The Early History of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews (until 1747)


Laurence of Lindores

The first philosopher recorded at the University of St Andrews was the first Master of the College of St John, Laurence of Lindores. He was born probably in the 1370s, studied at the University of Paris from 1393, and died after 1438. He was the leading figure in the University of St Andrews in its early days (it was founded in 1413), Principal Regent of Pedagogy and Rector and Governor of the University. He was the Papal Inquisitor of Heretical Pravity in Scotland, whose main job was to root our heresy and who is now mainly remembered for burning heretics. His works were widely read in Continental universities over the succeeding one hundred years and were Copernicus' source of knowledge of medieval physics.

Nicholas Copernicus

Laurence of Lindores as represented at the
annual Kate Kennedy procession through
St. Andrews.

Gavin Douglas

The third son of the Earl of Angus, Gavin Douglas, studied at St Andrews from 1489 until 1494, and later at the University of Paris. In the Preface to his Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid (which he completed in 1513 just before the Battle of Flodden), he refers somewhat disparagingly to the writings of logicians. Here is a rough translation (the original is displayed to the right):
"For there are Latin words many a one
Which in our language truly, as I know,
Few men can tell me clearly what they mean.
Between genus, sexus, and species,
Diversity to seek in our tongue I fail.
For obiectum and subiectumalso
He would be an expert who could find for me two terms,
Though they are as common among students in school
As ever fowls plunged in lake or pool.
Logicians know herein my meaning,
Under whose bounds lurk many strange goings-on."
"For thar bene Latyne wordis many ane
Quhilkis in our langage southlie, as I wene,
Few men can tell me cleirlie quhat thai mene.
Betuix genus, sexus,and species,
Diuersitie to seik in our leid I ceis.
For obiectum and subiectum alsua,
He war expert culd fynd me terms tua
Quhilkis ar als rife amange clerkis in scule
As euir fowlis plungit in laik or puile.
Logitianis knawis heirin myne entent,
Onder quhais boundis lurkis mony strange went."
Gavin Douglas held a church post at Prestonkirk (East Lothian), and in 1503 he was appointed post of Provost of St Giles in Edinburgh. It was during this time, before he came involved in political and ecclesiastical wrangling, that he earned his reputation as a poet and scholar out great merit.
Angus Douglas (Gavin's nephew), 6th Earl of Angus, married Margaret Tudor, the widow of James the IV  and this put Gavin and all the rest of the family in the Queen's camp during the power squabbles. Subsequently through the influence of Margaret Tudor he attained the abbacy of Arbroath and later in 1515 the Bishopric of Dunkeld (having failed in his bid to become Bishop of St. Andrews). Unfortunately, the politics of the time dictated that the Douglas's would fall from power, through popular indignation at Margaret's marriage to Angus (which resulted in Margaret being deprived of the regency). Gavin was imprisoned in 1516 for a year in Edinburgh Castle for intriguing with Margaret to obtain ecclesiastical promotion without the consent of parliament, and after his release had to fight off rival claims to his bishopric. But he soon returned to favour, and in 1517 went to France to help arrange the marriage of James V (now five years old) to Princess Madeleine, daughter of Francois I (though the wedding would not take place until 1537). However Douglas's ambition and his involvement in the political wrangling of the regency led to another fall from grace, and he was exiled to England in 1521 to avoid an arraignment for high treason. He died of plague in England a year later in September 1522 and was buried in Savoy Church in London.

Tantallon Castle in East Lothian
- the birth place of Gavin Douglas.


John Major

Another early philosophical figure at St Andrews was John Major. He was from Gleghornie near Haddington in East Lothian and had an illustrious career at the University of Paris, still the leading university in Europe. Indeed, he founded his own philosophical school, surrounded by such disciples as George Crabbe and George Lokert, and many other ex-patriate Scots. He returned to Scotland in 1517 and was Provost of St Salvator's College at St Andrews from 1534 until 1550. He was satirised by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel, where in chapter 7 of the second book Major is represented in the library that Pantagruel is confronted with by a treatise on puddings.

A copy of a wood cut of a contemporary portrait of John Major from the title page of his "In Petri Hyspani Summulas Commentatia", Lyons 1505. 
(Special permission to use this image was kindly granted by Glasgow University Library who hold the original book and the University of St. Andrews Library who hold a copy, from which this image was taken.)

Francois Rabelais (about 1483-1553)

William Cranston

William Cranston, Provost of St Salvators 1553-60

Adam Ferguson

Adam Ferguson was a student at St Andrews, later Professor of Natural Philosophy (i.e. physics) and in time, Moral Philosophy and Pneumatics (i.e. philosophy of mind) at the University of Edinburgh. 

In 1767, Ferguson published his masterpiece, the Essay on Civil Society.  It was a natural history of the progress of mankind, of the kind that had been pursued by many Enlightenment philosophers.  David Hume once claimed that Ferguson had "more genius than the rest", but he disliked Ferguson's essay, regarding it as superficial. 

Rather than speculating about the origins of human nature, Ferguson was particularly interested in detailing the reality and consequences of it. This has lead many to consider him one of the founding father of sociology.

It was at Ferguson's house "The Sciennes" (a famous meeting place of the Edinburgh literati)  that Robert Burns and Walter Scott met for the first and only time, when Scott was an adolescent. Burns had been very much affected by a picture on the wall of a dead soldier, with his widow, child and dog beside him in the snow. Underneath, was a verse. Burns turned to the assembled distinguished company, and asked if anyone knew the author. No one did, until the young Scott remarked: 'They're written by one Langhorne.' Whereupon Burns said Scott, in a letter to Lockhart in 1827, 'rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though in mere civility, I then received, and still recollect, with great pleasure.' 

Portrait of Adam Ferguson

Ferguson's tomb in the
grounds of St. Andrews Cathedral

 Ferguson retired to St Andrews (his house, with sundial over the door, can still be seen on South Street) and died in St Andrews in 1816. He is buried in the grounds of St. Andrews Cathedral.

The elegy on his tombstone was written by Sir Walter Scott and reads:
"Here rest the Mortal Remains of Adam Ferguson, L.L.D. Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. He was born at Logierait in the County of Perth, on the 20th June, 1722, and died in this City of Saint Andrews, on the 22d day of February, 1816. Unseduced by the temptations of pleasure, power, or ambition, he employed the interval between his childhood and his grave with unostentatious and steady perseverance in acquiring  and in diffusing knowledge, and in the practice of public and domestic virtue. To his venerated memory, this monument is erected by his children, that they may record his piety to God and benevolence to man, and commemorate the eloquence and energy with which he inculcated the precepts of morality, and prepared the youthful mind for virtuous actions. But a more imperishable memorial of his genius exists in his philosophical and historical works, where classic elegance, strength of reasoning, and clearness of detail, secured the applause of the age in which he lived, and will long continue to deserve the gratitude and commend the admiration of posterity."

Relief of Ferguson on his tomb.



Compiled by Fiona Macpherson and Stephen Read, 2002
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