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John Walker

John Robison


Online Essay

A Short History of Scientific and Technical Education in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Heriot-Watt Universities

by Dr John Henry, Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh

At the beginning of the twenty-first century Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, has embarked upon an age of mass higher education. Attendance at university is no longer for a privileged few, but is increasingly open to a significant proportion of the population. In a sense, however, this can be seen as the culminating point of the liberal values of education which were characteristic of the Scottish universities from their foundation in the Middle Ages, and which achieved their greatest success in the eighteenth century when the Scottish universities fostered the 'democratic intellect'. Although the non-specialist liberal education offered by the ancient Scottish universities came in for periodical criticism from the more elitist ancient English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the most serious threat to the broadly-based education which was seen as distinctively Scottish has been the demand for a more restrictive specialised education suitable for the training of scientists and engineers. The history of the changing values of Scottish education, therefore, can be seen as the result of tensions between the Scottish tradition of a broadly based liberal and non-vocational education, and the requirements, beyond the universities, of a culture that increasingly required expertise in science and technology.

As the riches of the collections being catalogued by the NAHSTE project show, it would be a serious mistake to assume that science is only a recent feature in the linked histories of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Heriot-Watt Universities. From the origins of the two older universities and throughout the formative pre-history of Heriot-Watt, the attempt to understand the workings of the natural world has always been seen as an important pedagogical enterprise. It is usually said that at Oxford the study of the classics was seen as the best way to inculcate young minds with the habits of rational thought and analysis, while simultaneously training the memory, at Cambridge it was thought that these educational goals were best achieved by emphasis upon pure mathematics, while in the Scottish universities the emphasis was upon philosophy. It is this focus upon philosophy in the Scottish curriculum which has been seen as giving it its distinctive, more generalist, character. It is important to note, however, that the study of philosophy in the pre-modern period always included a large element of natural philosophy, the study of the natural world. This can be seen in the papers of John Robison, and the Rev Dr John Walker, both of whom were professors at the University of Edinburgh. A commission appointed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1639 sought to impose a uniform curriculum in the Arts Faculties. The stipulation was that Greek and logic should be taught in the first year; logic and arithmetic in the second; logic, geometry, metaphysics and ethics in the third; providing a grounding for the study of inanimate nature and living things, by means of Aristotle's Physics and De anima (On the Soul) in the fourth year. Although this and similar attempts to impose a uniform Scottish curriculum came to nothing, the curricula at Glasgow and Edinburgh were very close to this supposed ideal anyway. Philosophy in the pre-modern period culminated not in metaphysics or ethics, as we today might suppose, but in natural philosophy, the study of nature.

Furthermore, when Glasgow and especially Edinburgh came to be seen as two of the best universities in Europe, in the late Eighteenth Century, it was largely as a result of their reputations in science teaching, as well as the medical teaching which was built upon the latest science. The roll call of the Glasgow and Edinburgh professors in science subjects in those days, many of whose papers are included on the NAHSTE project, provides a list of leading figures not only in the Scottish Enlightenment but also in the history of European science.

But this did not mean that the science teaching in Glasgow and Edinburgh had become elitist, specialised, and antithetical to the Scottish tradition of liberal education. The teaching in the Scottish universities was by this time provided in lectures delivered by the professors, and was a marked contrast to the teaching of Oxford and Cambridge which was still provided by college tutors. The best professors in Glasgow and Edinburgh drew substantial numbers of students to their lectures. At least in part, they did so by providing non-specialist introductory lectures which were suitable for a wide range of listeners. Indeed, it was in the interests of the professors to provide accessible lectures since often they received only a small salary, or in some cases no salary at all, and had to make up their income from student fees. There were no entrance examinations and fees for individual courses were relatively low. Students could take courses selectively depending upon their interests and what they could afford. It was this system of teaching in the universities which ensured that the scientific education provided was of a broad and non-specialist character even though it was provided by some of the leading scientists of the day.

As well as providing a foothold on the ladder of achievement for the 'lad o' pairts' of Scottish folklore, who could attend university in term time, often from the age of 15 or 16, and return to the family farm or to shepherding or fishing in the summer, the flexibility of the system allowed many who lived in or near the town to attend on a part-time basis. The result was that by the end of the Eighteenth Century significant numbers of students in Glasgow and Edinburgh were from the working class. Except in the Medical Faculties, the majority of students did not formally graduate until the 1880s, preferring to base their education on their own requirements rather than on university statutes. As the reputations of Glasgow and Edinburgh grew they increasingly attracted keen or gifted English and other foreign students who could not attend Oxford or Cambridge because of the religious test, demanding subscription to the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglican Church.

It seems clear that in spite of the financial and pedagogical incentives for the Scottish professors to ensure that their lectures were accessible to a comparatively wide audience, the best lecturers nevertheless succeeded in promoting the latest scientific ideas and showing their importance for daily life. Newtonian mathematical physics was promoted in the universities of Enlightenment Scotland long before it was accepted in continental Europe. The astronomer and mathematician David Gregory (1652-1706), was the first professor to lecture on Newtonian principles. He also wrote the first textbook concerning gravitational principles, Astronomiae Physicae et Geometricae Elementa, (1702).

The Enlightenment was characterised by its leading lights as an Age of Reason, in which the successes of the newly developed experimental method, and new methods of analysing the world mathematically, could be extended and applied to political economy and other newly developed 'human sciences'. There can be no doubt that the professors of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Joseph Black, William Cullen, John Robison and Rev Dr John Walker, played a major role in promoting science as an important part of public culture.

Another important factor in the cultural influence of the Scottish higher educational system was the large numbers of students it produced. In 1801 in England and Wales there were two universities for a population of 8.8 million, in Scotland there were four universities for a population of 1.6 million. Even in 1850, when Durham and University College London raised the English universities to four, they catered for a population of 17.9 million, while the population of Scotland had risen only to 2.8 million. Successful Scottish students frequently could not find work in their native country and began to make an impact abroad, especially in the British colonies.

But it is one thing to introduce the sciences and the scientific world view into polite culture, it is quite another to provide the kind of specialist training in the sciences and in technology that might be demanded by new industrialising concerns in the Britain of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the scientific innovations of the Industrial Revolution were in fact introduced by Scots like Joseph Black (1728-99), James Watt (1736-1819), James Keir (1735-1820) and others, but for the most part the education offered was not intended to provide a foundation of industrial training, and by the early decades of the Nineteenth Century this was becoming more and more apparent.

At first, the justly proud tradition of the Scottish liberal education prevented any change in the curricula at Glasgow and Edinburgh. Instead, new institutions arose to provide the necessary commercial, industrial, and technological training. The Andersonian Institution in Glasgow, a foundation set up with a bequest by a disaffected former professor at Glasgow, John Anderson (1726-96), gave rise to the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution in 1823, but it was a full two years earlier The School of Arts of Edinburgh (whose full title described it as intended 'for the Education of Mechanics in Such Branches of Physical Science as are of Practical Application in their Several Trades') was established and can be seen therefore as the initial inspiration for mechanics institutes. Although these institutions did not set out to offer degree level education, they were right from the outset closely linked with the universities. Leonard Horner (1785-1864), the principal mover in the establishment of the Edinburgh School of Arts went on to become the first Warden of University College, London, at its foundation in 1826. The first lecture delivered at the School of Arts was on the subject of chemistry and was delivered by Dr Andrew Fyfe (1792-1861) who went on to become professor of chemistry at the University of Aberdeen. Lectures in farriery were delivered by John Dick (1769-1844), who's son William (1793-1866) founded the Dick Veterinary School, which was later incorporated as part of the University of Edinburgh. Often seen as the prototype for the Mechanics' Institutes, in some respects at least, the Edinburgh School of Arts can be seen as the prototype for the more specialist and more vocational Science and Engineering Faculties which the older universities were later to develop.

By the later decades of the nineteenth century, the demands of the increasingly scientific and technological commercial concerns of Victorian Britain were outstripping the level of scientific education offered by Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scientists like William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) , Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), D'Arcy Thompson (1860-1948), Sir John Graham Kerr (1869-1957), and numerous others, now went on to Cambridge to take the much more specialised mathematical tripos, or the natural philosophy tripos. When men like Thomson and Tait came back to teach in Glasgow or Edinburgh, they found that their students did not have the necessary mathematical groundwork required to establish a curriculum closer to that of Cambridge. By now it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Scottish system, which once seemed superior to the system in the ancient English universities, was now inadequate to meet the new demand for graduates equipped for industrial and technical pursuits. From 1858 (which saw the Act to make Provision for the Better Government and Discipline of the Universities of Scotland) to 1908 (when Glasgow revised its curriculum in order to allow yet more scientific specialisation) the Scottish universities followed what has been called a 'painful path of adjustment'. The changes included the forcing up of the school leaving age by two years, introduction of entrance examinations, suppression of the general honours degree, and introduction of more specialised honours degrees on the English model.

During this period, the stimulus for change was not simply a recognition of the success of the Cambridge mathematical tripos. This was also the age which saw the establishment of the English civic universities with their greater concern for vocational and technical education. Closer to home, the Royal Technical College in Glasgow (which had grown out of the Andersonian Institution) and the Edinburgh School of Arts continued to show the importance of high level technical education. After absorbing a memorial fund for James Watt in 1852 the Edinburgh School became the Watt Institution and School of Arts, and in 1885 an endowment from the Trust established by the will of George Heriot, or 'Jingling Geordie' (1563-1624), financier to the Court of James VI and I, called for yet a new designation, as the Heriot-Watt College.

Another major influence upon the changing nature of scientific education in the two ancient universities came directly from the rising commercial and industrial concerns which needed the kind of trained specialists that the old liberal system of education was failing to produce. Lord Kelvin's experiences as consultant to various engineering firms ensured that his lectures dealt extensively with industrial matters.

Sir Archibald Geikie (1835-1924), Regius professor of geology at Edinburgh, not only discussed the industrial value of minerals in his lectures but also dealt with the engineering of tunnelling and cuttings. At first, such practically oriented teaching still depended upon individual professors. Lyon Playfair's (1819-1898) Edinburgh lectures in chemistry in the 1850s and 60s were often shaped by the demands of what he called 'manufactures', but his successor Alexander Crum Brown (1838-1922) reversed this trend. Increasingly, however, the industrially aware professor began to dominate, for example the papers of Principal Hugh Bryan Nisbet (1902-1969) reflect the awareness of the need to provide training for the requirements of industry. Furthermore, professorships in engineering were introduced. The first in Britain, founded in 1840, was established at Glasgow and filled by Lewis Dunbar Brodie Gordon (1815-1876), who was succeeded by William John MacQuorn Rankine (1820-1872). In 1889 a former student, Archibald Barr (1855-1931) combined the post with a successful business manufacturing military instruments, most notably rangefinders, named Barr and Stroud. The first professor of engineering at Edinburgh was Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), who had been trained by Gordon, and was also a director of the Watt Institution and School of Arts.

By the end of the Nineteenth Century the possibility of improving agricultural practices through scientific methodologies were being examined by the University of Edinburgh. James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933) undertook experimental breeding to investigate the laws of heredity, led to the Board of Agriculture for Scotland forming the Joint Committee on Research in Animal Breeding in 1913. The foundation of the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Animal Genetics followed in 1919 with the express aim of encouraging agricultural education and research. The Institute's emphasis on animal breeding problems led, in 1928, to the creation of the Buchanan Chair in Animal Genetics, which was occupied by Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973).

It is usually said that the Scottish universities were less successful in producing the kind of specialist education required by the new industrialising Britain and her Empire than the new civic universities established in England. Certainly, this seems to be reflected in the comparatively patchy level of financial support provided by industry to the Scottish universities. There has been a tendency to assume that the difference lies in the fact that the Scottish universities had to painfully adjust to a changing world while the English civic universities were newly formed precisely to provide the kind of specialist scientific and technical education that industrial Britain required. There is no doubt some truth in this but it is only part of the picture, as these collections show. Glasgow and Edinburgh were much more successful than the other ancient Scottish universities in catering for industrial demand and were perhaps comparable in their success to the English civic universities. At the same time, however, they were also fully established universities, far larger and more complex, and offering a far wider range of subjects than the civic universities which were closer to the more specialist technical and scientific education offered at Heriot-Watt College. From 1901, Heriot-Watt was recognised as one of the newly designated 'Central Institutions' in Scotland, offering higher courses up to degree and diploma level in technical, scientific and commercial subjects. These Central Institutions were informally recognised within the Scottish Education Department as 'Technical Universities' and were, therefore, equivalent to the new English civic universities in all but name.

The Scottish universities continued to change anyway. So much so that traditionalists continued to deplore what they saw as the loss of the distinctively Scottish liberal and generalist education. George Davie's influential histories of the Scottish universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Democratic Intellect (1961) and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (1986), found a readership beyond historians and became banners for Scottish patriots lamenting the Anglicisation of Scottish education and the death of the lad o' pairts. Be that as it may, by 1966, when Heriot-Watt College, became formerly recognised as Heriot-Watt University, the transformation of scientific and technical education in the Scottish university system was complete.


Robert D. Anderson, 'In Search of the 'Lad of Parts': The Mythical History of Scottish Education', History Workshop, 19 (1985).

Robert D. Anderson, Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992).

Robert D. Anderson, 'The Scottish University Tradition: Past and Future', in J. J. Carter and D. J. Withrington (eds), Scottish Universities: Distinctiveness and Diversity (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), pp. 67-78.

W. H. G. Armytage, Civic Universities: Aspects of a British Tradition (London: Ernest Benn, 1955).

E. Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on the Universities and the Scientific Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1963).

George E. Davie, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964).

George E. Davie, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect: The Problem of Generalism and Specialisation in Twentieth-Century Scotland (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1986).

Heriot-Watt University, From Edinburgh School of Arts to Heriot-Watt College (Edinburgh: Heriot-Watt University, 1971).

Hugh Kearney, Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-Industrial Britain (London: Faber and Faber, 1970).

Jack Morrell, Science, Culture and Politics in Britain, 1750-1870 (London: Variorum, 1997).

Paul Robertson, 'Scottish Universities and Industry, 1860-1914', Scottish Economic and Social History, 4 (1984): 39-54.

Michael Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry, 1850-1970 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).

Michael Sanderson (ed.), The Universities in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).

James Scotland, The History of Scottish Education, 2 vols (London: University of London Press, 1969).

Christine Shepherd, 'A National System of University Education in Seventeenth-Century Scotland?' in J. J. Carter and D. J. Withrington (eds), Scottish Universities: Distinctiveness and Diversity (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), pp. 26-33.

David B. Wilson, 'Scottish Influences in British Natural Philosophy: Rise and Decline, 1830-1910', in J. J. Carter and D. J. Withrington (eds), Scottish Universities: Distinctiveness and Diversity (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), pp. 114-26.

Paul Wood, Science, The Universities, and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century Scotland, History of Universities, 13(1994): 99-135.