King's college has inspired some of Scotland's finest poets and novelists, Isobel Murray picks out a few of her favourites.
enerations of students, including many talented writers, have taken inspiration from the old centre of King's College, Chapel, Crown and Library. They did not differentiate between the buildings, on the whole: they are marvellously melded together, in tribute as well as in fact. There has been an impressive variety of tributes, from well-known novelists like Eric Linklater, Ian Macpherson and Nan Shepherd, and poets such as Charles Murray and Iain Crichton Smith.
In some ways the least known can be the most touching: there is no cry for fame, for example in the anonymous Alma Mater poem Aiberdeen. It ends:
Ay, Aiberdeen an twal' mile round',And J M Bulloch, whose generous gifts of books to the University Library still enrich us, wrote At the Sign of the Crown:
But we bend the kneeHe also celebrated the Chapel of 1550 in a very fair attempt at the appropriate language. It begins:
It is ane Chapelle fayre to seePoet Charles Murray, who spent so many years in exile from Aberdeen, and Scotland, in South Africa, wrote his poem, Aiberdeen awa'! with nostalgia, longing to see again the Dee, and the Market, and the fishwives, but in particular he remembers:
Neth Marischal's spire or King's auld croon,And in her fine poem The Professor's wife, Flora Garry remembered being a student from a humble background, and 'glowering' in at the windows of professors' houses. She reflects on the work and sacrifice of all the family who made her a student, and understands their value, ending:
Learnin's the thing', they wid say,Iain Crichton Smith's work often recalls the city 'of bells and ivy' where he was a student and began many voyages of discovery. His poem Aberdeen begins with the University:
Mica glittered from the white stone.But two of the most heartfelt tributes that come to mind are from two friends, with very different life experiences. First, Nan Shepherd. In her fine and part-autobiographical novel The Quarry Wood, her heroine finds her life changed by her days in the quadrangle. Learning and history become for Martha almost a religion:
The grey Crown, that has soared through so many generations above the surge and excitement of youth, had told her that wisdom is patient and waits for its people. ...In the long Library too...she learned to be quiet.She is befriended by the Sacrist of the day, and acquires precious relics, "some scraps of silk".
They had been part of the colours of a regiment - a tattered standard that had hung in the Chapel of King's till its very shreds were rotting away ...He cut two snippets of the silk, and gave them to Martha.Shepherd's friend, Jessie Kesson, was denied the education she dreamt of at King's, and finally achieved the 'scarlet goon' she had craved with an Honorary Doctorate in 1987, but she immortalised what it all meant to her in 1945 in a poem she read on radio:
I wad hae likit a scarlet goonDr Isobel Murray is a Reader in the Department of English.