The Mystery of the Missing University – Alexander Lyons in Glasgow

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the UK. I spent a delightful few days with a lovely friend in Yorkshire, and then travelled north, to Edinburgh, where I met my husband at the airport, hopped into a car, and drove further north still.

This was a holiday, pure and simple. We’re both history nuts, although his interests tend more to the ancient, while mine are more late-Medieval to early modern, and we certainly covered the gamut. Stone circles and neolithic villages in Orkney, ruined abbeys and castles in the Highlands, battlefields, rebuilt monasteries and still-lived-in castles, modern museums and more—we had a fabulous time wandering through history.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
photograph by Riana Everly

But there was one piece of research I wanted to do, and that was visit the University of Glasgow, where my character Alexander Lyons did his law degree.

If you’ve read my Miss Mary Investigates mysteries, you’ll know that Alexander is the London-based investigator who teams up with Mary Bennet from P&P, as they solve their way through the murders Jane Austen forgot to include in her novels. Alexander is from a village in the Lowlands near Glasgow, and through the sponsorship of the village’s late laird, studied at the university. We already planned to spend a couple of days in Glasgow, so my plans to check out the university seemed perfect.

The University of Glasgow in 1650

Except for one thing. The university Alexander went to isn’t there anymore.

The Old College on High Street, before it was demolished

Early medieval Glasgow was a small centre with a population of about 1500 people and only four major streets. It was on the wrong side of Scotland to be involved in trade with the Continent, and had competition from other settlements along the Clyde. Still, it was important enough to be granted a bishop—and consequently, a cathedral—in the early 12th century. With the coming of the Dominicans in 1260, its pre-eminence rose even more, and it was granted a university in 1451 by a Papal document. Over the next few hundred years, the city grew slowly in size, but it was the discovery of the New World that really changed its fortunes. Suddenly, it didn’t matter so much that it was on the wrong side of Scotland to trade with Norway. It was on the right side to receive ships coming in from the Americas. In 1790, the Forth and Clyde Canal opened, linking Glasgow to the Firth of Forth and giving the city water access to Continental Europe.

Over the course of the 17th century, Glasgow’s population rose from 12,000 to 84,000, and by 1821, to 147,000. During the 1810s alone, the population of Glasgow increased by roughly 30,000 people.

What an exciting place it must have been, then, in those early years of the 1800s when Alexander was a student there!

Young Alexander on campus

But progress comes with a price. A train link to Edinburgh was completed in 1842, and trade and industry flourished. The population continued to grow, reaching half a million people by the 1870s, and industry needed land. Massive building and rebuilding took place over these years, and the old University of Glasgow was a not exempt. The original buildings, near the Cathedral, were sold and demolished, and the university moved to Gilmorehill, a couple of miles west of the city centre, in 1870. The new university buildings are magnificent with their spires and Medieval-inspired cloisters and spaces, and worthy of massive amounts of photographs.

But it’s not where my character studied.

So, what’s an author to do?

An imagined image of the Old College

This, I suppose, is where historical research ends and imagination takes over. Instead of tracing a character’s steps, like I did in London last December, I had to get a sense of the place. The houses that made up the ancient law faculty have long since been replaced by Victorian buildings and modern apartment blocks, but the new School of Law buildings hold an echo of their past. The campus squares and courtyards are late nineteenth-century creations, but the tradition behind them remains strong. Is an institution like a university a physical place, or is it something more, something deeper? The traditions and history remain; only the physical shell is different.

Row of brown stone buildings with trees in the foreground
The current buildings housing the School of Law
photograph by Riana Everly

And so, I have no photographs of the paths my character trod, or the rooms where he answered his questions in fluent Latin. All I have are photos of this beautiful new campus he could never have imagined.

The Cloisters at the University of Glasgow
photograph by Riana Everly

But there is one relic of the past that was not destroyed. From its foundation in 1451 until the middle of the 19th century, all students were given their oral examinations while seated on the Black Stone, a slab of dolomite. In the 18th century, that stone was built into a rather elaborate oak chair, with a timekeeper on top. To pass, a student had to satisfy his masters with his knowledge before the sands ran out.

Ornate oak chair with an elaborate time-keeper attached to the top
The Blackstone Chair

This chair is still used in a small number of cases, and it sits in the Huntarian Museum on the campus. I can certainly picture my intrepid sleuth as a young man, sitting there as various masters throw question after question at him, answering them with ease, waiting for the sands to stop flowing.

And, of course, I can also imagine him seeing some small detail in the chair and wondering about it, reading up in the library long after everyone else had retired, as the candles flickered and waned, looking for that piece of information that would satisfy his curiosity.

Because that’s what investigators do!

7 responses to “The Mystery of the Missing University – Alexander Lyons in Glasgow”

  1. Barry S Richman Avatar

    I love the mention of ” … the murders Jane Austen forgot to include in her novels.” I am in TOTAL agreement with you. Well stated!

    1. Riana Everly Avatar

      It is rather shocking, is it not, that she dared leave them out. Alas, it must have been done in respect for the sensibilities of her delicate readers.

  2. Kirstin Odegaard Avatar

    Beautiful photos!
    That chair looks very daunting…Do you know when it is still used? For sorting students into Gryffindor and such?

    1. Riana Everly Avatar

      Can you imagine sitting on there, with the sands running through the timer above your head, having to try to remember everything you’ve learned? Eeek!
      The chair is still used for a special award in the Classics Department (the Cowan Medal exam) and for honourary graduations.
      And for Gryffindor or Hufflepuff, of course.

  3. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Talk about pressure! I doubt I could answer questions that fast! Love your pics in this post! The buildings even the imagined ones were pretty. The chair does look imposing, if I say on it I would want to be in Gryffindor!lol

    1. Riana Everly Avatar

      Thank you. I do enjoy seeing what I can capture with a camera. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back and see what some no-longer-there buildings really looked like?

  4. K Avatar

    Ok, I had not read this series but 1. I live in Glasgow 2. I am a Lyons 3. My partner works at Strathclyde University which took over some of the old Glasgow University buildings as a new working man’s college when they moved out.

    So now I must read this ASAP.

    It’s a shame nothing remains of the old Glasgow Uni except the gatehouse building they moved to the new campus. But walking around the streets where Strathclyde is (it is not an enclosed campus) and around St Andrews Square and Glasgow Green would technically be the same paths he trod.

    I have long wishes more JAFF ventured further north if the border than the occasional trip to Gretna, how did I not know about your series??

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