The Scarlet Gown: History and Development of Scottish Undergraduate Dress
Transactions of the Burgon Society
The S carlet Gown: Histor y and Development of Scottish Undergraduate Dress
Jonathan C. Cooper 0
0 University of Central Lancashire
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The Scarlet Gown: History and Development of
Scottish Undergraduate Dress
by Jonathan C. Cooper
The scarlet gown is synonymous with student life in Scotland. Although its
beginnings are mysterious, the purpose of this article is to shed some light on its
origin and to describe its development through the centuries. We shall examine
Scottish student dress in pre-Reformation times and briefly survey the early use of
red student gowns in Europe. The history of the scarlet gown at each of the Scottish
universities is treated in order of their foundation followed by a general section on
headwear. We shall touch on the influence of the Scottish scarlet gown abroad and
conclude with a section on its use in modern times.1
Scottish student dress in pre-Reformation times
1. The University of St Andrews
Founded by a bull issued by Avignon Pope Benedict XIII to Bishop Henry
Wardlaw in 1413, St Andrews is the oldest of the Scottish universities. It has two
constituent colleges: the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard, which was
founded in 1747 as the result of an amalgamation of two older foundations; and St
Mary’s College, which has trained ministers in Protestant theology since not long
after the Reformation and remains as the Faculty of Divinity to this day. Student
dress was prescribed by regulation of the Faculty of Arts between the foundation of
the University in 1413 and the establishment of the colleges, each of which
developed its own rules.2
The ancient seal of the University of St Andrews (see back cover) cannot be
dated precisely but is thought to have been made before 1418, the year that saw the
1 At this point it is useful to introduce four terms particular to the Scottish universities.
Bajan (later Bejant at St Andrews) describes a student in the first year; a Semi is a
secondyear student; a Tertian a third-year and a Magistrand a fourth-year. It should also be noted
that the first degree taken at the Scottish universities became the MA (or AM), a practice
which continues at the ancient universities to this day. The BA went into abeyance at the
ancient universities after the Reformation and is only awarded today under specific
circumstances. The BA is routinely awarded as a first degree only at the modern Scottish
2 Cf. R. G. Cant, The University of St Andrews: A Short History (Edinburgh: Oliver &
Boyd, 1946), p. 19.
renouncement of Antipope Benedict XIII, Pedro de Luna, in favour of Pope Martin
V. The Faculty of Arts met and withdrew its support for the Antipope, then advised
that the country follow suit and Scottish allegiances switched from Avignon to
Rome.3 The seal gives prominence to the arms of de Luna, as the Pope who issued
the bulls of foundation, so it is likely to have been made in the first few years of the
University’s existence, before he fell out of favour.4 It shows a regent reading a
codex to a group of seven students but the dress of the students was almost
certainly black not red, as has been suggested.5 An embellished Victorian coloured
impression of the seal even goes so far as to show the students wearing gowns with
collars, which did not appear for some four centuries after the seal was engraved.
Close examination of the original brass matrix reveals that a closed supertunica
with a hood (including a cape covering the shoulders) was worn. One of the Acta
Facultatis Artium of 1417 forbids students in Arts to have ‘shoes pointed, laced or
pierced’ (sotulares rostratos nec laqueatos nec fenestratos); nor were they to put
on ‘a surcoat slashed at the sides’ (supertunica lescissum in lateribus).6 Another
statute of the Faculty of Arts from before 1450 states that students were permitted
to go out ‘a-hawking’ on the condition that they wore their own clothes and not
‘dissolute habiliments borrowed from lay cavaliers’,7 so the gown was also worn
outside the College walls. Finances were raised by the Faculty by allowing selected
students to appear in chapel wearing secular costume and exacting fees for the
St John’s College was founded in 1419 but its records are sparse and nothing of
student dress here is known.9 St Salvator’s College was founded in 1450 and also
suffers from incomplete records.10 However, St Mary’s College, which resulted
from a refoundation of St John’s Pedagogy in 1538, modelled its ceremonial on
that of St Salvator’s; indeed its regulations for dress in choir specify that the
manner of the older college should be adhered to, so it seems likely that student
dress worn at St Mary’s was worn at St Salvator’s previously.11 Chancellor
Archbishop Hamilton’s notes relating to the foundation of St Mary’s College
compiled in 1553, show that the students ‘shall always wear, both at home and
abroad, a robe bound by a girdle, to which they shall add, at their own expense, a
black hood’ (nigrum caputium) and that ‘the students of theology, till they
graduate, shall also wear hoods like the Parisians;12 and all the pupils, however
distinguished by birth, or other circumstances, shall wear belted gowns till they
graduate’.13 St Leonard’s College was founded in 1511 following a rather different
model, however, and Prior Hepburn’s statutes prescribed that students should go
about the city ‘in gown and hood’ (mantello et caputio), almost certainly of
monastic form, and for processions appear ‘in surplices or colobia’ (superpelliciis
aut collobiis) at the discretion of the Principal.14 Of the sons of noblemen who
joined the College, the statutes admonish: ‘they are not to wear secular garb, to
have their clothes slashed, or too short: they are not to wear caps of green, red,
purple, grey, blue, yellow, or lightish colour, but rather adopt all the vestments,
woollen and linen, that become sober men and people of the clerkly sort.’15
2. The University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow was founded by a bull issued by Pope Nicholas V to
Bishop William Turnbull in 1451. Glasgow’s constitution was modelled on that of
the University of Bologna16 and dress too was to conform to that of Bologna ‘as far
as the usage of Scottish clerks permits’, a provision evidently influenced by
practice at St Andrews.17 Students in the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Canon
Law were to wear their gown loose without a girdle (toga soluta sine cingulo),
according to a statute of 145118 and a Faculty of Arts statute of 1452 states that
students were not to wear hoods ‘swelling out too much in the circle of the face,
which are plain evidence of light-headedness’.19 Statutes of the Faculty of Canons
c. 1453, however, tell us that ‘no student in this faculty should wear a loose gown
without a band’, so this was evidently a symbol associated with theological
training.20 Such statutes were enforced by means of an oath, which all students
were required to take, and violation was considered as perjury and could even
result in excommunication.21 In 1483, however, the statutes were modified to
remove the threat of a charge of perjury for some minor dress violations.22
According to the 1545 charter of foundation of the Collegiate Church of Biggar
in the county of Lanarkshire, four boys were to be trained as choristers and were to
be dressed in ‘togis blodei coloris’ in the manner of the choristers of the Church of
Glasgow.23 ‘Blodei’ has been translated both as ‘blue’, from the Latin blodius, and
as ‘blood’, from the old English blod.24 It would, however, be conjecture to suggest
a link between the dress of choristers at the pre-Reformation Cathedral of Glasgow
and the scarlet gown of later students at the University.
3. The Universities of Aberdeen
King’s College was founded in Aberdeen by a bull issued by Pope Alexander VI to
Bishop William Elphinstone in 1495. A second university in the city, Marischal
College, was founded in 1593 by the fifth Earl Marischal. The two universities,
after several failed attempts, finally merged to become the University of Aberdeen
in 1860. Records from the relatively short period between the foundation of King’s
College and the Reformation are sparse but it can be supposed that student dress in
Aberdeen was similar to that at St Andrews and Glasgow. In 1549, Rector
Alexander Galloway carried out a visitation of the College and ordered bursars to
wear their hoods at all times, except when in their chambers or at chapel.25 Students
in theology were to wear a round hood (caputium rotundum) and appear in round
clerical caps (biretis clericalibus rotundis).26
Scotland broke with Rome in 1560. The religious and political upheaval which
resulted brought an end to the influence of Holy See in the Scottish universities and
the old traditions, including those of dress, were abandoned. University records
from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are incomplete but it seems
that little importance was placed on academical dress other than during the two
periods of Episcopal government.27
Early red student gowns
The original statutes of Queen’s College, Oxford, founded in 1341, prescribe that
‘blood red or purple robes’ be worn in memory of Christ’s passion.28 The Latin
wording in the statutes is: ‘ac vestis et sanguinis Domini conformitatem, in palliis
purpureis’, so the exact colour remains unclear.29 The 1415–16 accounts of
Thomas Eaglesfield, an undergraduate at Queen’s, reveal that he paid ‘5s. for 2
yards of russet (russeto) for a gown’ and ‘10d. for an ancient gown to line his gown
Drawings by a Scottish student at Louvain in his notebook on lectures on
Aristotle in 1467 indicate that undergraduates wore a red gown there.31 After its
foundation in 1425, Louvain became a popular destination for Scottish students,
who were displaced from the University of Paris in 1411 when the city was
occupied by the English. Conveniently, there was a Scottish bank at nearby Bruges,
which allowed tax-free money transfer to students from their families in Scotland.32
Some of the students of the German Nation at the University of Bologna appear
wearing red gowns, and others green, as they approach the Proctor for
matriculation in an illumination of 1497 which accompanies the Nation’s statutes33
but it is unclear whether the colour was the privilege of the Nation or of the nobles,
as the statutes contradict the illumination in prescribing a black gown.34
The scarlet gown in Scotland
R. G. Cant, historian to the University of St Andrews, tells us in a footnote about
the scarlet gown that ‘there are indications that, like other Scottish ceremonial
dress, it may have been introduced during the latter part of the reign of James VI
by the King himself’.35 Despite this clearly being speculation on Cant’s part, it is
referenced by W. N. Hargreaves-Mawdsley as fact: ‘All undergraduates of the
university, irrespective of their college, were instructed by King James VI, perhaps
in the latter part of his reign, to wear a scarlet gown, as were those of other Scottish
universities.’36 What is known is that in 1613 the King appointed a commission to
visit the University of Glasgow under instructions to ‘appoint deceint and comelie
habites and formes of vesture for the studentis, licentatis, regentis, doctoris and
governoris’.37 No record of the commission’s visit, if indeed it actually took place,
has survived. The only legal reference to student dress in the reign of James VI is
to be found in a personal Act of 1621 applied to the University of St Andrews
which orders that ‘all masters, professors, students and founded persons within the
said university shall hereafter walk in their gowns throughout all the said university
according to the form that shall be prescribed to them by their visitors under the
pain of expelling them out of the said colleges and university that do wilfully in the
contrary thereof’.38 So it would seem that King James was keen to standardize
student dress at the Scottish universities and was active in appointing commissions
to make recommendations on the matter but there is no evidence that the scarlet
gown emerged during his reign.39
Letters from Charles I dated 1633 and 1634 to the Archbishops of St Andrews
and Glasgow and to the Bishop of Aberdeen, as chancellors of the respective
universities, ordered that governors, doctors, regents, masters and students wear
gowns according to their status in college, at chapel and on the streets.40 Despite
the significant detail that these letters go into, no mention of colour is made. A
Covenanting Commission was appointed by Parliament in 1690 to visit and reform
each of the Scottish universities. In its overtures, which were sent out to the
universities for their opinions in 1695, was included the following:
That all Masters or Regents, and alse the students in the seaverall Universities and
Colledges within this kingdome, be obleidged to wear constantly gownes the tyme
of the sitting of the Colledges, and the Regents or Masters shall be obleidged to wear
black gownes, and the students red gownes, that therby the students may be
discurraged from vageing or vice.41
This has led to the common belief that the red gown was instituted in 1690 as a
direct result of the recommendations of the Covenanting Commission. What is far
more likely is that the Commissioners saw the red gown being used by some and
decided to make it universally compulsory because they thought it would
discourage licentious behaviour among students by virtue of making them hard to
miss in a crowd.
1. The University of St Andrews
During the 1640s, a Revolutionary Commission was appointed by the General
Assembly to visit and reform the University of St Andrews. In 1642, they reported:
‘Since gravity in habite and carriage is very beseeming for Students, It is ordained,
that the whole Students of the University, both in Divinity and Philosophy, go in
there gownes, both within the Colledge and without upon the streets.’42 No mention
is made of colour here and the reference to the ‘whole’ body of students may be
read to indicate that gowns were worn previously by some but not all.
The first reference to the use of the scarlet gown in St Andrews is made in
Thomas Kirk’s account of his travels through Scotland. A note dated 1677 tells us
that ‘the students in all three Colleges wear red gowns’.43 However, it would seem
that this is erroneous as the divinity students of St Mary’s College are thought to
have stopped wearing gowns by this point.44 Admission to St Mary’s College
required an MA degree from one of the other colleges of the University of St
Andrews or, indeed, from another university, and so it was essentially a
postgraduate college and the wearing of the red gown by its students was
considered inappropriate.45 The use of the red gown at St Salvator’s and St
Leonard’s, however, can certainly be traced back to 1677 and probably pre-dates
On 7 January 1689, the Privy Council of Scotland asked William of Orange to
take over the responsibilities of Scottish government and two days later students at
St Salvator’s are reported to have used their gowns to conceal ‘swords and battons’
while attempting to break up a crowd which had gathered to listen to the King’s
declaration for Scotland being read at the market cross.46 This indicates that there
was Jacobite sentiment among some of the students but not that the gown was a
symbol of their cause. In response to the overtures of the Covenanting Commission
sent out to the universities in 1695, St Salvator’s replied: ‘Next, all with us wears
gouns, the Masters black, and the Students red, which wee think most decent and
becoming’; and St Leonard’s: ‘Anent the sixth, about Masters and Students
wearing Gowns. As it is here punctually observed, so we judge it most fit to be
observed in all other Colleges and Universities through the Kingdome, for the
reasons mentioned in the Overture.’47 These replies clearly indicate that scarlet
gowns were being worn by students at both colleges before the Commission
arrived. Whatever the use of undergraduate academical dress earlier in the
seventeenth century, we can be sure that the scarlet gown had become firmly
established by the dawn of the eighteenth.
Perhaps the most interesting point about the use of the gown at St Andrews
during the early eighteenth century can be found in the accounts of the three
Mackenzie brothers who were students at the University at this time. The gown of
the eldest, Alexander, was purchased in November 1712 when he had just become
a semi after taking two years to complete the bajan class. Taking up the gown was
evidently symbolic of the transition from boyhood to manhood as the student
progressed from bajan to semi status. This was linked to the tradition of
‘semipoudering’, which was a student festivity also celebrated in the semi year to
mark the first time a boy was allowed to powder his head or to wear a wig.48 The
fact that Alexander Mackenzie was allowed to take part in semipoudering and to
wear a gown only after he passed the bajan class and entered the semi class,
although it was his third year at St Andrews, suggests that the tradition marked
academic rather than social progression. There is no evidence of this practice
having occurred at any of the other Scottish universities. Mackenzie’s accounts
specify the various components of the gown and their costs at the time:
Accounts, November 26th 1712
For his Gown:
4! ells of frieze at £1 5s. the ell
12 ells of wattens at 3s. the ell
2 drop of silk 5s.
! ounce threed 1s.
" ell of buckram 2s. 6d.
The making thereof
At a combined cost of almost £10 Scots for the materials and the making of the
gown, it represented significant expenditure. The Mackenzie brothers’ accounts
also show that one of the younger siblings, Kenneth, inherited the elder
Alexander’s gown after he left the University.50 This indicates that the gown was
robust enough to last a few years of near-constant wear and was considered as too
expensive simply to throw away and replace.
Further contemporary insights into the symbolic aspects of the scarlet gown can
be gleaned from the minutes of the University’s Rectorial Court which sat in 1716
to hear the case of a student, Arthur Ross, who was accused of ‘attacking, in a
hostile manner, any of his majesty’s lieges on the highways’. He was found guilty
and sentenced to be ‘whipt the following day by his regent’, to be ‘extruded from
that society’ (St Leonard’s College) and to ‘have his gown stripped off, deliver up
the pistol to the rector, and pay to the clerk of the court £12 Scots’.51 Ross
confessed to his involvement in this local Jacobite plot.52 The very fact that a
sentence of corporal punishment, a fine and expulsion from the University also
specifically stipulated that the offender’s gown be removed indicates that the
garment was simply a mark of student status at the time and not especially a sign of
Daniel Defoe travelled through the country during the 1720s and tells us of St
Andrews: ‘the students wear gowns here of a scarlet-like colour, but not in grain,
and are very numerous.’53 The term ‘in grain’ here refers to kermes (Coccus ilicis),
which is an insect formerly used to make scarlet, violet and mulberry dyes.54 The
49 Dickinson, p. 73.
50 Dickinson, p. xxxviii n. At this time the pound Scots was worth one twelfth of the
English pound (sterling).
51 Lyon, Vol. II, pp. 127–28.
52 Herkless and Hannay, p. 50.
53 D. Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London: Strahan,
1724–27), Part I: Perth and Fife, Letter XIII, p. 1.
54 B. Christianson, ‘Doctors’ Greens’, Transactions of the Burgon Society, 6 (2006), pp.
44–48 (p. 44).
comment that the gowns were not ‘in grain’ might be interpreted to infer that they
lacked the brightness of the more expensive well-dyed fabrics of the time.55
In 1779, John Lesley (who later became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the
University of Edinburgh) arrived at St Andrews as a young bajan. Of him we are
told: ‘It is remembered, as a characteristic particular, that having previously
discovered, in some of those antiquarian researches to which he was early addicted,
that it was not indispensible for students of the first year to wear a gown, he
steadily refused, during this year, to exhibit himself in the accustomed academical
habiliment.’56 This shows that the practice of taking up the gown only once a
student had progressed to the semi class, evident in 1712, had died out by the
mideighteenth century. Despite Lesley’s observance of the tradition in 1779, it was
clearly considered an archaic and long-dead practice by this time and all students,
including bajans, would have worn the scarlet gown. In 1780, the United College
resolved to remove the compulsion for students to wear gowns at all times but they
were still required in the classrooms, the chapel, the common schools and the
It is not until the opening years of the nineteenth century that we are given some
clue as to the form of the undergraduate gown at the United College of St Andrews,
when it is described as ‘of scarlet frieze without sleeves’.58 It is not known if this
shape had remained constant as the colour had over the previous century and a half
but it remained so through the late-Georgian period. In a poem of 1812, we are told
that ‘St Andrews’ sprightly students first proceed, clad in their foppery of
sleeveless gown’.59 Further, around 1821, we are told of ‘threadbare students’ in
‘ragged red gowns’60 and later in the same decade that the gown was ‘rather
scrimp’ and that a new one cost £1 2s., although it was not uncommon to purchase
a second-hand one.61 At St Andrews, students were traditionally divided into three
distinct classes and their gowns varied slightly as follows:
The first of these were called Primers. They wore gowns of a superior quality of
cloth, trimmed in an elegant stile, and paid on entering to a class six guineas of fees.
The second description were termed Secondars. These were furnished with gowns of
an equally fine quality, but not so richly trimmed, and paid at their entrance to a
class three guineas. And the third description were named Terners, who had gowns
of an inferior sort of cloth, without trimming, and paid one guinea and a half of
In the late-Georgian period, however, only the lower two distinctions were used;
the last primar having been admitted by 1740.63 There was student intention to
petition the Senatus Academicus to remove the class distinction between the gowns
in 1826 but the petition was never officially delivered.64 Nonetheless, the whole
system of distinctions was finally abolished soon thereafter, in 1829.65 In 1838, the
students did deliver a petition that the gown be altered to serve more practically as
a cloak that would offer some protection from the cold North Sea winds. The
Senatus agreed and the gown was lengthened and long sleeves and a velvet yoke
were added.66 The gown worn by sometime Chief Government Chemist, Sir Robert
Robertson (1869–1949) when an undergraduate at St Andrews between 1885 and
1889 is on display at the Museum of the University of St Andrews and shows the
former pointed shape of the bottom of the crimson yoke. This became rounded in
the early twentieth century and the design has remained unchanged ever since.
2. The University of Glasgow
It has been suggested that the red gown was coeval with the Nova Erectio,67 which
saw the restructuring of the University of Glasgow by Andrew Melville in 1577,
but no firm evidence for this supposition exists. Sir William Brereton, travelled
through Glasgow in 1635 and tells us that ‘here the scholars may be distinguished
from others by gowns, though coloured, some red, some gray, and of other colours,
as please themselves’.68 This is the first reference to the red colour of the student
gown at Glasgow and, indeed, in Scotland but we note that it was not universally of
In 1642, a Commission appointed by the General Assembly to visit the
University of Glasgow recommended that ‘ilk scholler within the Colledge have a
Byble, and weare a gowne’. Over twenty years later in 1664, the University replied
that ‘the maisters and schoolars doe constantlie weir their gownes within the
Universitie and the schoolars also in the streits according to the former practique
and statuts’.69 Further, in response to the overtures of the Covenanting Commission
sent out to the universities in 1695, Glasgow replied: ‘we think it both decent and
usefull that the students allways, and every quhair, be in their gowns, and masters
on the Lord’s day and solemn occasions, quhich as to both parts ar in practise
heer’.70 These replies show that the gown was already long established at Glasgow.
In 1703 a student, Robert Fulton, was fined and publicly rebuked for ‘cutting
his codisciple’s gown on the Lord’s day’, which may indicate the esteem held for
the garment. The records of two incidents of rebellious and disorderly behaviour by
students John Satcher and John Finch in 1714 and 1716 show that each threw off
his gown as a symbol of removing himself from the College, just as in the
contemporary case of Arthur Ross at St Andrews.71
Daniel Defoe, who visited Glasgow during the 1720s, tells us that the students
wore red gowns,72 so it seems that the colour had become standard by this time. As
for form, John Wesley, another visitor to the city, tells us in 1753: ‘the habit of the
students gave me surprise. They wear scarlet gowns, reaching only to their knees.
Most I saw were very dirty, some very ragged, and all of very coarse cloth.’73
Richard Pococke, Bishop of Ossory, visiting in 1760, states that all of the students
‘wear red gowns mostly of cloth’, so the fabric used for the garment was not
In the second decade of the nineteenth century, there was a large influx of Irish
students to the University of Glasgow and they had a reputation for wearing gowns
that were so old and worn that their scarlet colour was barely detectable.75 In 1823,
we are told that the students were ‘dressed in gowns of red frieze, the sleeves of
which they convert, by casting knots and inserting brickbats, into very decent
weapons of offence, during the hours of relaxation which their masters permit them
to enjoy’.76 The practice of buying second-hand gowns continued and in the 1850s,
frieze gowns of all conditions could be bought from the two booksellers opposite
the College. Some students had their gowns made by their tailors and thus the cloth
was of finer quality and of a brighter hue. However, many students considered it a
badge of seniority to wear an old and faded gown.77 We are told of one student
who, when asked by a professor where his gown was, pulled from his pocket ‘what
looked like nothing more than a torn and dirty red rag, and proceeded to drape it
about his shoulders’.78
The gown became longer at some point between the mid-eighteenth century,
when they were knee-length, and around 1840, when they were depicted as
calflength in two watercolours (Fig. 1).79 Hargreaves-Mawdsley supposes that this
lengthening occurred in the late eighteenth century but it seems more likely to have
occurred in the 1830s, contemporaneously with similar changes at St Andrews,
although no record of an officially sanctioned alteration is to be found at
Glasgow.80 The thick cape may have been added to protect the wearer from the
frequent and heavy rain in Glasgow and has been described as having ‘a scalloped
edge and raised seams or ribs radiate from under the flap collar above to points
between the curves, giving an impression of an open umbrella’.81
On the use of the gown, in reply to the Parliamentary Commission appointed to
visit the University in 1830, the Senate said that the wearing of the gown was ‘not
in practice observed by the senior students’.82 During the 1850s, the gown was
universal amongst the junior humanities classes,83 which were described as
encouraging ‘the strong contagion of the gown’ and Professor Ramsay was recalled
as being particularly sarcastic towards any student who dared to attend his lectures
without it.84 By the 1860s, the use of the toga (as it was sometimes referred to at
both Glasgow and Aberdeen) had fallen into decline and in 1866 the General
Council of alumni passed the following resolution:
That this Council, regretting that the ancient custom of the students wearing red
gowns (approved as a then existing custom by the Commissioners of Parliament
1695) has recently fallen into disuse in this University refer to the Committee to
consider the propriety of restoring such custom in whole or in part, and to report
generally on the subject of academical costume both of graduates and
Following this, in 1868 the University Court recommended that ‘the practice of
students wearing the red gown should be revived’.86 The red gown was even worn
to graduation by Arts graduands in recognition of the fact that it was not until the
actual capping that they became entitled to wear the black graduate gown. This
custom continued until 1887, when the black gown was prescribed for graduands.
It seems that the scarlet gown once again went into decline, as the General Council
passed another resolution that its use be enforced in 1892. When news of this
reached the University Court, the Students’ Representative Council was asked for
its opinion on the matter and they requested that it should not be enforced, so it was
not.87 An interpretation of student dress appears in a drawing of the arms of
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, in which one of the supporters, granted in 1892, is
an undergraduate of the University of Glasgow, where he was Professor of Natural
Philosophy for over half a century.88
3. The Universities of Aberdeen
In the 1593 foundation charter of Marischal College, there is reference to the use of
the belt in academical dress: ‘bursars are to wear long gowns, girt with a white
leather belt four fingers broad.’89 However, as all students would have worn dark
gowns in the sixteenth century, the belt was the only distinguishing feature of the
bursar at this time. King’s College statutes promulgated anew in 1641, but based
on the original foundation, state that bursars here too were to wear a white leather
girdle (balteum coriaceum album) as proof of their obedience.90 Further King’s
statutes dated between 1641 and 1653 say that students were to go about in the
galero and toga but to use the pileus and pallium when in town or on the playing
The first indication of the red student gown at Aberdeen is pictorial and is to be
found in a landscape of King’s College dated c. 1640, where figures are to be seen
wearing long scarlet gowns.92 The 1659 statutes of Principal John Row, who
governed King’s strictly from 1653 to 1661, were for the guidance of bursars and
stated that those who did not appear in their gown and hat (toga et galero) would
be deprived of a day’s food on the first offence, of two days’ food on the second
offence and could be expelled on the third offence. The statutes also state: ‘sed
nullus alumnus rubra utatur posthac toga sed coloris nigri vel fusci,’ indicating
that the bursars were to be distinguished from the other students by wearing a toga
of black or dark fabric rather than red. Further, a bursar found to be speaking in the
vulgar tongue was to go without his gown and with a broad white leather belt
(extra togam, uti albo cingulo
coriaceolato) as punishment.93
At King’s College, the belt
seems to have changed function
from a sign of punishment to
join the black or dark gown as a
general distinguishing feature
of the bursar (as at Marischal)
as Alexander Middleton,
Principal during the 1660s and
1670s, writes of his students:
‘they wear a red or scarlet
gown with hanging sleeves; but
those who are bursars a black
gown with a girdle.’94 This
practice seems to have been
confined to Aberdeen but the
students at both colleges were
split into two classes: the
Fig. 2. Libertine student, Aberdeen, 1677. bursars and the libertines.95 The
The earliest knscoawrnletdgeotawilne.d image of the former were from poor families
(Reproduced by permission of University of Aberdeen but showed academic promise,
Library, Special Collections) so were provided with a
scholarship from the college
and were required to wear black gowns with a leather girdle and to act as porters at
the College gate when they were not attending lectures. The latter were wealthier,
paid fees for their tuition and wore the red gown.96 The scarlet gown cost £16 7s.
Scots in the 1660s.97
A 1677 portrait of a libertine, probably of Marischal College, shows that the
gown at the time was worn closed and had short inverted-T sleeves (Fig. 2).98 In
93 Innes, Fasti, pp. 254–55. Note that the bursars’ gown was not always black. The
mortification of Walter Ogilvie dated 1676 wills funds to be used to maintain a number of
bursars at King’s College ‘but also for furnishing ane sad coloured gown, not being black,
to each of them at their entrie thereto’ (Innes, Fasti, p. 181).
94 W. Thom, The History of Aberdeen (Aberdeen: D. Chalmers & Co., 1811), Vol. I,
App. 1, p. 27.
95 Thom, 1811, Vol. I, App. 1, p. 44.
96 Thom, 1811, Vol. I, App. 1, p. 45.
97 McLaren, p. 61.
98 University of Aberdeen, Marischal Museum, ABDUA: 30536; McLaren, p. 38; Carter
and McLaren, p. 37. The sleeve here is quite different from that shown in a drawing of 1688
(see Fig. 3. below) so there may have been rapid development of shape during this period
response to the Covenanting Commissioners’ recommendations that the red gown
be worn universally, sent to the universities in 1695, King’s College said that the
‘overtures are our practise, and wee approve of them. Only by our statuts and
customes our bursars are obleidged to weare black gownes.’99 The distinction
between bursars and libertines was apparently discontinued at King’s College
between 1730 and 1765 as a ‘mark of inferiority’ and at Marischal College by
1780.100 It seems, however, that as the bursars’ black gown was abolished, the
libertines began to make additions to their own gowns perhaps in order to keep the
class distinction alive, if not so obviously. Pryse Gordon, who went up to King’s
College as a bursar in 1776, tells us that ‘the dress of the students is a plain scarlet
gown, which being commonly of coarse materials, and having no appropriate cap
or head-gear, has a mean appearance’. He adds that ‘the sons of the richer lairds, or
private gentlemen, having the privilege of wearing a scarlet cape to their gowns,
hold up their heads, and look down on the poor bursars, who in return pelt them
with snow-balls’. When he finally bought himself a new gown after the one he had
inherited from his brother became too short and of ‘many colours’, presumably
after the dye began to fade and run, he spent over £1 10s. on a new one and would
have spent more had he not known that ‘bursars dare not aspire to velvet collars’.101
Contemporaneously at Marischal College, we are told that in 1775 student
James Leith paid 2s. 8d. to have a gown cleaned and mended and to have a collar,
made from a " yard of crimson velvet, attached.102 The gown in 1801 was the most
expensive item of clothing a student would have bought at 7s. 7d. for the fabric
plus an additional 4s. 6d. for tailoring.103 The scarlet velvet of King’s and the
crimson velvet of Marischal were one of two distinctions between the gowns of the
two colleges. They were described as ‘broad velvet collars, of the same form with
those of the clergy of the Church of Scotland’ in the late eighteenth century.104 The
collar distinction, however, changed slightly at some point in the late Georgian
period. It is said that a particularly overzealous Sacrist named Downie, who was
responsible for student discipline at King’s, caused this alteration. Downie’s
powers reached only as far as the College precinct but he is said to have done some
sleuthing in the hostelries of the city and discovered a celebration of some rowdy
undergraduates. The students were summoned before the Senate the next day and
faced disciplinary procedures, so they decided to exact their revenge on Downie by
or, alternatively, the precise form may have been open to the interpretation of individual
99 Innes, Fasti, p. 382.
100 McLaren, p. 96. The Gilbert Ramsay bequest, endowed in 1727, required that the
four bursars it supported should wear red gowns (P. J. Anderson, Vol. I, p. 414).
101 P. L. Gordon, Personal Reminiscences (London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley,
1830), pp. 13–15.
102 McLaren, p. 92.
Don, ‘A Student’s Expenses in 1801
’, Aberdeen University Review, 2 (1914–15),
pp. 58–59 (p. 58).
104 Thom, Vol. I, App. 2, p. 74.
summoning him under false pretence
to one of the city’s hotels, where he
was subjected to a mock court that had
been set up by the irate students. The
court found him guilty of ‘acts
offensive and hostile to the students’
and ‘excess of duty on every
occasion’ and he was sentenced to be
beheaded. He was led to a block
where a headsman stood with an axe
but instead of the axe, a wet towel was
brought down on Downie’s bare neck.
Having taught the Sacrist his lesson,
the student court asked him to rise but
found that he had died of terror. Aside
from the body, all evidence of the
proceedings was removed and the
students were never found out. The
story was finally recounted by the last
of them on his death bed many years
later. To commemorate this event, the
velvet collar was replaced by one of
cloth to symbolize the towel brought
tdhoewnchoanngeDoiwnnime’asternieacl,k.1th05e Dsecsaprlietet sghFroiagwd. ui3na.gtSetthugeodwedninstst’isonnfcotKitoeinnbgob’osektCwiolelluelnesgturean(tdlieoefnrt–)
colour of the King’s collar remained. and Marischal College (right) in 1688.
As for form, the second distinction
in the gown at each college, it is clear (RAepbreorddueecnedLbibyrpaerrym,SispseicoinaloCfUolnleivcetirosnitsy)of
that from at least the late seventeenth
century onwards, the gowns at King’s had a ‘close sleeve, below the entry for the
arm’ and that those at Marischal had ‘long open sleeves’.106 This distinction is
evident in the frontispiece of a student notebook drawn in 1688 (Fig. 3).107 It shows
that the collars had not yet appeared, as the distinction between the bursars and
libertines in gown colour was still seen, and that the gowns were long, reaching the
ankles. The closed sleeve of King’s College was originally long and baggy with a
narrow wrist in the manner of a bishop’s rochet. It is reported that students there
would fill the sleeves with books and stones and would use them as offensive
weapons in their skirmishes with other students and townspeople. The College put
a stop to this practice by altering the shape of the sleeves to resemble the flat
sleeves of the Geneva gown.108 As for length, illustrations of c. 1640 and from
1688 (see above) show that it was ankle length and it is referred to as ‘long’ during
the late eighteenth century.109 A landscape of King’s College dated 1808 shows
students in red gowns reaching the calf and with collars of scarlet but the sleeves
are the same as during the seventeenth century.110 In 1833, we are told of the
King’s student that ‘his gown, which, hanging from his shoulders, only reaches his
knee, and resembles something between a surtout and a labourer’s smock, if either
of these articles of dress can be imagined to exist of a bright red colour, and with
hanging sleeves.’111 If it is assumed that the shortening of the gown and the
alteration of the sleeve at King’s from baggy to hanging flap form occurred at the
same time, the change can be narrowed down to the period between 1808 and
1833.112 It may have been at the same time that the Marischal gown was altered to
have the sleeve flaps over rather than under the arms.113
By the 1820s, the scarlet gown was worn only by the Arts students—the less
numerous students of the other faculties wore no distinctive garb.114 The first
references to the tradition of ‘tearing’, a peculiar practice, which seems to have
been restricted to Aberdeen, first appear in the 1830s.115 The pristine bright scarlet
gowns of the bajans marked them out for persecution by the tertians and
magistrands: it was considered desirable for the gown to be faded through wear and
for the collar to be ink-stained as soon as possible so as to avoid being tormented
by the senior students, who were distinguished by their tattered and discoloured
gowns.116 By the early 1850s, the tradition of tearing had escalated somewhat. On
the first Monday of the term the bajans, in their newly bought gowns, approached
the lecture halls to find a rabble of senior students lying in wait to set upon them
and tear their gowns to shreds. It was recorded that some students’ gowns were
108 J. H. Burton, ‘The Two Great Northern Universities’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 14
(1833), pp. 182–91 (pp. 185–86).
109 Thom, 1811, Vol. I, App. 2, p. 74.
110 Carter and McLaren, p. 67.
111 Burton, p. 185.
112 Compare changes to the gown at St Andrews and Glasgow at about the same time
113 There is a toga dated 1831 in the Marischal Museum collection (ABDUA: 15874).
However, it only has one sleeve, perhaps as a result of ‘tearing’ (see below), which appears
to have been altered at a later date so its diagnostic usefulness is limited. The remaining
sleeve seems to be a flap hanging over the arm, similar to the 1859 painting (see Fig. 4,
114 Parliamentary Commission, Evidence (Aberdeen), p. 226.
115 In a record of 1722 detailing restrictions on student meetings and drinking, there is a
stipulation that there be no ‘sealing of gowns’, which may be related but the meaning is
unclear (Innes, Fasti, p. 444).
116 D. Masson, ‘Dead Men Whom I Have Known; or, Recollections of Three Cities’,
Macmillan’s Magazine, 9 (1863–64), pp. 325–43 (pp. 326–27).
reduced to a ‘small shred fixed to the button-hole of the coat’ by the time they had
reached their final year. The issue reached the attention of the Senate in 1853 and
the minutes record that it was agreed to represent the matter to the students.117 The
practice of tearing survived, however, and was recorded into the 1870s, when it
was described rather as a struggle between bajans and semis.118 A gown worn by
Robert Bain at the turn of the twentieth century has its hems reinforced with cord
to prevent tearing, by this period, by the boys of the town rather than by fellow
In 1854, there was a proposal to house the Faculties of Arts and Divinity
entirely at King’s College, situated in Old Aberdeen, some distance from the
modern city centre, and the Faculties of Medicine and Law at Marischal College, in
the heart of the city. Although this was agreeable to the Senate, it was not received
well at all by the alumni and citizens of Aberdeen.120 The Arts Faculty was
symbolized by the scarlet gown and was thus the most visible representation of the
University. To remove the gown from Marischal, therefore, was to remove the
University from the city. The proposal was abandoned by the Senate and the gown
The form of each of the college gowns on the eve of the union can be seen in
pair of portraits of 1859 (Fig. 4). They show the King’s gown with its open sleeves,
with inverted T by this period, and broad scarlet cloth collar in two layers and the
Marischal gown with its closed sleeves and crimson velvet collar. Although the
gown was ankle-length at the end of the seventeenth century, its length had reduced
to just above the knee by the mid-nineteenth. The Marischal gown is shown
fastened by two buttons and the King’s gown has two buttons but they remain
unfastened.122 A single gown was adopted at the union of the Colleges in 1860,
combining the short sleeves of King’s and the crimson velvet collar of Marischal
and has remained unchanged to this day. The gown is illustrated in Sir George
Reid’s contemporary painting Salve Toga Rubra (Fig. 5), which was reproduced
several times in the following decades in repeated campaigns to revive the old red
gown at Aberdeen.123
Fig. 4. The last bajans of
King’s College (left) and
Marischal College (right),
(Reproduced by permission of University of Aberdeen Library, Special Collections)
Students in Arts were required to wear ‘a scarlet gown in the classes, at Chapel
and at all university ceremonies’, according to the calendars issued between 1864
and 1914.124 In 1883, the motion: ‘Should Arts Students Wear a College Gown?’
was put to the University’s Debating Society. Mr Grierson, speaking in favour of
the gown, said that ‘a gown universally worn would bind the students together, and
instil into them a kind of esprit de corps’. Mr Abel, speaking against the gown, told
the house that ‘Gowns might have been useful in the old days of residence. But in
these modern times they are worse than useless. No utility, no beauty, only 18s.
which might have been expended with more advantage on tobacco or some other
necessary article.’ The division was close at 55 in favour of the gown and 59
against.125 By mid-decade, we are told that only one quarter of Arts students wore
the gown126 and a student who arrived in 1887 recalls that there were few gowns as
their use was not enforced, despite the notice in the calendar.127 In 1888, a
plebiscite was held to canvass student opinion on the matter across the University
and, with votes cast in favour of compulsion to wear the gown totalling 258 and
those against numbering only 32, the matter was settled for a few more years.128
Our student tells us that he finally acquired a gown in his final year in 1890 when
compulsion was once again enforced.129 When women students were first admitted
in 1894, a distinctive ladies’ gown was created by making alterations to the
epaulettes and lengthening the collar to a V-shaped form.130
4. The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, despite being recognized under Scots law as one of
the ancient universities, was founded in 1583 and was thus modelled along
different lines to the pre-Reformation institutions. Edinburgh’s University was tied
to the burgh rather than to the church. Town Council records from 1583 stipulate
that all students at the College were to wear gowns on pain of expulsion, although
no mention is made of colour.131 The fact that the gown went into decline at
Edinburgh in later centuries while still prevalent at Scotland’s other universities
124 Strathdee, p. 249.
125 Alma Mater, 1 (1883–84), p. 123.
126 Alma Mater, 3 (1885–86), p. 81.
127 G. W. Smith, ‘Ultimus Georgicorum’, Aberdeen University Review, 3 (1915–16), pp.
115–19 (p. 116).
128 Alma Mater, 6 (1888–89), p. 114.
129 G. W. Smith, p. 117.
130 Strathdee, p. 250. See also the coloured plate ‘On Thin Ice’, depicting the
gentlemen’s and ladies’ gowns in Alma Mater, 13 (1895–96), p. 95 (reproduced in Carter
and McLaren, p. 96, and on our front cover). The archives of the Burgon Society contain an
example of the Aberdeen ladies’ gown.
131 A. Bower, The History of the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Waugh
& Innes, 1817), pp. 53–55.
has been inferred to suggest that the gown was never worn.132 In an account of
1635 we are told by traveller Sir William Brereton that ‘in Edenborough they
(students) use coloured cloaks’.133 In the same passage we are told that ‘red gowns’
are worn at Glasgow, so one is led to presume that the Edinburgh cloak and the
Glasgow gown differ in style and that the colour of the Edinburgh garment is not
necessarily exclusively red. Indeed, further evidence of the use of the gown at
Edinburgh may be gleaned from the writings of Thomas Kirk, who travelled
through Scotland during the 1670s. Of Edinburgh he tells us that ‘the younger
students wear scarlet gowns only in term time’.134 This is the first and, indeed, only
indication of the specific use of a scarlet gown as the colour of choice at
Edinburgh. However, the same writer told us that students at all three St Andrews
colleges wore the red gown, which was almost certainly not true, so it may be
possible that he also was mistaken about Edinburgh.
It would seem that the use of the gown went into speedy decline soon thereafter.
The 1690 Parliamentary Commission’s ruling that students at each of the Scottish
universities were to wear the red gown included special reference to Edinburgh: ‘in
regard that wearing of gowns has never been in custome in the Colledge of
Edinburgh the comission doe therefore recommend to the masters of that colledge
to endeavour to bring the custom of wearing gowns here in practise’ [sic].135
Following this ruling, a complaint issued by the University of Glasgow in 1699
says of Edinburgh: ‘They have never so much as endeavoured to make their
students wear gowns, all which occasions many youths who love a licentious
liberty to withdraw from this and other Universities and weakens our hands in
obeying of these and such lyke Acts.’136 Indeed, it has been suggested that the red
gown was never worn again at Edinburgh despite the ruling of the Commission;137
and the complaint from Glasgow may even have caused further resentment for the
scarlet gown. Daniel Defoe, during his travels through Scotland in the 1720s, notes
that the students at Edinburgh do not wear gowns in contrast with those at St
Andrews and Glasgow.138 No further mention of the gown is to be found during the
eighteenth century and in 1830 we are told of Edinburgh that it is ‘the only college
in Scotland at which the students wear no peculiar academic dress: those at the
132 A. Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation (Edinburgh:
Edmonston & Douglas, 1862), Vol. II, p. 13.
133 Brereton, p. 117.
134 Brown, p. 256.
135 Innes, Munimenta, Vol. II, p. 523.
136 Innes, Munimenta, Vol. II, pp. 540–41.
137 Dalzel, Vol. II, p. 13; A. Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its
First Three Hundred Years (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1884), Vol. II, p. 471; D. B.
Horn, A Short History of the University of Edinburgh, 1556–1889 (Edinburgh University
Press, 1967), p. 35.
138 Defoe, A Tour, Part II: Glasgow, Letter XII, p. 2.
other universities being distinguished by red cloth gowns without sleeves’.139 This
was clearly the cause of some tension during the early Victorian period. In 1843,
there was disagreement amongst the students on the matter of academical dress and
petitions were delivered. The Senatus Academicus formed a committee to consider
the matter and it reported:
There are two petitions, the one for and the one against the introduction of a
distinctive costume, each subscribed by nearly an equal number of students, while a
still greater number appear to have taken no interest in the matter, they (the
committee) are of the opinion that in the present circumstances of society any
attempt to originate such a practice would be inexpedient, and unproductive of any
of the advantages which in earlier times were expected to result from it.140
The debate was thus quelled but it re-emerged in 1861 when Professor Blackie
proposed a motion to the Senatus Academicus that ‘the adoption of academical
dress by the students of the University would be highly conducive both to
discipline and to propriety.’141 A committee was established in order to consider the
matter further and it reported that ‘the adoption of an academical costume is
desirable providing it meets general approval of the students’, so it set out to
ascertain their views.142 At the following meeting, the committee reported that
‘there is in the Faculty of Arts a very large majority in favour of the adoption of an
academical costume, while in the Faculty of Medicine there is a decided majority
against it’. 143 The committee found it was unable to garner opinion in the Faculties
of Divinity and Law due to the late period of the session and recommended that the
matter be postponed until the following session—as far as the minutes reveal,
however, it never was.
5. The Modern Universities
The University College of Dundee was founded in 1881, became a constituent
college of the University of St Andrews in 1897, was re-named as Queen’s College
in 1954 and was finally granted a Royal Charter and independence in 1967. This
same year saw the foundation of the University of Stirling and second universities
were founded in both Glasgow and Edinburgh as the University of Strathclyde in
1964 and Heriot-Watt University in 1966, respectively. Because of its early ties
with the University of St Andrews, Dundee is alone among the modern universities
in sharing the tradition of the red undergraduate gown. It also holds ‘ancient’ status
under Scots law so elects a Rector as
at the other ancient universities. In
1889, the Students’ Representative
Council of the University College of
Dundee adopted the red gown of St
Andrews with a distinctive badge.144
The pentagonal badge was of the same
crimson material as the collar and was
worn on the left breast. A line pattern
symbolic of the lilies on the coat of
arms of both the University College
and the City of Dundee was stitched Fig. 6. The distinctive badge of the
on to the badge in gold thread (Fig. University College of Dundee.
6).145 When the institution was
renamed as Queen’s College and
restructured following a Royal Commission in 1954, the student gown became dark
blue with a collar also in dark blue, although the shape remained the same. This
gown was worn for a period of only thirteen years until the University of Dundee
was given its charter in 1967, at which time the red gown returned but the
distinction between Dundee and St Andrews was made by altering the colour of the
yoke. The gown’s colour is defined in the University’s calendar as ‘Union Jack
red’ and it is worn with a yoke, collar and facings of serge or flannel in ‘Stewart
blue’—very close in shade to liturgical blue, the colour of the Virgin Mary, the
patron saint of the city. The shape and material of the gown at Dundee is identical
to that at St Andrews. In celebration of the grant of university status from the Privy
Council, the students climbed the Dundee Law en masse in their gowns: a spectacle
which is said to have been visible from across the Tay in Fife.146
Strathclyde prescribes a black gown with blue button and cord for its
undergraduates thus straying from tradition altogether and neither Stirling nor
Heriot-Watt requires any undergraduate dress. A further seven Scottish universities
have been granted Royal Charters since 1992 but none of these prescribes any
academical dress for undergraduates.
144 M. Shafe, University Education in Dundee 1881–1981 (University of Dundee Press,
1982), p. 50.
145 A University College of Dundee gown and mortar-board worn by an undergraduate
between 1908 and 1911 are on display in the M Manus Art Gallery & Museum in Dundee.
146 Shafe, p. 154.
Little mention of student headwear is made at the Scottish universities until the
nineteenth century and artists’ impressions indicate that in the preceding centuries
hats were worn according to the fashion of the time. In early Victorian St Andrews,
provisions for headgear were not made in statute and the tile cap popular at the
time was considered suitable for more formal occasions but the square trencher was
introduced in 1865–66 and year groups were distinguished by coloured tassels:
bejants wore blue, semis crimson, tertians yellow and magistrands black.147 John
Campbell Shairp, Principal of the United College of the University of St Andrews
1868–84, keenly disapproved of the students who had begun to wear the
mortarboard. He is said to have ignored any greeting from a student wearing the square
cap and viewed it is a vulgar aping of the style at Oxford and Cambridge. Shairp
preferred that the Kilmarnock blue bonnet with a red tassel be worn as it had been
by Lord Aberdeen and his brothers. However, the square mortar-board board
Portraits of students at Glasgow c. 1840 indicate that the younger wore the
Glengarry cap and the elder wore a black silk top hat, although this was not
enforced by statute (see Fig. 1, above).149 The students eventually presented a
notice to the Senate on the propriety of wearing an academic cap and the resultant
resolution in 1870 reads:
The Senate fully recognise the propriety of a suitable Academic Cap being worn
along with the Gown. Two types of Caps have been suggested, each of which has
distinct advantages. These are the English square Trencher Cap and a round soft
Cloth Cap analogous to that depicted in Holbein’s Portrait of Sir Thomas More’s
son, in the Queen’s collection. The Senate recommend that one or other of these
Caps be worn along with the Gown next session, leaving it to be determined after
experience what cap shall ultimately be adopted uniformly.150
The round cap was a favourite of Hugh Blackburn, Professor of Mathematics. The
students were allowed to wear the cap of their choice for a short period but one
year later in 1871 the following resolution was adopted:
The Senate fully recognising the propriety of a suitable Academic Cap being worn
along with the Gown recommend that the Trencher Cap be worn, but desire that it
not be worn without the Gown.151
147 Cant, The University of St Andrews, p. 119.
148 A. K. H. Boyd, Twenty-Five Years of St Andrews: Sept. 1865 to Sept. 1890
(Edinburgh: Longmans, Green & Co., 1893), p. 25.
149 University of Glasgow, Library, Special Collections, MS Murray 593, fols 7 and 8.
150 Hutcheson, p. 11.
151 Hutcheson, p. 11. Headwear is no longer prescribed for undergraduates in the
calendar of the University of Glasgow.
At Aberdeen, the mortification of Dr Duncan Liddell, endowed in 1612 to both
King’s and Marischal Colleges, required that the bursars it supported should wear a
black bonnet to distinguish them from the other bursars and failure to comply with
this regulation resulted in expulsion.152 A landscape of King’s College dated c.
1640 shows that wide-brimmed black hats were worn by the red-gowned libertines
and, by 1808, tall black hats were worn.153 Although it appeared in portraits from
before 1860,154 students presented an official petition for the introduction of the
trencher in 1870. The reply: ‘The Senatus rejoice to observe in the students a
disposition to respect their Academic garb, and give their cordial sanction to the
introduction of an Academic cap, without making it imperative to wear it.’ Thus
the mortar-board became established at Aberdeen and became a distraction for the
students who had hitherto only torn at the gowns of their fellow students.155 The
trencher proved wholly unsuitable in the windy climate of the city. However, it
remained on the statute book and in 1888 a plebiscite at King’s College found
student favour in a proposal to differentiate between year groups by coloured
tassels, as at St Andrews. Despite the large majority, this was rejected by the
Senatus.156 On the admission of women students to the University in 1894, a red
tassel was added to their mortar-boards.157 At the University College of Dundee,
the coloured St Andrews tassels were worn until the University of Dundee was
instituted in 1967.
Colonialism by gowns
The influence of the red undergraduate gown stretched out over the Atlantic in the
early nineteenth century. Dr Thomas McCulloch was educated at the University of
Glasgow and sent to Nova Scotia as a minister in 1802. There he founded Pictou
Academy as a non-sectarian institution because King’s College, the only other
contemporary institution in the province, was open only to Anglicans. The
Academy opened in 1818 and was modelled on the University of Glasgow. Under
McCulloch’s instruction students were obliged to wear the Scottish scarlet gown
even before the Academy had applied for the power to grant degrees.158
Sir James Colquhoun Irvine, Principal of the University of St Andrews 1921–
52, was appointed Chairman of the West Indies Committee of the Asquith
Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies and was instrumental in the
foundation of the University College of the West Indies in 1948. Although the
institution initially entered candidates as external students for the award of degrees
by the University of London, as was common amongst colonial institutions at the
time, Irvine made provision that his beloved scarlet gown be worn by students in
Jamaica just as in Scotland.159 Not only the colour but also the form of the gown
was copied as it had ‘round sleeves cut above the elbow’.160
Red undergraduate gowns were also worn at colonial African institutions
including the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland; Makarere
University College; University College, Nairobi; and The University of Ghana,
although no direct link between the Scottish gown and these is evident in
The gown at the Ancient Universities in modern times
At St Andrews, there is plenty of photographic evidence to show that the scarlet
gown was worn by many throughout the twentieth century but its use was
particularly associated with the halls of residence and traditional University events.
In the first few years of the twentieth century, it was required in only some of the
classrooms but was experiencing something of a burst of popularity, being
generally worn on the streets though not out of compulsion.162 The scarlet gown
was worn only by Arts students during this period; medical students wore no gown
at all.163 James Read, who was Professor of Chemistry at St Andrews from 1923 to
1963, insisted that all candidates at oral examination wore the red gown.164 Read’s
passion for the garment no doubt rubbed off from James Irvine, who filled this role
some years previously. During World War II and, indeed, until 1954 students
brought their ration books with them when they arrived at university. Each scarlet
gown required sixteen coupons—a significant proportion of the annual allowance.
In order that the gown would still be seen in St Andrews, in 1942 the University
ordered thirty-eight for the use of students.165 In memory of John Honey, a student
who proved his bravery by rescuing seamen from a ship wrecked off the Fife coast
in 1800, the gown is never fastened at St Andrews lest students find themselves in
the waters of the North Sea.166 Undergraduate divinity students of St Mary’s
College wear a black gown with short open sleeves and a violet cross of St Andrew
on the left breast, a reminder of the time when only graduates were admitted to the
In Glasgow in 1904, we are told that the scarlet gown and mortar-board were
not compulsory so were not worn by all but were seen in the classrooms and not
often on the streets.167 In 1907, the Senate made the following resolution thus
instituting a distinction in the Glasgow gown still prescribed to this day:
Students may wear on the red gown a trimming distinctive to their Faculty. The
trimming approved for this purpose is a narrow silk band of the colour of the hood
lining proper to the degree of Bachelor in the Faculty, placed over the seam which
crosses the breast of the gown on each side.168
At Aberdeen in the 1920s, there was an attempt to revive the gown. In 1921, the
Students’ Representative Council recommended that it should be worn by both
male and female students when attending classes and chapel. At first, more ladies
than gentlemen were willing to comply but, when the sight of the scarlet gown had
become familiar once more, more men were happy to wear it.169 Although the
compulsion for Arts students to wear the gown had disappeared from the Calendar
in 1914, it reappeared in 1922.170 The move, however, was not universally
welcomed and led to confrontation between the students. There was even
unpleasant ragging of the clothes of those who refused to wear the gown, echoing
the gown tearing of the mid-nineteenth century.171 By 1924, two factions of
proand anti-gown students had emerged and took part in public argument via
University publications. We are told: ‘It has never caught on to any extent among
the men and is never likely to do so. A few of the women wear both toga and
trencher: some wear toga alone: others carry the confounded thing over their arm,
what for Heaven only knows.’ The anti-gown party argued that ‘when we leave the
gates of King’s we become citizens of Aberdeen in this year of grace 1924, and we
ought to dress as such. We ought to do nothing which might serve to separate or to
165 J. S. G. Blair, The History of Medicine in the University of St Andrews (Edinburgh:
Scottish Academic Press, 1987), p. 233.
166 Grierson, p. 60.
167 Hutton, p. 90.
168 Hutcheson, p. 19.
169 Aberdeen University Review, 9 (1921–22), p. 258.
170 Strathdee, pp. 249–50.
171 R. D. Anderson, p. 89.
alienate us from the general body of the citizens.’ The pro-gown faction replied:
‘Let the insignia of the student be stamped on everyone’s back, and then there will
be no need to cry—“Pull together Varsity!”.’172 The notice prescribing the scarlet
gown continued to appear in the Calendar until the outbreak of World War II but
was largely ignored by the students. In 1950, the Students’ Representative Council
once again urged the University Court to review the matter and, after agreeing to
subsidize its cost, the gown was once again officially prescribed. A pool of gowns
was put under the charge of the Sacrist of King’s College and they were lent to
students for use at chapel and at ceremonial occasions. During the 1960s, at the
foundations of each of three new halls of residence, the wearing of the gown was
enforced in the dining rooms.173 Photographs from the 1980s indicate that the
different ladies’ and gentlemen’s gowns still existed but were each worn by either
The scarlet Russell cord gown now prescribed by Edinburgh is of the London
undergraduate pattern and is very different from that at the pre-Reformation
universities, although the red colour is retained.175 Its use is largely restricted to the
University choir, which can be seen wearing it at graduation ceremonies in
Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall.
St Andrews is the only one of the Scottish universities where the gown is still
seen frequently in the twenty-first century. It is worn to chapel services, formal
dinners in the halls of residence, meetings of the Union Debating Society, by
student ambassadors who give guided tours of the University to visitors and by a
few to examinations. Most conspicuously, it is worn for the traditional pier walk,
which takes place each Sunday in term-time after chapel. The coloured tassels on
mortar-boards are now seldom used but are occasionally still seen on the cap of
some stalwart traditionalists. A modern phenomenon is the so-called ‘academic
striptease’ whereby bejants wear the gown high on the shoulders, semis wear it
lower down, tertians in Arts wear it off the left shoulder and in Science off the right
shoulder and magistrands wear it low off both shoulders, symbolic of their desire to
cast off the scarlet gown altogether and take up the black graduate gown. In St
Andrews the gown appears to be experiencing something of a renaissance; 2010
saw the institution of the ‘Scarlet Gown Society’, founded for the purpose of
promoting its use across the University.
172 Alma Mater (University of Aberdeen), 42 (1924–25), p. 94.
173 Strathdee, pp. 250–51.
174 Carter and McLaren, p. 105.
175 N. Groves (ed.), Shaw’s Academical Dress of Great Britain and Ireland, 3rd edn
(London: Burgon Society, 2011), p. 169.
The scarlet gown is unlikely to have originated from a decree of King James VI
(1566–1625) nor was it instituted by the Commissioners of 1690, both of which
have been proposed. However, it is likely to have developed at some time in the
intervening period. The red gown is first recorded at Glasgow in 1635, at Aberdeen
c. 1640 and at St Andrews and Edinburgh in the 1670s.
At St Andrews, class distinctions between primars, secondars and ternars were
evident in the ornamentation of their gowns until the early nineteenth century and,
at Aberdeen, bursars were distinguished from the red-gowned libertines by their
black gowns until the mid- to late eighteenth century, then by the addition of
collars, which differed between the two Colleges until their union in 1860. At
Glasgow, no class distinction was made. The early nineteenth century saw the
addition of sleeves and the lengthening of the gown at both St Andrews and
Glasgow. Conversely, the gown at Aberdeen shortened at around the same time.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Scottish students were ‘a race of young men,
whose loose robes, varying from the brightest of fresh scarlet to the sombrest hue
which years of bad usage can bestow on that gay colour’ but ‘the wear and tare
[sic] of the gown is held indicative of advancement in the academic curriculum,
and is rather encouraged than avoided’.176 At Aberdeen, the new gowns of the
bajans were reduced to rags by the elder students in the practice of ‘tearing’ during
the mid-nineteenth century.
The last word we shall leave to James Lorimer from his treatise on the
universities of Scotland:
The adoption of an academic dress would also, we believe, contribute towards
giving to the students a corporate feeling, and generating an esprit de corps. It exists
not only in the English Universities, but in the three older Universities of Scotland;
and in all of them, we believe, good effects result from its use.177
176 ‘Student Life in Scotland’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 76 (1854), pp. 135–
50 (p. 135).
177 The Universities of Scotland: Past, Present and Possible (Edinburgh: W. P.
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