Graduation address: Principal Sally Mapstone

Friday 23 June 2017

‘Avise la fin’

Chancellor, graduates, families, and friends, this is a joyous and celebratory occasion, and I want to start by speaking to that. Please then have patience while I move on to more apparently sombre subjects. I hope you will see why I have done so as we emerge again into sunlight at the end of my remarks.

Saint Salvator’s Chapel is a much loved space in our University, and many of you will have had occasion to visit it during your time here, whether or not you have religious beliefs. There will undoubtedly be a quantity of people here who, whether or not they can at the moment see this coming, will be getting married in that chapel – another joyous occasion to come in your lives.

Many people will also know that one of the most prominent monuments in the Chapel, on its north wall near the high altar, is the tomb of the founder of St Salvator’s, Bishop James Kennedy. It was probably completed around the time of his death in 1465. It is a huge and still arresting monument, centred by a marble slab that probably originally contained an effigy of Kennedy, and dominated by a soaring confection of Gothic turrets and tabernacles, leading, one takes it, to the heavenly mansions. For its immediate medieval audience the message it conveyed was one both stark and optimistic: death comes to all, but a palatial eternal home awaits.

What is less well known is that there is beneath Bishop Kennedy’s tomb a small chamber, in which the Bishop’s bones originally lay, and which can on occasion be entered and inspected. As your Principal and, I have to add, as a medievalist with a long-term interest in Bishop Kennedy, I inspected this myself a couple of weeks ago. In doing this I was following in the steps of a number of visitors to the tomb since the Middle Ages. One of those was one of my most illustrious predecessors, Principal Sir James Irvine, who visited the tomb in 1930, a visit described in the wonderful memoir of his life written by Mabel Irvine, his wife, many years later. This is her account:

On a day of cloud and sunshine and high wind, in the spring … Jim came home at lunch time with an air of suppressed excitement. ‘They are going to open Bishop Kennedy’s tomb’, he said to me. ‘I want you to be there, we’ll go up after lunch.’ We stood, a little hushed group … in the strange confusion of planks, masonry, wheelbarrows and pickaxes in the Chapel, while Jim descended the short flight of steps to the door of the vault. When it was opened, at the first breath of air, the coffin broke asunder and there, buried amidst shifting trickling sand, lay the mortal remains of the Founder of the College. Jim stooped and lifted, cupped in his hands, the skull of the man who had prepared the way for his own work in this place. A foreman held aloft an electric bulb, the crude unshadowed light struck down into the shadows illuminating Jim’s head and deeply moved face bent above the white skull. I knew he was thanking God for the life of this great man and praying for strength to carry on the work which had yet to be done.

I must immediately say that if you descend into the tomb space now this is not what you see. Now in situ is an elegant bronze casket with a Latin inscription indicating that the bones were reinterred in it, and dated June 1930. This was Principal Irvine’s work, and he it was, I am sure, who also required that the casket featured both the heraldic arms of Bishop Kennedy, and the clan motto of the Kennedy family, ‘Avise la fin’.

Consider the end - that is the translation of those words. Take the long term view. As you start off at this glorious post-graduation time of your life (whatever your age – I know we have mature students here today) these are words that are strongly worth bearing on. For you just now, they are less about mortality; they are more about consequences. What you do in your life adds up. Principal Irvine should be one model for you here, as he certainly is for me. He thought endlessly ahead. The magnificent building in which we are gathered today, the Younger Hall, was built during Irvine’s Principalship. As his wife again informs us in her memoir, Irvine deliberately ensured in overseeing the construction of the Hall, that it was set back thirty feet from the frontage of North Street so that it does not intrude upon ‘the long vista looking towards the Cathedral’. In planning the future you should also respect the past. That is something that applies to you both personally and in the careers that many of you will pursue in medicine, in public policy, in institutional service, in the sciences, and in creativity.

You have probably heard enough about Lady Irvine’s Memoir by now, but I want to conclude by telling you who it was who prompted me to read it, indeed to the extent that he leant me his own copy. It was Pat Mathewson, a graduate of this University, and a recent President of the Students’ Association – his term of office concluded in 2016. This generous and wise St Andrean shared his copy (inscribed I might add with both his address and his phone numbers, so I have no excuse not to return it) because, as he said to me, ‘You will find all sorts of things in it that may help you’. How right he was. If Principal Irvine is an example to me, Pat Mathewson is an example to you. He knows how to look ahead, on his own behalf, and on that of others, including his much loved university.

Avise la fin is not a counsel to be cautious. It is a counsel to consider the future with courage, vision, and imagination. Today was just the first step.

We congratulate you and we wish you every happiness and success with the next ones.

Principal Sally Mapstone
University of St Andrews