Universities in Medieval Scotland

From the end of the eleventh century, universities had been founded across Europe, developing as semi-autonomous centres of learning, often teaching theology, mathematics, law and medicine. Until the fifteenth century, those Scots who wished to attend university had to travel to England, to Oxford or Cambridge, or to the Continent. Just over 1,000 students have been identified as doing so between the twelfth century and 1410. Among the destinations Paris was the most important, but also Cologne, Orléans, Wittenberg, Louvain and Vienna.

Among these travelling scholars, the most important intellectual figure was John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), who studied at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. He probably died at Cologne in 1308, after becoming a major influence on late medieval religious thought. After the outbreak of the Wars of Independence (1296-1357), with occasional exceptions under safe conduct, English universities were closed to Scots and continental universities became more significant. Some Scottish scholars became teachers in continental universities. At Paris, this included John de Rait (died c. 1355) and Walter Wardlaw (died c. 1387) in the 1340s and 1350s, William de Tredbrum in the 1380s and Laurence de Lindores (1372-1437) in the early 1500s. The continued movement to other universities produced a school of Scottish nominalists at Paris in the early sixteenth century, of which John Mair (1467-1550) was a member. He had probably studied at a Scottish grammar school and then Cambridge, before moving to Paris where he matriculated in 1493.

This situation was transformed by the founding of St John's College, St Andrews in 1418. Henry Wardlaw, bishop of St. Andrews, petitioned the anti-Pope Benedict XIII during the later stages of the Great Western Schism, when Scotland was one of his few remaining supporters. Wardlaw argued that Scottish scholars in other universities were being persecuted for their loyalty to the anti-Pope. St Salvator's College was added to St. Andrews in 1450. The other great bishoprics followed, with the University of Glasgow being founded in 1451 and the King's College, Aberdeen in 1495. Both were also papal foundations, by Nicholas V and Alexander VI respectively. St Leonard's College was added at St. Andrews in 1511. St. Andrews was deliberately modelled on Paris, and although Glasgow adopted the statues of the University of Bologna, there, like Aberdeen, there was an increasing Parisian influence, partly because all its early regents had been educated in Paris. Initially, these institutions were designed for the training of clerics, but they would increasingly be used by laymen who began to challenge the clerical monopoly of administrative posts in government and law. They provided only basic degrees. Those wanting to study for the more advanced degrees that were common amongst European scholars still needed to go to universities in other countries. As a result, Scottish scholars continued to visit the Continent and returned to English universities after they reopened to Scots in the late fifteenth century.

By the fifteenth century, beginning in northern Italy, universities had become strongly influenced by humanist thinking. This put an emphasis on classical authors, questioning some of the accepted certainties of established thinking and manifesting itself in the teaching of new subjects, particularly through the medium of the Greek language. However, in this period, Scottish universities largely had a Latin curriculum, designed for the clergy, civil and common lawyers. They did not teach the Greek that was fundamental to the new humanist scholarship, focusing on metaphysics and putting a largely unquestioning faith in the works of Aristotle, whose authority would be challenged in the Renaissance. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, a humanist influence was becoming more evident. A major figure was Archibald Whitelaw, a teacher at St. Andrews and Cologne who later became a tutor to the young James III and served as royal secretary from 1462 to 1493. By 1497, the humanist and historian Hector Boece, born in Dundee and who had studied at Paris, returned to become the first principal at the new university of Aberdeen. In 1518 Mair returned to Scotland to become Principal of the University of Glasgow. He transferred to St. Andrews in 1523 and in 1533 he was made Provost of St Salvator's College. While in Scotland his students included John Knox and George Buchanan. These international contacts helped integrate Scotland into a wider European scholarly world and would be one of the most important ways in which the new ideas of Humanism were brought into Scottish intellectual life in the sixteenth century.