New funding to unlock the history of Aberdeen's 'lost' grammar school

Archaeologists are aiming to uncover a lost piece of Aberdeen's architectural heritage - with help from National Lottery players, members of the public and school children.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen have been awarded £10,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a dig at the heart of the historic King’s College.

They hope to uncover evidence of the grammar school for students wanting to enter King’s College, thought to have stood on a site close to the front of King’s College Chapel.

The main dig will coincide with the 2017 May Festival, organised by the University, and visitors will be able to get involved in excavation work alongside the professionals. The team will also be digging test pits on Thursday (March 16) and Friday (March 17) to assess the area ahead of the Festival.

Dr Gordon Noble, a senior lecturer in archaeology who will lead the project, said the aim is to uncover evidence of the school which prepared students for enrolment at the University and is believed to have been completed in 1533.

“We are specifically targeting a building which used to be attached to the front of King’s College that served as a grammar school in the 16th century,” Dr Noble added.

“The school is shown on a 1661 map of Aberdeen but actually dates back to at least 1533 when the statutes and laws of the school were written down by the University Grammarian Theophilius Stewart.

“It acted as a preparatory school for pupils who wished to study at the university and pupils underwent a gruelling timetable, with prayers, classes on the Latin authors and language lessons and discipline was strict with pupils referred to as qui sub nostra ferula  - ‘those who soldier on under our cane’.

“The dig will aim to elucidate elements of the ground-plan of the building, assess its survival for future investigation and to recover elements of the material culture of early schooling.”

The excavation work will have a community focus and will form one of the major events at the May Festival where tours of the University, archaeology workshops and other complimentary events will also take place.

This strand of activities will also celebrate to the Scottish Government’s 2017 sponsored Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

Chris Croly from the University of Aberdeen’s Public Engagement with Research Team said: “We wanted a project in which school pupils, students and members of the public could explore the rich heritage of Old Aberdeen and the University while contributing to a real-life archaeological investigation.

“This site is ideal as, at present, we have a limited understanding of the architecture and archaeology of this period in the history of schooling in Scotland. The excavation will be the first attempt to uncover direct archaeological evidence of an early school in Aberdeen and may also retrieve artefacts relating to historical educational practices.

“This period in Scottish education saw major transformations leading to the creation of a more modern and egalitarian educational system. The reformation resulted in reform and expansion of Scotland’s Universities.

“This was a key period in the history of education and a school of this type has never been explored archaeologically and so this novel project is sure to spark public interest.”

It is not known when use of the school ceased but it is thought to have stopped taking in pupils at some point after the Reformation and was out of use by the end of the 17th century.

Researchers will combine excavation work with an exploration of archive material in a bid to build a more accurate history of the school and its role within King’s College.

Dr Noble added: “The archaeology of the site has the potential to provide a much richer picture of early education but although geophysical surveys will be carried out ahead of the dig to help us to pinpoint what we are looking for, there is always a chance we will not uncover the evidence expected.

“To ensure we can still add rich detail to the history of the Grammar School in the event of limited evidence being uncovered, we will also work with the archive material from the University’s Special Collections and Marischal Museum collections.

 “Following the excavation work, the trenches will be covered over and replanted to avoid any disruption to events taking place at the Chapel and University.”

Full details of the associated public events will be released when the programme for the May Festival is launched in April and will be available at