In Scotland, which had a phenomenally high literacy rate of 75% as early as 1750, not to mention twice as many universities as its neighbour to the south, university records are a particularly important resource for tracing any family from tacksmen to peers. Unfortunately, researchers used to the biographically rich dictionaries of English graduates, the Alumni Oxonienses and Cantabrigienses, will be disappointed. Some works, such as Anderson’s Fasti of Marischal College or Addison’s Glasgow matriculation albums, contain more or less the level of information found in the English Alumni, but most others are bare lists of names, reflecting the sparer record-keeping practices of many of the Scottish universities; sometimes it was simply impossible for the scholars who compiled these materials to identify which 'James Baillie' or 'Robert Young' a particular entry referred to.
Why bother with such records, then, if identification of individual university graduates is so uncertain? Perhaps the best reason is the idiosyncratic Scottish use of “Mr” in early modern documents. Whereas English usage of the period was simply honorific (“Mr” in the seventeenth century and before was an abbreviation for “master” and vaguely implied superior social status but little more), in Scotland the title was reserved for literal masters, men who had graduated M.A. (magister artium) from a university. If you’re investigating such a person, locating their university record can help pinpoint their date of birth, indicate possible links of association and patronage, and perhaps even provide a clue as to their place of origin.
But how to start? To indicate some first ports of call and to give a sense of what material is available in print, I’ve compiled a comprehensive bibliography of published university matriculation albums, graduation rolls, fasti, and similar documents, indicating where digital versions exist (similar to the catalogue of burgess rolls I compiled recently). I’ve also included brief comments on the information they contain and examples of what you can expect to find.
Peter John Anderson, ed. Fasti Academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis: Selections from the Records of Marischal College and University, MDXCIII-MDCCCLX, 3 vols. Aberdeen: Printed for the New Spalding Club, 1889-1898. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Vol. 3.
Anderson’s Fasti are some of the best examples of their kind. A typical example of the material given on late eighteenth-century undergraduates is this, taken from page 377:
By contrast, Anderson’s volume for King’s is sparser in the information it provides – in large part due to the different record-keeping systems of the two universities. Note in this example (from page 251) that while most of the students are identified only by county of origin, James Trail is specifically stated to be the son of the minister of Dunnet in Caithness:
A Catalogue of the Graduates in the Faculties of Arts, Divinity, and Law, of the University of Edinburgh, Since its Foundation. Edinburgh: The Bannatyne Club, 1858.
None of the Edinburgh registers are particularly informative, although the Catalogue does consistently indicate whether a particular graduate was training for the ministry, data which can potentially be of considerable use in identifying them further:
A bare list of names, with very occasional notes as to subsequent profession:
Students are identified by their country of origin (distinctions being made between English, Scotland, and Ireland) and by the title of their thesis:
W. Innes Addison, ed. Matriculation Albums of the University of Glasgow from 1728 to 1858. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1913.
Addison’s is probably the genealogically richest – not to mention the most entertaining – of any of the university registers, a fairly characteristic example being:
While less extensive than Addison’s Matriculation Albums, his Roll of the Graduates still frequently gives later places of residence, occupations, and (occasionally) parentage:
The third volume includes a list of graduates from 1578 to 1695 and 1707 to 1727, a list of matriculations from 1590 to 1696, and various other identifying lists of university members. Information beyond a name and sometimes a nationality is usually non-existent (although note the future antiquary, politician, and composer John Clerk of Pennycuik at the bottom of the page):
An online database maintained by the university which contains most or all of the information given in the above printed sources.
James Maitland Anderson, ed. Early Records of the University of St Andrews: The Graduation Roll, 1413-1579. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1926.
James Maitland Anderson, ed. The Matriculation Roll of the University of St Andrews, 1747-1897. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1905.
Earlier entries are merely names, but from the mid-nineteenth century onwards places of residence are also given (Smart’s Biographical Register remains the better genealogical resource, however):
R. N. Smart, ed. Biographical Register of the University of St. Andrews, 1747-1897. St. Andrews: University of St. Andrews Library, 2004.
An exemplary piece of biographical detective-work, with rich, complete biographies of most students from the period covered.
Thanks to Janet Wolfe for pointing out the online database of Glasgow graduates.
Copyright © 2013 Kelsey Jackson Williams