Category Archives: students

‘Not a Varsity Bird’: William Soutar’s Student Years

100 years ago this week, one of Scotland’s best-loved poets became a student of Edinburgh University. On 13 October 1919, the 21-year-old William Soutar added his name to the university’s Matriculation Album as a first-year student of English Literature.

Extract from Matriculation Album (EUA IN1/ADS/STA/2)

Like many young men of his generation, Soutar’s student years were delayed by war service. On leaving school in 1916, he joined the Royal Navy and spent two years with the North Atlantic Fleet. By the time he was demobbed in November 1918, he was already suffering from as yet undiagnosed ankylosing spondylitis, a rare and exceptionally crippling form of arthritis, which would lead to almost complete paralysis by 1930 and contribute to Soutar’s early death in 1943. Following a month in hospital, Soutar recovered sufficiently to come to Edinburgh in spring 1919 with the initial intention of studying medicine. Soutar appears to have attended classes without matriculating but found the anatomical specimens so ‘gruesome’ that he abandoned medicine after a fortnight, resolving to switch to honours English after the summer vacation. He found time, however, to contribute a poem to the 21 May edition of The Student, ‘Orpheus’, a lushly Romantic piece heavy with echoes of Keats and Shelley.

Extract from ‘The Student’, 21 May 1919

Soutar did not enjoy a distinguished university career. The first two years of his honours English course passed smoothly enough. He enjoyed Professor Herbert Grierson’s lectures on the English classics, particularly appreciating Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Donne. He read widely, ranging far beyond the curriculum, and as his taste developed, was moved to destroy most of his own teenage production. He wrote prolifically, devoting three months of his first academic years to a long poem ‘Hestia, or the Spirit of Peace’ in a vain effort to win the university’s Poetry Prize. Although he continued to suffer from stiffness of the joints, he was still sufficiently vigorous to sit as a model for his friend James Finlayson’s painting of the warrior-hero Beowulf.

At the beginning of his third year, Soutar was dismayed to discover how prominent a role Anglo-Saxon would play in the Junior Honours curriculum. Finding linguistic studies ‘musty stuff’, he contributed a letter-article to The Student of 21 November, arguing that Anglo-Saxon should be optional. Although it offered a ‘large field to the specialist’, Anglo-Saxon contributed little to the average student’s knowledge and appreciation of the literature of his country’. It occupied far too many of the undergraduate’s studying hours which ‘ought to be given to the far more significant study of the great masters of English literature’.

Extract from ‘The Student’, 21 November 1921

Soutar reluctantly attended third-year Anglo-Saxon lectures but stepped up his campaign against the subject in his Senior Honours year. He was granted an interview with Professor Grierson on 23 October 1922, but failed to convert him to his cause. At his parents’ insistence, Soutar dropped his public opposition to Anglo-Saxon, but ceased attending classes, having been assured that he would still be permitted to sit his honours exam. Although Soutar increasingly devoted his evening hours to cinema-going and card-playing, his final year was nonetheless of vital importance for his development as a poet. His first volume, Gleanings of an Undergraduate, was published in his native Perth on 9 February 1923. Meanwhile, influenced by Hugh MacDiarmid, whom he had met during the 1922 summer vacation, he extended his knowledge of Scots verse beyond Burns to the medieval makars. His work began to appear in the MacDiarmid-edited journals Northern Numbers and The Scottish Chapbook, which spearheaded what came to be known as Scottish Literary Renaissance.

Title page of William Soutar’s first published volume, inscribed by the author (probably to art critic John Tonge) (JA 3537)

At the end of the spring term of 1923, Soutar fared disastrously in a preliminary exam on Shakespeare. When Professor Grierson subsequently remarked in a lecture that an honours course was not really for ‘Minor Poets, Geniuses or Journalists’, Soutar suspected that he was the target. Soutar’s final examinations were held on 15 and 19 June, and at the end of the month he learned that he had ‘scraped through’ with a third-class degree. Looking back, he suspected that aversion to Anglo-Saxon was not the sole reason for his low marks. In his exclusive passion for poetry, he had refused to read any of prescribed. It is also true that his medical condition, provisionally diagnosed as ‘rheumatics’, had worsened during his final year of study and may well have affected his academic performance. Soutar remained philosophical, reflecting: ‘I’m afraid I’m not a ‘Varsity bird’—one is apt to get cobwebs on one’s wings’.

Soutar graduated from Edinburgh University on 12 July 1923. Over the following months, his illness worsened, frustrating his hopes of becoming a journalist for The Scotsman. He began teacher training in October 1924 but had to return to Perth to begin treatment for his finally diagnosed ankylosing spondylitis. From then on, he was confined to his parents’ house, from which he would published a stream of slim volumes containing some of the finest Scots verse of the 20th-century. The best-known perhaps are the ‘bairn-rhymes’, or Scots children’s verse, collected in Seeds in the Wind. Soutar famously remarked that ‘if the Doric is to come back alive, it will come first on a cock-horse’.

For Edinburgh University’s collection of William Soutar manuscripts, see: Papers of Willam Soutar (Coll-796)

All quotations from: Alexander Scott, Still life: William Soutar, 1898-1943 (London: Chambers, 1958)

Paul Barnaby
Acquisition and Literary Collections Curator

Cataloguing the correspondence of Thomas Nelson & Sons

Last January, our intern Isabella started a 10-week placement at the CRC, as part of her MSc in Book History and Material Culture. Using our online system ArchivesSpace, she is cataloguing part of the records of Thomas Nelsons & Sons Ltd., a British publishing firm founded in Edinburgh in 1798. So far, she has been dealing with correspondence, advertising material, and printed material relating to publishing, all dating from the end of the 19th century. Here are some of her most interesting finds:

1. W. H. Allen & Co. Copy

1. W. H. Allen & Co.: Pictured above is a beautiful embossing from the stationary of W. H. Allen & Co. Ltd., a London based bookseller and publisher. The company were ‘publishers to the India office’ as can be noted on the seal. The coordination of a lion and a unicorn most likely represents the company’s work across Scotland and England.

2. There are three letters from one Mrs. Allan enquiring about the potential for her 15 year old son to take up an apprenticeship with Nelson & Sons. She describes her son as being a naturally gifted illustrator and when the company takes a bit long to reply she sends further letters describing how she and her son are ‘wearing of waiting’ for a response. Though the company eventually accepted samples of the young Mr. Allan’s work, he was not offered an apprentice position.

3. Lady Aberdeen Insignia

3. Lady Aberdeen Insignia: Pictured above is the signet of Lady Ishbel Aberdeen who wrote to the offices of Nelson & Sons on September 14th 1896, sending several copies of Canadian literary reports and magazines as well as personal letters inquiring as to whether the company would wish to send any penny or bargain literature they may have the copyrights for to Canada as she believes the country is in desperate need of ‘good, cheap literature.’ She speaks about her children’s magazine “Wee Willie Winkie” named after the Scottish fairy tale as well as the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). Lady Aberdeen was the founder of the NCWC, an advocate for the creation of the Victorian Order of Nurses as well as a well-known supporter of the Canadian suffrage movement. The signet is a blue embossed crown containing her initials wrapped together with a vine-esque tie (information on Lady Aberdeen acquired via the Canadian Encyclopaedia).

4. Frank Mahony (1)

4. Frank Mahony (2)

4. Frank Mahony (3)

4. Frank Mahony (4)

4. Frank Mahony (5)

4. Frank Mahony (6)

4. Frank Mahony: Pictured above are six printed illustrations from illustrator Frank P. Mahony. Mahony was an artist from Melbourne Australia whose work was used in the construction of the ‘New South Wales Reader’ a larger and heavily documented project undertaken by Nelson & Sons transcontinentally in congress with several agencies in Australia including leather workers, booksellers, and authors. As can be seen, the copies of the illustrations have been warped from years of being curled into a scroll-esque form at the centre of a group of letters and cost projections for the ‘New South Wales Reader.’ In order to examine each paper with minimal damage, two glass weights are placed at the edges of the copy pictures to examine them as a whole without compromising the form the paper has taken over years of storage.

5. Oxford University Press

5. Oxford University Press: This letter addressed to Nelson & Sons is a copy of a letter from the University Press of Oxford requesting manuscript materials for the Presbyterian Hymnal with Tunes, a project which was spearheaded by Reverend James Anderson of Toronto. The initial correspondence regarding the publication of the Presbyterian Hymnal between Reverend Anderson and George Brown of Nelson & Sons deals mostly in obtaining or paying license for the use of tunes from other previously published hymnals. The various letters sent between the two men gives a glimpse into the nature of musical copyright laws and penalties in 1896 both in Canada, where the Reverend Anderson was based and in Scotland where Nelson & Sons offices were. The publication of the hymnal went on to be so successful that the University Press of Oxford requested to take up the publication of the piece as well.

6. Schwebius signature

6. Schwebius letter: Much of the cataloguing done for this archive requires some previous exposure to palaeography, or the study of dated handwriting. However, sometimes in deciphering particularly unclear script a second opinion or cross referencing is required to confirm the context of a letter in order to properly interpret the piece. For this letter, the name Schwebius, though written twice, was not entirely apparent in its spelling. The content of the letter referred to the sale of a foundry and various machines from a leatherworker in New York. The cataloguer referred to a digitized directory from the library of Hoboken, New York which not only lists the recipient of this letter, a George Schwebius, but mentions details of his business which were substantiated by the letter from the Nelson Archive. Corroborating information across archives and databases allowed not only for the correct spelling of the sender’s name to be identified but gave further insight into the transactions between the sender and Nelson & Sons.

7. George Brown’s signature

7. George Brown’s Signature: In 1896 Nelson & Sons decided to invest several substantial sums which were guaranteed by an American investment firm. Their correspondence with the American firm was directed to a Mr. Stewart Tods and concerned the investment of two separate sums of more than 10,000 dollars each. The letter, though entirely concerned with business, reflects the genial nature of professional signatures from the time. Here George Brown, a manager at Nelson & Sons, signs ‘Believe me, Yours Faithfully’. Though the letter concerns references to significant sums of money and is a reflection of a transaction, the signature is incredibly genial and far more affectionate than would be used in the same manner of business today.

8. Nelson & Sons employed a vast number of employees who all were integral to discovering, creating, and marketing literature. From travel writers to leather testers, Nelson & Sons often employed numerous professionals to vet their literature including Jane Macgregor and Jane Borthwick. Though each women worked with the company under other supervisions at various periods, Jane Borthwick was a translator of German hymns as well as a writer of English hymns, a collection of letters in this archive reveals that these two women were also engaged as test readers for the manuscripts sent to the company. Many of the letters sent by Borthwick and Macgregor reference literature they have been sent which contains female protagonists, from which it could be inferred that Nelson & Sons were recruiting female employees for female driven literature.

The Thomas Nelson collection (Coll-25) on our online catalogue: https://archives.collections.ed.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/85801

James Miranda Steuart Barry and the Crimean War

We recently became aware of a single letter from James Miranda Barry, written just before departure for Sebastopol shortly after its capture by the ‘allies’ in 1855. We acquired it in 1977.

Margaret Bulkley was born in Ireland: a bright, precocious child, she moved to London, with her mother in 1805 and there had access to General Francisco de Miranda’s library with ‘treatises such as might be considered to form a tolerably complete Medical Library for a private gentleman’. As her father had been declared bankrupt, she had no hope of a good marriage so it was decided she should go to university but this was not an option for a woman.

Taking the name of James Barry (after an uncle), Barry went to study medicine, at Edinburgh University, one of the most demanding and rigorous courses in Britain. Barry graduated with a MD thesis dedicated to patrons, General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829). Then, even more extraordinary, after further training, Barry joined the army and travelled throughout the British Empire. There is no definitive version of Barry’s adopted name.

Read more about Barry on Our History

We knew about Barry’s matriculation and graduation records and MD thesis.  This letter, while recorded in our sheaf index to manuscripts, had not yet made its way into our online catalogue and was stumbled upon while looking for something else.  It makes interesting reading.

(Update: More recent scholarship has raised other perspectives in terms of Barry’s sex and gender.  The above has therefore been edited to remove references to gendered pronouns, other than for Barry’s childhood)

All in a name (nearly)

A notice from 1827 reveals certain privileges that were available if:

  • Your name was STEWART
  • Your surname was SIMPSON
  • You were a Highlander acquainted with the Gaelic language

These seem to be the only criteria on offer in terms of access to bursaries. Cash-strapped students could also, with favourable recommendation from their parish Minister, be awarded Gratis Tickets.

Notice of Regulations of the Faculty of Arts, 1827

Notice of Regulations of the Faculty of Arts, 1827

Andrew Brown (1763-1834), who issued this notice and was Dean of Faculty, was born at Biggar, in 1763. He was educated at Glasgow University then he entered the Church and was ordained minister of the Scottish Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1787. Brown returned to Scotland in 1795 and held charges in Lochmaben and at New Greyfriars and Old St. Giles’ in Edinburgh.

In 1801 he became Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres at Edinburgh University, a post first offered to Sir Walter Scott who turned it down. His appointment proved to be a disaster however, for he was more interested in North American history than in literature and during his term of office the subject he was appointed to teach declined. He made no literary contribution and as a lecturer he was uninspired. He died in 1834.

Understanding Student Records

We area about to begin a series of blog posts aimed at helping our users become aware of what information exists in different types of student records, how this changed over time and how the different records series relate to each other.

Understanding the records makes it easier to find all the relevant information and how to make best use of time when conducting research. The first post will relate to matriculation records and the three related records series which have recorded this over time.