In the summer of 2017, Thomas Armstrong revisited the University of Aberdeen where 50 years previously he had spent a month attending summer school as part of a study abroad programme for students from the United States. 1967 was a fascinating year; the world was going through a number of social and political changes, and in a memoir written through the eyes of a teenager at the time Thomas gives the reader a vivid picture of the confusion and agitation of growing up in 1960s America and the liberating feeling of discovering Europe during the Summer of Love on a journey sound-tracked by The Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.
The memoir was first published on the American Institute for Foreign Study website where you can read or download the full 17-page file. We very much encourage you to read the full piece, but here we include an extract concerning the group's arrival in Aberdeen.
* * * * *
We arrive in Aberdeen late in the day. The bus turns into Johnston Hall, and we have a first glimpse of our new home. It is wonderful. It is brand new. It just opened last year. It is all very modern, Scandinavian style. Our hosts tell us that the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden are only a few hundred miles across the North Sea, so there is a strong Scandinavian modern design influence with new buildings in Aberdeen.
We register at the Dining Hall and take our luggage to our new rooms. Johnston Hall is made up of three buildings all overlooking a common courtyard. There is the Dining Hall, a dormitory for the boys and a dormitory for the girls. Each of us has a single room which looks brand new and is very modern. I have a twin bed with a wool tartan blanket, a desk, a wall of solid cork, a Danish modern chair, a closet and sink in the room. This is more than I ever expected.
Dinner is the first time that we all see everyone together. There are 200 of us from all over the United States. There are groups from Michigan, Colorado, Tennessee, California and Alabama, of course. Tonight we are having fish, which are cooked with the heads and tails and fins still on. Fish eyes are staring at all of us from our plates, and we realize that we have new and different things to get used to.
After dinner, there is a lounge where we all go, which has a stereo. Someone is already playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Everyone is passing around the album cover to read and learn the words. Most have never heard it before, and their bus drivers had not been playing the pirate radio on their buses on the way to Aberdeen. Now that we are off the bus, not only can we sing along, but we can dance as well. Everyone is singing and learning new dance steps. My own Lucy’s favourite part is the "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" which begins with the sounds of a fox hunt, dogs barking and roosters crowing followed by a pounding drum beat. The girl with kaleidoscope eyes gets up and dances by herself in the middle of the room as if the song was written for her, and she has rehearsed for days. Everybody is tired from the trip, but no one is ready to go back to the dorms. There are other albums that people have brought, but this is the only album that has been played all night. On our first night in Aberdeen we are drunk with excitement and discovery.
Our mornings are scheduled to begin with the University of Aberdeen Bagpiper playing "Reveille" in the courtyard of Johnston Hall at 6:30am. Breakfast is from 8-8:30 in the Dining Hall. Classes are from 9-12:30. Lunch is from 12:30-1:30 in the Dining Hall. Afternoon classes, or excursions, or sometimes free time is from 2-5:30 pm. Dinner is at 6:15 pm and study hour is from 7-8 pm. Our curfew is 11 pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends. The guys wear coats and ties to class, and the girls wear dresses and skirts.
All of our courses are held at New King’s Hall, which is quite old and gothic and ivy covered and looks like Oxford or Cambridge. Even the leaded glass windows are covered in ivy, so that they cast beautiful leafy shadows and light throughout the classrooms all throughout the day. As I take my seat for my first class, on my desk is carved:
Oh, Lord, what have I done?
I can’t get out of my bed.
My dreams seem to have become reality, in my head.
I’m a guest of my brain and when
I take my seat my subconscious entertains my conscious as I sleep.
I decide I will keep this seat each day and hope to stay awake. Staying awake does not seem to be an issue. We are too busy and too excited to sleep or daydream in class or out.
Our courses are Modern Britain, Scottish Literature, Shakespeare, the Scottish Highlands and Art Appreciation. We are drawn into Twelfth Night, Macbeth, The Tempest, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, the English and French Impressionist Schools and Scottish clan history. Somehow being taught by a professor with a Scottish accent in an ivy covered Hall makes learning more interesting. Learning is not just interesting; it is fascinating. Learning is not just fascinating; it is transforming.
I was baptized four years ago in the baptismal pool at Bethany Baptist Church in Louisville, the Sunday after President Kennedy was assassinated and the very day Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. As the preacher put a handkerchief to my face, lowered me into the water and lifted me out, I was supposed to feel that I had left my old self and had become a new person. I still felt the same. I was still upset about President Kennedy. I kept waiting to feel that power enter my life. I don’t know what kind of power I am feeling now, but it is the kind of power I wanted to experience then. I don’t know where it is coming from or how to hold onto it, but I never want it to let go of me and I will keep hanging on for dear life.
New King’s Hall is next to King’s College Chapel, which was completed in 1506. I stop in before or after classes most days. It is here that I think of my grandmother who called me on the telephone just a few months ago and made a plan for me at a time that I needed a plan. It is here that I think about my grandfather who may never come here to the place he has always dreamed of visiting and wanted for me to come in his stead. It is this place, in this chapel, that I wish they could see the most.
We are meeting many Scottish students who are also in school at the University of Aberdeen this summer. We see them on campus and at Johnston Hall at the Dining Hall and in the lounges after dinner. They are interested in us, because they have not been around many Americans. We are interested in them as well. They know very well what all there is to do in Aberdeen, where to go and how to get there. They are a few years older than most of us, and they seem more sophisticated and experienced than we are. We seem to like the same music, and they are also excited about the Sgt. Pepper album.
They listen to the pirate radio. They have all grown their hair longer, and they dress more mod than we dress. They tell us about the public buses and how to get downtown. They tell us about the fish and chips place near King’s College. They tell us about the Beach Ballroom on the weekends. They tell us about the Wimpy Bar. In high school the upper classmen look down on the younger kids. Here, we are popular with the older students, and they are great friends for us as well.
We quickly explore and find places to get away. We walk out of Johnston Hall onto High Street and turn left. We walk past King’s College on the right and New King’s Hall. High Street is cobblestone; it is the same granite cobblestone that Aberdeen is known for and that every building and house is built with. It is grey, which has flecks of mica that make it sparkle in the sun. The grey granite makes the green grass in front of King’s College appear even more green than it probably is. The grey granite also makes a clopping noise when we walk like horse hooves hitting the cobblestone in the movies.
Farther along High Street, there are old row houses of granite, with doors which are as short as they are wide, so they are square. We are told that they are short because the winters are so cold that when they open the door it will not let in as much cold air. The small doors are painted bright colours of blue, red and yellow, which once again look brighter than they probably are against the granite.
At the end of High Street is St. Machar’s Cathedral, which overlooks Seaton Park. The present St. Machar’s Cathedral was built in 1520, however there has been a church here since 580 AD. There is a beautiful heraldic ceiling and a bell tower. Beyond St. Machar’s is a Chanonry Lane, with some larger granite houses with well-tended rose gardens leading up to each door. There are canvas-awning, striped shades on many of the doorframes. We are told that in the summer people will open their front doors for air and unroll the canvas shade for privacy.
From Chanonry Lane we can enter Seaton Park. There is a grove of trees in the park that overlooks the River Don that we like to go to after classes are over in the afternoon, where we can sit and talk in the shadow of St. Machar’s spires. Afternoons in Seaton Park seem endless, and the sun seems to never want to set—and we never seem to want to leave.
We are also exploring Aberdeen at night. We sometimes skip study period at night and take the bus downtown to the movies. There are Cinema Houses everywhere in downtown Aberdeen. You Only Live Twice with Sean Connery is playing at the Odeon. The Nutty Professor with Jerry Lewis is playing at the Cosmos 2. Hawaii with Julie Andrews is playing at the Cinema House. One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch is playing at the Grand Central. The Long Duel with Yul Brynner is at the Gaumont. Tonight we are going to Doctor Zhivago at the ABC Aberdeen. This will be our second time to see Doctor Zhivago at the ABC Aberdeen.
The first time was last week. It is the best movie I have ever seen. It makes me want to write. It makes me want to wipe the snow off of a mahogany desk in a ruined Russian dacha and light a candle and write poetry into the cold night. It makes me want to fall in love with Julie Christie or anyone who looks remotely like her. It makes me want to have an epic reunion with Geraldine Chaplin at a Moscow train station. It makes me want to ride into the Russian night in a horse drawn sleigh. There is a girl who looks like Julie Christie in our group. She is the most beautiful girl among all the girls from all over the country. Most of the girls have names like Nancy, Donna, Linda, Carol or Barbara. Her name is Ingrid, and she does not even know I exist. Maybe if we see Doctor Zhivago a few more times I will work up the courage to speak to Ingrid.
This is our fourth week of classes, but today our morning classes have been cancelled because we are going to see the Queen. Queen Elizabeth spends part of each summer at Balmoral Castle that is nearby. Today, she is arriving on the Royal Yacht Britannia at Aberdeen Harbour, and we are hoping to see her. It is raining today, and we are waiting under our umbrellas along with many townspeople. They are saying that she and Prince Andrew, who is seven, are meeting Prince Edward, who is three, and their cousins Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones at the Britannia for breakfast. The children had arrived earlier this morning on an overnight train from London with their nannies.
We are waiting in the rain while the Queen and the Royal family is having breakfast on the Britannia. As anticipation swells in the awaiting crowd, the Queen and the four children descend the gangway hand-in-hand and slip into awaiting cars to take them to Balmoral. After as long as we have waited, the whole episode ends in moments as we glimpse the Queen of England in her car with her children, hurrying toward their Scottish holiday.
You can read Thomas Armstrong's full piece here.