The Aberdeen University Oral History Archive is the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom. Begun in 1985 as part of the Aberdeen University Quincentenary Project, the interviews were originally intended to aid historians working on monographs commemorating the University's Quincentenary. Interviewing continues, however, and the archive now contains over 200 interviews with 170 individuals connected with the University. Transcripts of many of these are available through the Archive Collections catalogue.
Interviewees come from a wide cross-section of University people, but form three basic groups:
long serving members of staff
eminent individuals connected with the University (Principals, senior professors, writers etc.)
- Sir Edward Wright
Sir Edward Maitland Wright (1906-2005) B.A., M.A., D.Phil., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S.E., Professor of Mathematics 1936-1962, Principal 1962-1976
Excerpt from interview recorded on 2 May 1986 with Dr Jennifer Carter. Here Sir Edward describes his experiences of fire watching in the University Union during WWII
I was very interested in student concerns. During the war I was one of the Senatus members on the Union Committee. We had the Air Squadron at Marischal. We had nothing that you could call a mess but we did use the Kirkgate Bar, and we used the Union to eat quite often. I knew the Union Provisor then very well. I actually fire-watched and he said, "Come and do it in the Union. I can give you a bed with sheets and a hot meal." So he could! You got Form 6 allowance. Everybody got this. Everywhere else you were paid at the end of your shift. At the Union you were paid at the beginning. You then went down with the students to the Kirkgate Bar, which was included in the Union. It would have been terribly difficult to get on to their roof, but still it was included. They paid partly for the night watchman and this sort of thing. You sat there, drinking gently; the students all had money to stand their round because usually they were very keen on standing their round, but you didn't like them doing it. Then at 9.30pm when the pub shut you went back and had supper, and went to bed. Fortunately we were never turned out. Of course, the Union roofs were not inviting.
- Mrs Flora Garry
Mrs Flora Macdonald Garry (1900-2000) Poet and writer in the Buchan dialect
Excerpt from an interview recorded on 4th January 1986 by Elizabeth Olson. Here Flora Garry describes her reaction to hearing that WWI had ended and coming first in an English exam.
I - And was there public rejoicing at the armistice time. I mean, you remember your personal episode of the Professor telling you that the war had ended and your essay, but were there...?
FG - What I do remember is the class was dismissed and by myself I walked to the Bridge of Don and walked along the beach with nobody. I didn't want anybody there at all because I had to come to terms with a few things. One of them was the end of the war and the other was having done so well in this essay. And I just walked along the beach all by myself and thought now that's the war over, what's the world going to be like? Will there be big changes? How am I going to do in this University? Is it going to be better or what? And you'd a feeling of hopefulness and you were afraid, and you had no idea what the country would be like, whether it would be a land fit for heroes or not.
I - Or not, yes.
FG - So that was my personal … And then I went home to my digs and that was, I don't remember, there must have been rejoicings in Union Street, I've no doubt there were but I didn't go.
- Dr Stella Henriques
Dr Stella Henriques (1899-1988) MB, ChB 1923, former Aberdeen University student
Excerpt from interview recorded on 6th September 1986 by Elizabeth Olson. Stella Henriques graduated in medicine in 1923. Here she describes some of her accommodation whilst at University and her recovery from Spanish 'flu in 1919.
O - You'd said that you'd lived in various digs, mostly in the Crown Street area?
H - Yes, I was first of all in Crown Street itself, that was where there had been the old vicarage I think
O - You said that wasn't very clean
H - She was very grubby and then I went
O - Tell about the soup
H - Oh the soup well, she was a good cook but her eyesight wasn't too good and when she made a vegetable soup you also got a well cooked maggot or two, but it is extraordinary what you do and I knitted. I knitted a mitten a night for the Red Cross as it were, to get things out to the front but we did all that sort of thing
O - Did you take holiday jobs?
H - No you couldn't. There were no jobs to take. I worked all this thing in between Migvie House. I did bales of 500 pairs of socks and did them up in hessian and sewed them up and sent them to the front you know and that kind of thing, but there were no holidays. I took a week off at Christmas to go home and see Dad and I had had this flu and I looked like death warmed up. It doesn't suit me to be thin, at least in Dad's eyes. He was horrified, I was under 8 stone and looked and felt awful. I really felt dreadful, I got a kind of claustrophobia, I get into the classroom and then couldn't bear it and go out before the lecture started.
O - Horrid
H - And I used to start to cough, well that was a change of atmosphere, you were cold outside, you came in and immediately, I really felt, I didn't clear up for I should think nearer six months. I came back to St. Mary's place, that was where I was for 4½ years, with a letter from Dad imploring Mrs. Grade to take care of his motherless daughter and to see that I got tripe
O - Which would be good for you
H - Dad was very keen on tripe, I was brought up on tripe, and I remember Mrs. Grade coming through with this open letter in her hands and she said 'Do you like tripe Miss Stella?', and I said 'I love it Mrs. Grade'. 'Oh well' she said 'You shall have it' and then she said a thing that has been my acid test for years: 'I have often noticed that the people that say "I don't like tripe", are not quite sure of themselves'. And so I often think to myself, when I hear a person say 'Oh I couldn't stand the ....' I think oh, Mrs. Grade would have a word for you!
- Emeritus Professor R. V. Jones
Professor Emeritus R.V.Jones (1911-1997) C.H., C.B., CBE, D.Phil., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S., F.R.S.E.
Excerpt from interview recorded on 17 March 1987 with John Hargreaves. Here Professor Jones describes his first meeting with Col. Harry Butchart, University Secretary, during his interview for the Chair of Natural Philosophy in 1946.
… Now when the day came for the interviews there was one interview by a section of the Court in the morning, those on the science and medical science and in the afternoon there was a full Court. At that time, I had just come off the train, I was perhaps feeling rather tired and I wasn't been speaking very loudly, not that I often do but as a result one the members obviously had some difficulty in hearing and he, I think it was David Campbell, Dean of Medicine and he expressed some misgiving that I might not be able to, with my quiet voice, control a first year class. My old intelligence system told me this over lunchtime, so I was ready for the meeting in the afternoon, but Harry Butchart didn't know that I already was aware of the danger and nevertheless he felt he ought to try and warn me. The interview was in the old Court Room in Marischal and three of the candidates, that was two other professors and myself there, and I think I went in last. Harry Butchart having shepherded one candidate out of course then called from the door for the next one to come in so when it came to my turn, the previous candidate came out, Butchart appeared at the door and called me in and somehow between the door of the court room and the court table which can't be much more than about 5 yards, Butchart tried to warn me somehow and what he did, he had a pretty hoarse voice in the first place, Harry Butchart trying to whisper was really quite something, he put his hand up to his mouth to shade it as far as he could from the Court and said in what was a Butchart's whisper 'some of the old boys on the Court are very deaf so would you mind speaking up'. So I thought well I've got another friend here and as a result I deafened them and I could see the faces of one or two people were puzzled as to how this so quietly spoken young man in the morning could be like this in the afternoon. Anyway that was the end of the interview and back I went with Butchart, and again in the 5 yards between the table and the door he then put his hand up to his mouth and whispered as best he could 'I think that was alright' and that was me in. He was a terrific character…
The interviews are important testaments. They contain not only personal information about each individual but reflect on the history, structure, constitution and development of the University. There are unrivalled glimpses into the lives of those connected with the institution, from remarkably detailed memories of graduates of the 1920s and 30s describing landladies, digs and food, through to ex-Principals and Heads of Department recounting their first hand experiences of university government at the highest level. Few would have recorded their memories but for this project.
The interviews bring unique personal perspectives to the impact on the University of two world wars, the rapid expansion of the 1960s, reductions in funding in the 1980s and events such as the Quincentenary in 1995, right up to the present. They are invaluable historical documents, detailing changes in the social history of Aberdeen and the surrounding area, together with developments in, for example, medicine, psychology, education, law and music, set in a wider educational and social context. Anyone interested in individual personalities or the history of the University will find facts and anecdotes to add to the more formal records, statistics and other written works. The Oral History interviews are living records which give a matchless view of the University community.
Transcripts of the interviews are available for consultation via the catalogue whilst the recordings themselves are available via the Reading Room. Some participants have specified access requirements or restrictions to their own interviews. Please refer to individual recordings.