Graduation week, celebrating Honorands: some history

Monday 19 June 2017

At the start of this special week in the University we are beginning a mini-series of blog posts to mark graduation. Each day we will feature some of the amazing people who have been honoured by the University in the past. They received their honorary degrees in recognition of significant achievements in lives spent in the service of arts and letters, medicine, science and in pursuit of academic excellence. Honorands have academic or public distinction, are not politicians in office nor active in public affairs in a partisan way, and have relevance for Scotland and particularly for St Andrews. This week we will add more to their number.

The Dalai Lama (His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso) received a Doctor of Divinity degree (DD) in 1993. Pictured here during his 1993 visit.
The DMus (Doctor of Music) was awarded to Bob Dylan in June 2004

There are a number of degrees which can be awarded by the University, honoris causa. The awards are in the gift of the University and there is no academic submission involved. Anyone can nominate a possible recipient and the honorary degree committee of the Senate Business Committee makes the final selection after circulation of names of potential honorands to Senatus. The Doctor of Divinity degree (DD) is awarded to eminent figures from the world of church and religion. The Dalai Lama (His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso) received his award in 1993. The degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) is awarded to those distinguished in the world of the arts and literature. The degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) honours those who are eminent in the Arts, which is interpreted widely to include figures in politics and the law. Hillary Rodham Clinton received an LLD at the start of the University’s 600th anniversary celebrations in 2013. The DMus (Doctor of Music) is rarely given but recipients include eminent composers and musicians. Bob Dylan received the degree of DMus in June 2004. The Doctor of Science (DSc) degree is awarded to distinguished scientists and mathematicians. Medics receive the MD.

Hillary Rodham Clinton received an LLD during the University’s 600th anniversary celebrations in 2013

The graduation ceremonies are actually meetings of the Senatus Academicus, that is, the gathering of the University’s professors. Degrees are awarded in a ceremony which has traditionally had a public face. In one of the earliest surviving minutes of the Senatus there is a discussion about whether there should be a procession at graduation (laureation).

Extract from the minutes of Senatus discussing the graduation procession or ‘circulation at the Laureation’, 20 July 1696 (UYUY452/1)

Graduation ceremonies used to be held in the University Library, in the South Street building where Parliament Hall and the King James Library are located. The Younger Hall was opened in 1929, at which ceremony an LL.D was awarded to the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was awarded an honorary degree in 1929 at the opening of newly built Younger Hall

Graduation has become the formal end of a student’s university career, but it has not always been so. In earlier years, it was not necessary for students to go through the formal procedure of graduation, which was an expensive business. The first student to graduate was William Yhalulok (Bachelor of Arts 1413, then Master of Arts 1414). Medieval academic dress was based on clerical robes. Candidates for the bachelorship wore furred hoods and for the Mastership, red hoods which were hired for the occasion from the Bedellus. Masters and Doctors were entitled to wear the cope and the birretum (cap).

Names of the first graduates of the University, including William Yhalulok, in the Faculty of Arts Minute Book (UYUY411/1)

After the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1858 the graduation ceremony as we know it today became established, and an academic costume committee deliberated in the 1860s and 70s, ultimately establishing the colours and styles of gown and hood recognisable today, which are modelled on the practice of the University of Paris.

Rachel Hart
Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments

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1 thoughts on "Graduation week, celebrating Honorands: some history"

  • Souvenir Tapes of Graduation | Echoes from the Vault
    Monday 24 June 2019, 9.46am

    […] discussed in previous blogs about graduation, there are a number of degrees which can be awarded by the University, honoris causa. The awards […]


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