The Origins of Scotland’s Higher Education


I think it’s time for a more educative article, my bonnie lads and lasses…

We have talked about Scottish folklore and fairies, and while that’s all very interesting and full of imagination, I can’t help but wonder…

What was going on in the everyday life of people in Medieval Scotland? How did people educate themselves in the 15th century, if they did so at all…?

These thoughts led me to an astonishing fountain of information regarding the ancient universities of Scotland! 

I was so intrigued by my findings that I had to share them with you, my loyal readers.

How It All Started

Who would have thought that the Universities that were formed in Scotland in the 16th century were the only ones that existed in the country until the 20th century!  

I’ve got to tell you, I was as surprised as you are…

Now…which were these Universities?

First of all, there was the University of St. Andrews, founded in 1413! This University owes its origins to a society formed in 1410. After a charter was issued, the society attracted some of the most educated men in Scotland to work as professors. In 1413 the society was confirmed to be a University with six papal bulls. 

The University of St. Andrews is, until this day, very famous for its research. And the small city of St. Andrews is simply majestic...

St Salvator's Chapel, St Andrews. Image source.


Moving on, the second University founded in Scotland was the University of Glasgow, in 1451. The University was founded after the request of King James II. 

You want to know why? It was the King’s wish for Scotland to have two impressive universities, such as England did with Cambridge and Oxford. 

Once more, the rivalry between England and Scotland shows its face, but in a more civilized way this time. Wouldn’t you agree?

Just take a look at this breathtaking building…

The Main Building of the University of Glasgow, from Kelvingrove Park. Image source. 


Third on our list is the magnificent University of Aberdeen, established in 1495, which has a rather complicated history. Be sure to search for it…it is rather interesting. 

And, last but not least, is the acclaimed University of Edinburgh, founded in 1558. By the 18th century, the University of Edinburgh played a huge role in the development of the Scottish Enlightenment, a period characterized by very important intellectual and scientific accomplishments.

The University of Edinburgh's Robert Adam-designed Old College, home of its Law School. Image source.

It is important to note that by this time Scotland had created four acclaimed Universities, while the much larger England had only two…

Who could have thought that our lovely Scotland had such an important and strong presence when it comes to education?

A Different Approach


But what could one person study at these Universities?

Of course, subjects were much different compared to those offered at our universities today.  In general, at the Universities of the Medieval period, one could only study one of the following: Liberal Arts, and the higher disciplines of Law, Theology, and Medicine. 

The Universities were the evolution of the much older Christian Cathedrals schools and monastic schools.

So, it turns out that Scottish history is rich with various information. Isn’t that right?

We keep hearing about all the famous Scottish and English wars but as it turns out there is much more to our beloved Scotland than that.

It is true what they say: the more you read about something the more interested you become in it… 

I can’t wait to learn more about the Universities of the Medieval period and report back to you. I surely hope I have inspired you to do the same! 

Until next time…

Written by Maddie MacKenna

  • Dawn Lynch says:

    Interesting read. My heritage is from a Scotland, Abernathy to be exact. Love all things learning of this beautiful country

    • Cobalt Fairy says:

      So glad to hear this Dawn! Thank you for your comment! 🙂

      • Mary Nicholson says:

        Love to learn about Scotland. My grandfather came here A a young man. Unfortunately he passed away when I was 3 so I can’t ask him all my questions!
        Thank you for the info on the 4 universities, you’ve.piqued.My interest.now about Aberdeen. Guess I will jump into research mode.

  • Thank you so much … You fill in info gaps in my history. My family has only been in the USA since 1920ish. And I have been actively researching my roots.

    Thanks again
    Sandi (Johnstone) Dunham

  • Carolynn Wilks says:

    I just love these historical titbits.
    Very interesting.

    • Cobalt Fairy says:

      So glad to hear this, Carolynn! Thank you for your comment! 🙂

    • Beverly Stuart Rodigo says:

      ThInk you so much for all your information Maddie. I love reading your articles. I will be going to Scotland this year and cannot wait. I am a Stuart and am reaching my family history also.

  • Jan Farrell Repath says:

    Thanks for the interesting info on Scotland’s
    four early universities. Isn’t it true too, that
    some young people were sent abroad to
    study in any one of Europe’s large universities as well. However, few people
    at this time in history had that opportunity.
    Thus, many intelligent persons had to rely
    on their curiosity and assistance from
    others, nearby. The 1400 to 1500’s was the
    end of the Dark Ages & the beginning of
    the Enlightenment!!

  • To says:

    Very informative and also surprising.

  • Margaret D (MA Glas) says:

    Thanks for this! But the Glasgow University building you see here dates from 1870. The original Old College building was in the High Street on the middle of the medieval town. The university had outgrown it by the 19th. century and it was in the middle of what were now slum buildings, so it moved to the west end in mid-Victorian times. By the way, St. Andrews and Glasgow were founded in the 15th., not the 16th. centuries. St. Andrews’ charter is based on that of the Sorbonne in Paris and Glasgow’s is based on that of Bologna. Some American universities have strong links with Scotland eg Princeton NJ (Rev. John Witherspoon was a Glasgow graduate. See the Glasgow University coat of arms on the Princeton chapel!)

  • Gwen says:

    Again this is information I enjoyed reading and had no idea about

  • Linda says:

    Wow that was very interesting!

  • Lynda Broome says:

    Our daughter spent her junior year of college at the University of Glasgow, and we were fortunate enough to be able to visit her at Christmas. It IS an impressive old University and is quite large, being sort of spread around that area of the city. Some pf the streets are steeply sloped, and that caused some really tired legs, since at that time, Scotland had its heaviest snowfall in 25 years! I would love to return to Scotland during the summer to be able to see the beauty of the trees and flowers.

  • Leslie/Kim says:

    Thank you for another enlightening article and your researcher’s heart. We tend to think of times long past as ones that were quite possibly times where people were largely uneducated. Perhaps it is true for the masses but there were obviously plenty of others who could and did receive a lot of higher education. Clearly shows it was not only the highest born who were educated. I knew there were several important developments/inventions that originated in Scotland…here’s a link for some of them. https://theculturetrip.com/theculturetrip.com › europe › united-kingdom › scotland › articles

  • R Jahanian says:

    Very well researched, cannot wait for the next stage of the history of the 4 universities.

  • Lorrie says:

    I loved this story,I love anything Scotland or Ireland based and when you can combine either one with them being educational,it is a win win in my world! I love when you do these educational bits for your reader’s Maddie MacKenna thank you!

  • Very interesting. My husband is taking me to Scotland in March.

  • Irene Gray says:

    Wonderful to know this little known fact about Scottish history. My own uni experience was as an Arts student & my subjects were the usual ones like English & History (mainly Australian & modern history) but it was leavened by a more interesting subject called Scientific Thought (later becoming History & Philosophy of Science) & was run by the Dean of the Arts Faculty who specialised in Astronomy. This subject was compulsory for First Year students as the uni was formally a technology & science university & Arts was introduced to make it more in line with the other unis in NSW, Australia. I really enjoyed this subject & actually majored in it & found that while so many fellow students thought it was “rubbish” I found it really useful for when I began teaching as it gave me a good grounding in both philosophy & science which applied to most subjects druin being taught in secondary schools during the late 60s & early 70s. Many of my pupils often asked ‘how come you know all this when you are an English/History teacher? I found this subject helped me in both content & practical approach to teaching.

  • Noon, Lyn says:

    Interesting thank you for sharing
    Kind regards
    Lyn

  • Mary Breit says:

    I enjoyed the article very much! The buildings are beautiful! so massive! Always have loved stories about Ireland and Scotland. Thank you so much!

  • >