but art ranked very low in the school syllabus, and an interest in architecture was regarded as “queer.” Gradually, through being in St Andrews and meeting with people from outside Scotland who hadn’t seen Scoittish architecture before, this  attitude gradually wore off, and I found the knowledge was useful in my  first library job in Perth when I was put on to Local Studies.  I am a  life member of St Andrews Preservation Trust.  With drawing and painting  it was the same.  Although it actually started in Perth, I got interested in exhibitions with the setting up of an art society in the university, the beginning of the Fine Art department in the rectorship of Sir John Rothenstein.

At the end of vacations, going back to  university was always my real homecoming.  At the end of my one long  period of employment, a damaging experience, I was lucky enough to
return for a postgraduate B Phil and was in Dean’s Court.  It was  pleasant to get back to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a university  hall, and this period is mentioned in my notes on my involvement in music.

Once into library work, my ambition was always to get back to St  Andrews, but things went wrong. Even if I had been able to  in Perth or get something else of the right kind permanently, I would have been able  to retire back to what the librarian in Perth and Kinross County library realised was my “spiritual home” of St Andrews.

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M is for music (classical, renaissance, church)

Thanks to Charles Coventry (MA, 1962-66, B Phil 1977-79) for this contribution

During my M.A. I played the clarinet in the orchestra under Cedric Thorpe Davie (Ed’s note: well-known composer and Professor of Music 1946 to 1978). During the year practices were in Kennedy Hall, the music department and  various pieces were tried before the final selection. Of these one will  be of interest to those who lived in halls of residenceat the time, “Variations on  a theme of AB Mackenzie” by Cedric himself. The theme was the tune of
the Latin grace sung in hall.

The final selection included two serious  pieces and two musical jokes, one a world premier. This was  “Festivities for a young orchestra” by David Dorward. He gave
instructions that the instruments should have “everything including the
kitchen sink,” and an actual sink was found, marked “Steinway” and was on stage all
through the serious part of the concert. The other “joke” was
Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” where the lid fell off one of the smoke
machines (cannon). The serious items were a local item from the 18th
century, a symphony by Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kellie, and Mozart’s
“Exultate Jubilate” performed by the choir and chamber orchestra.

I was a regular attender at lunch hour and other concerts with early
music from the Madrigal Group and the Renaissance Group formed as the
Spanish Department choir by Douglas Gifford as part of his study of
Spanish Renaissance church music.

Holy Trinity Church, St. Andrews

After learning Gaelic I got into choral singing and during my year of
residence for my B Phil I joined Holy Trinity church choir under Tom Duncan , lecturer in English language. Originally from Glasgow he was a
very thorough choirmaster, “the teeth, the tongue and the lips.” This brings in a piece of town and gown collaboration. It was the Queen’s silver jubilee and there was a concert in the church consisting  of the two Handel coronation anthems “Zadok the priest” and “The King  shall rejoice.” The nucleus was Holy Trinity church choir, all town  residents apart from myself, the university choirs and the chamber
orchestra. That year under Tom Duncan really boosted my choral singing.

Some great memories from Charles. Do follow the links for Douglas Gifford, Tom Duncan and David Dorward who all combined music with busy academic careers – real renaissance men.

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P is for … posh frocks

pippa dee

PJ or posh frock? Nothing in it.

Let’s face it, going to balls was all about the dressing up. But I had forgotten until I was reading a novel  by Catherine Czerkawska , set partly in the seventies, that my very first ball dress was, like the heroine’s, a nightie; in my case a nightie purchased by my prescient Mum at a Pippa Dee party. Remember them?  Empire line and trimmed with white lace,  we agreed no one would know it wasn’t a ‘proper frock’, which was probably true until I bumped into someone wearing the same design in a different colour. No matter. My twin and I exchanged cautious nods of recognition on the stairs. Our secret was safe.

Of course St. Andrews was not well blessed with fashion emporia, nor did any of us have money to chuck around, and so the odd nightwear conversion could be forgiven. But thinking back, it’s interesting that in the heyday of the permissive age, evening wear (mine was nothing like the picture) veered towards the modest, with stand-up collars and leg of mutton sleeves to the fore. Maybe the weather had something to do with it, but only the dress I wore to our graduation ball (mid-summer) actually revealed my shoulders.

courtesy of

It was, I think, designed by Marion Donaldson, a label which began in the sixties and went though to the eighties. They were stocked by a smart shop on (*consults map*) what I think may have been Bell Street and despite the cost were surprisingly popular.  A friend, I’m sure, was married in one. I had three at different times, possibly the only designer dresses I have ever owned.

Another friendly Tweep mentions wearing a dress by  Bill Gibb  (trained in London, born in Fraserbugh!) Could it be this one? Wow – can’t compete with that!

And  I’m hugely grateful to Alison Baverstock for providing this lovely photo from Sallies Ball in 1978. Alison says her dress was also a Marion Donaldson and bought from the very same shop as mine, a few years later. (Looks like there was more of a Laura Ashley look going on by then). She also reminds me that St. Andrews has the highest number of subsequent marriages between its graduates.



ball dress vintage 1973

And here it is, my own favourite Marion Donaldson, retrieved from the depths of an old photo box. I had assumed this was Regs Ball or Hamilton but looking at the background decor (orange plastic and bare bricks?)I think it must be the Students’ Union. In my third of fourth year they had a celebration weekend to open the new building which had previously been in North Street. Another excuse for a ball.

As for the dress, it’s no longer with us, although my daughter (now 25) remembers wearing it for dressing up at Halloween. Oh dear, at least as I recall she was a princess, not a witch!

Other photo credits:
Pippa Dee dress  from Etsy
Marion Donaldson late 70s label  by Lizzie Bramlett ( on the Vintage Fashion Guild website
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B is for … having a Ball

How many balls did I attend at St. Andrews? Let me count the dresses! Balls, in my day anyway, were the highlights of the social season.  And since this ran pretty much throughout the academic year, there was always a ball of some kind in the offing. The majority were hall balls, (of which Hall Ball was just one confusing example) put on by all the main residences and during which the entire building was given over to partying, with any resident not attending (whether by choice or for lack of a partner) forced to move out for the night. Harsh? Yes, but not to my knowledge ever challenged. For those not attached to a residence, there was the Union Ball and in some years the Rectorial Ball. In short, any excuse to have a ball.

Hall balls were usually themed, from the printed invitations (whose arrival could be the cause of huge anticipation and/or anxiety) to the decorations and music on the night. In the main areas there would be eating, live music and a disco. But the main action took place in room parties, where in the absence of a drinks licence, pre-bought alcohol flowed freely amongst friendship groups and other hangers on. An invitation to the ball was nothing without the accompanying invitation to a room party, while spare rooms were appropriated for erm, shall we say other purposes?

If the whole university scene  was a match-making opportunity, hall balls in particular were a mainstay of that process, since the desirability of attending your own ball allowed a certain social leeway. A girl who might never ask a boy out on a date might well summon up the courage to ask him to the ball (and I know one who did!)  Or she could ask a friend, or even the friend of a friend, with no romantic intent, although that initial premise might well become blurred as the night wore on!

There were plenty of social niceties. Formal dress was required and women were always sent a corsage on the day of the ball. For men who were otherwise permanently attached to jeans and a holey comfy sweater, it was a lesson in the pleasures of dressing up, just once in a while. In fact, a bit of an education.

I’m a bit gutted to have no suitable photo to hand, but for those more interested in the dressing up, do read on.

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H is for … Hamilton – aka the Grand

Hamilton HallSo here she is in her glory days,   opened in 1895 as the Grand Hotel and about to become something grander still. But from 1949 to 2006, the building was Hamilton Hall, its location and view (yes that’s the 18th green of the Old Course) the property, temporarily, of each of the students who forked out the standard halls of residence fee each year. As did I. So what if the plumbing was noisy and the lino had seen better days? It was a bargain, an absolute steal.

In my first year I shared a room facing the sea, in second year, thanks to a fiercely regulated ballot system, I was in the smaller of those two minarets overlooking the golf course. Because of the hotel legacy, there were very few single rooms and they were built on the inside, facing the interior ‘well,’ an area of limited day-light crisscrossed by fire escapes.  The singles were also reserved for tertians and magistrands. A rise in status compensated for the loss of view. As for the Swot Room, similarly situated and so delightfully named, I think that might merit a post of its own.

Not that I had chosen Hamiltonfor the view, but more because a family acquaintance had advised me that it was ‘less stuffy’ than the other female halls. I certainly won’t own up to stuffiness but as a traditional hall there was a good deal of formality (high table, signing out for meals, asking for a ‘late key’) and an expectation that gowns would be worn to dinner. We had a warden, Miss Wright, whom I confess was little more than a passing acquaintance (but remembered with affection here on page 8) and each year a Senior Student, although I don’t recall her function, if she even had one.  In general, the crucial figure was the Porter whose favour was well worth winning as he was the one to relay phone calls from the outside world and to guard the revolving door, noting which visitors might have signed in and not signed out again (although in my day the ‘three feet on the floor’  rule, as described here, was  consigned to history, thank goodness.)

Meals, by the way, were three per day (like it or lump it, only invalids could make special diet requests) plus bread and jam (of a suspiciously neon hue) for anyone around at tea-time. The breakfast rolls were second to none. The butter was served from bowls of  water (?). Dinner menu highlights: Braised Steak, Chicken Maryland, and yes, Arctic Roll.

The more I write this, the more it sounds archaic to the point (pace the Arctic Roll) of  mediaeval , but trust me, it wasn’t so long ago, not really. And it wasn’t so bad either. I moved out in my final year, but moved back in to be cosseted through my finals.

old course view

View down the Old Course from Hamilton, c. 1971

If you were there too, you can catch up with more recent Hamiltonians on Facebook. (Men are on there too. What’s that all about?) And don’t miss this recent picture of the old lady getting a new hat.

The new development is under the auspices of the Old Course Hotel, which in 1970 was the newcomer and can be seen  in the middle of this  photo.


(Top photo from Wikipedia Commons)
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G is for … Gowns, red ones

Gowning upI think this post should be dedicated to my school English teacher Mrs. Dorward, a petite but forceful lady and St. Andrews graduate. She had of course given up her red gown by the time she became an English teacher, but she always who wore her black teaching gown hanging from her elbows, thereby giving the school corridors an extra sweep each time she passed.

She was also a great ambassador for St. Andrews and chivvied a bunch of us up there on a sight-seeing tour where she explained the bizarre but compelling rules that gave rise to the off-the-shoulder look. By the time I graduated I too had perfected the oddly hands-up way of walking which looks like a surgeon who has just scrubbed up but is actually to stop the gown falling off altogether. Clearly a habit that is difficult to break.

Mrs. D. was a great ambassador for St Andrewsand I imagine quite a few of us owed our time there to her, even if we didn’t do English. As for the red gowns, in my day they were almost-compulsory for a number of activities, especially dinner in halls. The more independent-minded students rebelled against this and took pride in doing without the red encumbrance, but according to this blog, it looks like at least some of the new generation are getting to grips with the old ways.

St. Andrews Castle

'Semie' fashion, circa 1972

In fact I’ve read that at one time the Scottish universites (with the exception of Edinburgh) all had undergraduate gowns and red was chosen so that students could be spotted if/when they were up to no good (the very idea!) around the town. From the student point of view, the gowns are made of a knobbly wool (knobbles increasing with age and use) that ressembles a dressing gown as much as anything else, providing a useful cover-up on all sorts of occasions. I’m thinking particularly of breakfast in halls, where nightwear was certainly not allowed but nightwear + gown was fine, thus allowing the occasional late-night reveller the luxury of a cooked breakfast even if the early lecture was a walk too far. I had also forgotten until today that wearing a gown allowed free entry to the ruined St.  Andrews Castle (good for tourism, I suppose) and here’s a photo of me getting the look.  The Castle was most popular at the end of the academic year when the occasional burst of warm sun could be guaranteed to coincide with the exam season. This looks earlier than June, but polo neck sweaters (bought for next to nothing from the original St. Andrews Woollen Mill shop) were popular all year round, for obvious reasons.

As for the year, judging from the way the collar of my gown is dangling down my back, definitely my second year.

Gowning up photo courtesy of rexhammock on Flickr
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E is for … the Edge


Yes, with F been and gone, I thought E had got away. Then I picked up my latest Kindle acquisition, The Beginning and End of the World by Robert Crawford (Barlinn Books 2011) .

In the opening chapter,  Crawford’s premise is that St. Andrews’ remote location did much to influence thinking there in the Victorian era and to give it what in modern parlance we might call an ‘edge’. And that’s when it came to me,  Edgecliff, the home of the philosphy department and a building I remember well but whose name had escaped me. Don’t ask me why, because if St. Andrews is the edge of the world, Edgecliff is at its outer limit,  almost as close to the sea as the castle itself.

Edgecliff from seaAnd so did I have edgy and groundbreaking thoughts up there? Sadly, not. Entering my second year I needed to choose another ‘general’ (one year) subject, and although Philosophy was no longer compulsory (as it had been until then) as part of  an M.A., there was nothing else I particularly wanted to do at that point. (Especially as a friend had recommended Gen Phil as being  ‘not too bad’ in terms of workload!)

The lectures were held in one of the bigger lecture halls in the Old Quad, but for tutorials we went to Edgecliff itself, where I confess to spending a lot of time gazing at the view, hoping to look philosophical while wishing myself elsewhere.

Beginning and End of the World coverBut even if I was never going to be a philosopher, it’s thanks to Prof Crawford (whose book I think may crop up here again) for helping me remember that craggy cliff-edge.

Photo credits:
Edgecliff from the scores, by s0ftmachine via Flikr
Edgecliff and The Scores from the sea, with grateful thanks to Hugh La Follette
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