Student life in days gone by: top 5 weird facts

Guest blog by Melissa Conroy, an M.Sc Museum Studies student on placement in Archives and Special Collections. Melissa has created a digital exhibition of images of student life in the past, which is now live on the exhibition screens to the left of the level 2 foyer as you enter the Library.

During my placement with Archives and Special Collections (ASC), I developed a digital exhibition on lives of students in the past at the University of Glasgow. In order to do that, I spent months researching in ASC, looking at anything related to the University. As you can imagine, I saw some incredible things, and learned some fascinating and even strange stories about the University and the students who have studied here. Here are my top five unusual facts I learned during my research:

1. Gilmorehill was almost a cemetery rather than the site for the University

The University has not always been where it is today. The current campus, Gilmorehill, was not built until 1870. Prior to that, the University’s campus was on High Street near Glasgow Cathedral. The Gilmorehill area was undeveloped until Robert Bogle, a West Indies merchant, built a mansion and stable on the land in 1802.1 When Robert died, his son Archibald inherited the land. Archibald sold the estate to the Glasgow Western Cemetery Company for £12,000 in 1845. The initial plan was that part of the estate would be converted into a cemetery. However, there were complications and delays with developers, so Gilmorehill sat undeveloped until the University of Glasgow bought the site for £65,000 in 1864.2 The Gilmorehill House was demolished to make way for the Gilbert Scott building and the University opened its new campus in 1870. It’s strange to think that our vibrant and bustling campus was almost a solemn, quiet, cemetery.

Gilmorehill House was used as a construction site office during the building of the Gilbert Scott building, 1869, GUAS PHU 1/104/1

Gilmorehill House was used as a construction site office during the building of the Gilbert Scott building, 1869, GUAS PHU 1/104/1

2. The last duel in Scotland happened at the University… or did it?

One of Glasgow University Union’s (GUU) claim to fame is that the last duel in Scotland transpired between two of its members in the union building. The duel supposedly took place in 1899 in the John McIntyre building (the current GUU building was not built until 1930) between Robert Henderson Begg and Carlo La Torre. I say supposedly because there is some debate over whether the duel took place at all. The Glasgow University Magazine (G.U.M.) reported on the event, claiming that a disagreement between Begg and La Torre over Rectorial elections grew violent and ultimately ended with La Torre injured as ‘the blood rushed from his face…and he fell before the might of his conqueror.’3 However, archival research conducted by Lesley Richmond, the former University Archivist and Deputy Director of the Library, suggests that the duel was fabricated by the G.U.M. Richmond suggests that the account was meant to be satirical, and that there are no other records of the event. There is a wide array of opinions on the validity of the claim. The GUU continues to lay claim to the honour of the last duel and the fencing club has hosted a Last Duel Competition in the past to commemorate the event. Regardless of whether or not the duel actually took place, the infamous last duel is a fascinating part of University history that lives on today.

3. The Gilbert Scott building sparked a contentious debate

When we think of the University, most of us would probably conjure up the image of the Gilbert Scott building in our minds. The Gilbert Scott building is printed on postcards, it dominates the University’s hash-tag on Instagram, and it makes all of us students feel like we are attending a real life version of Hogwarts; but this icon of the University and of Glasgow has not always been celebrated. When the University moved from High Street to its current location on Gilmorehill, there was a competition to design the new campus. Sir George Gilbert Scott won, but his Gothic designs sparked debate. At the time, Glaswegians tended to favour a Neoclassical (Greek) style of architecture; it was seen to represent the ideals of the Enlightenment. Some were abhorred by the fact that the University chose a Gothic architectural style, often associated with the Medieval Church, rather than the preferred ‘Enlightened’ style. Rival architect Alexander Thomson was one such critic; he delivered a scathing 60 page lecture to the Glasgow Architectural Society in 1866 against Gilbert Scott’s designs and the man himself. He went as far as to claim that ‘when they [the University] made up their minds to employ Mr. Scott, they thereby relinquished all claims to the profession of any degree of knowledge on regard for the interest of art.’4

The Gilbert Scott Building in 1870, before the completion of the spire GB248 PHU1/63

The Gilbert Scott building, 1870, before the completion of the spire. Note also the Abbot’s Kitchen in the centre of the image, on the South-East corner GB248 PHU1/63

4. The University had a motorcycle club, and it was even more impressive and dangerous than you’d imagine

For a few years in the 1930s, the University had a fairly active and successful motorcycle club. Little is known about the history of the club, the only information that remains is a handful of newspaper articles and two pieces of club memorabilia. However, the information we have paints a fairly clear picture on the daredevil personalities of these students. Club members would participate in five different types of competitions, including: reliability trials, hill climbs, scrambles, and grass and sand track racing. Some tested strictly on speed, while other competitions required a well-rounded set of skills. Scrambles were one of the more difficult challenges; it was a race but the track would include steep hills, jagged rocks, streams, and bogs. R.A. Parkin, the secretary of the club, summarised the intensity of the races, as ‘the whole essence of the game is to do better than the man in front. If you have a spill and bend something, take it with a grin and go harder than before: the best go till their engines blow up or with sheer fatigue subside gently to the ground in a hedge or bog.’5

Members of the Glasgow University Motorcycle Club 1935, GUAS UGC 050/1/10

Members of the Glasgow University Motorcycle Club 1935, clipping from an unidentified newspaper, GUAS UGC 050/1/10

5. Students are the same, no matter the time period

There is often this perception of the past as static and serious. It’s hard to relate to someone who lived decades, even centuries, before us. As I said before, my placement required me to look at a lot of archival material; I’ve looked a past graduation photos, I’ve read lecture notes from three different centuries, and perused a variety of student club publications. In the end, the most interesting and unusual fact I learned was that while what is studied, or where the campus is, or what the students wore might change, the student themselves have always been as ridiculous, hilarious, and clever as they are today. Regardless of the era, students have always doodled when they should be taking notes, or complained about having to go to lectures the morning after a party, or somehow made the serious hilarious. I lost track of the number of puns I found in academic club publications. So. Many. Puns. There has never been enough seats at the library and the price of tea and coffee on campus has always been a contentious point. It’s reassuring to know that no matter how much has changed, the student remains the same.

You can see Melissa’s exhibition on the screens near the foyer on level 2 of the Library Building. All are welcome.


1TheGlasgowStory. ‘Gilmorehill House.’ Accessed March 29, 2017.
2Maley, Sony. ‘Town Plan of Glasgow- Western Infirmary.’ University of Glasgow Library Blog. March 22, 2016.
3‘Hit or Myth: Was Scotland’s last duel a joke?’ The Scotsman. February 22, 2004.
Also see: ‘Scotland’s Last Duel- Was it a Hoax?’ Glasgow University Student Television. February 27, 2004. Also see: Glasgow University Union. ‘History.’ Accessed March 29, 2017.
4Thomson, Alexander. ‘Criticism of Sir George Scott’s design for the building for the University of Glasgow.’ Photocopy of report by T.G. of lecture by Thomson to Glasgow Architectural Society, 1866. Sp Coll MS Gen 798.
5Parkin, R.A. ‘Glasgow has most flourishing varsity club: each man races for his club.’ March 5, 1934. GUAS UGC 050/1/1.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on ruthfletcherhunterian and commented:
    Fascinating gems of our story!

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