Defending The Boyd Orr

Posted on behalf of our Club 21 volunteer Lauren Moffat.


The Boyd Orr Building officially opened 3 October 1972

The name ‘Boyd Orr’ is usually not spoken of favourably at the Gilmorehill campus. More often than not you might overhear students moaning about having classes there accompanied by further complaints about how ‘ugly’ it is and how it ruins the aesthetic of the older buildings.

The project that I have been undertaking as part of my Club21 internship at the University’s Archive Services has, however, made me a little uneasy about the abuse that the Boyd Orr takes. You see, even though it may not appeal to tastes outside the 1960s/70s, the Boyd Orr is a brilliant example of what it is. It is Brutalist architecture at its finest. And that makes it quite important; enough to be included in the university conservation area.

Other buildings on campus such as the Adam Smith are also of this type of architecture yet the Boyd Orr still takes the majority of the censure. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the politics, economics and sociology building bears the name of one of the great Enlightenment figures, world-renowned and instantly recognisable. On the other hand, the answer to ‘who is Boyd Orr?’ is pub-quiz-niche knowledge.

John Boyd Orr Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin

John Boyd Orr Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin (1880-1971)

Let me take this opportunity, then, to introduce you. Boyd Orr was a veteran of the First World War (having taken part in the battles of the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), winning the MC and the DSO in the process), a pioneer in the field of nutrition, a qualified pathologist, largely responsible for keeping the British population living and eating during and after the Second World War, and a Nobel Peace Laureate for his work with the UN. No big deal.

On 3 October 1972, the Boyd Orr Building was formally opened by Sir Eric Ashby, Master of Clare College, Cambridge. Sir Eric recalled the career of Lord Boyd Orr (who had passed away in 1971) and recounted a particularly amusing story of the opening of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, a research centre dedicated to food and nutrition. Noted in the news page of The College Courant (volume 24, no.49, page 3) in a piece called ‘Sheep Tired’ you get a sense of the kind of man that Lord – then Dr. – Boyd Orr was:

…Queen Mary had accepted an invitation to open [the Rowett Research Institute].The building, Sir Eric pointed out, was not in fact ready but Boyd Orr was not the kind of man to let that deter him: he was determined to catch the Royal Family while they were still in Scotland.

At the time, however, there weren’t even enough animals to fill the pens. But, surprisingly, on the opening day, all looked well, “although legend has it,” Sir Eric added, “that Her Majesty said the sheep looked tired. They were tired. They had been travelling all night to provide enough animals for the opening.”


Looking at the Boyd Orr Building its brutalist aesthetic might look a bit monstrous next to the pretty 19th-century structures surrounding it, but the University needed a ‘monster’ sized building to meet the expanding student body in the late 1960s. It was envisaged that 600 first-year scientists, 300 medical, dental and veterinary students, 250 engineering students and 200 other science students plus staff would occupy the building during term time. To serve these teaching needs state of the art large and small lecture theatres, seminar rooms, study rooms, laboratories, ancillary rooms, and even rooftop glasshouses were planned.The University continues updating the interior and exterior – The Boyd Orr even made the short list for the 2014 Roofing Awards in Liquid Applied Waterproofing!

The Boyd Orr was built to serve mostly a utilitarian teaching need and it was named after a very impressive man. Perhaps we should all cut it some slack.

This was Lauren’s third and concluding blog for The Gilmorehill Story project but the story continues bi-monthly so make sure to follow us @GUArchives #gilmorehillstory for the next instalment!

Categories: Archive Services

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1 reply

  1. Sorry, I love the University of Glasgow (where my two children are students) but the Boyd Orr should be admitted as a horrific failure, however much it was a product of its time, and taken down. I would be glad to contribute to a fund to accomplish same. One sees such brutalist mistakes ruining the otherwise beautiful fabric of other universities, such as Trinity in Dublin and McGill in Montreal. Bad art can always be taken down and put in storage. Bad architecture makes us suffer with it for years, and I wince with every walk up University Avenue as I pass this huge eyesore. Can we start a movement to reverse this error?

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