Ronald Cant and St Andrews


Blog post written by Sarah Leith, former Mlitt student and starting her PhD at St Andrews in September


Photo reproduced with the kind permission of the Strathmartine Trust, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

As you wander along North Street, pause for a moment beneath the looming tower of St Salvator’s chapel and if you look down at the ground, you will find the Protestant martyr Patrick Hamilton’s initials visible amongst the cobble stones. The dreaded ‘P.H.’ pinpoints the position where the sixteenth-century martyr was burnt at the stake and it now marks the area where students fear to tread, lest they fail their degrees. Continue eastwards and your eyes will meet with the imposing grey ruins of a mediaeval cathedral, which used to welcome monarchs and pilgrims but now attracts coaches full of tourists from all over the world. Take a left along North Castle Street and cast your eyes upwards to the window of the Castle from which Cardinal Beaton’s body was hung in 1546. A sense of Scotland’s past is unavoidable as you traverse St Andrews’ mediaeval streets today. Ronald Cant, the University of St Andrews’ first lecturer in Scottish history was dedicated to the preservation of this historic townscape as well as the promotion of St Andrews University’s history.

From his appointment in 1936 until his retirement in 1974, Cant was devoted to securing the teaching of Scottish history at St Andrews University but he also held a passion for the history of the university itself. He penned works regarding the university’s past and as Keeper of Muniments, he was undeniably the ultimate authority on this topic. The historian is best known in the university today for his The University of St Andrews: A Short History. It is a must read for anyone intrigued by any aspect of the University’s past, from its fifteenth-century founder Bishop Wardlaw to the building of the 1970s University Library in which, incidentally, can be found many copies of the work. However, although his articles concerning the Scottish universities’ influence upon Scotland’s Enlightenment continue to be authoritative Cant’s academic output was on the whole, limited. (1)

Rather than extensively publishing articles in scholarly journals, as did his contemporaries, Cant preferred to produce small booklets for the benefit of heritage societies. His Festschrift is dominated by these small publications and a perusal of this list hints at his dedication to the preservation of historic towns across Scotland. (2) Cant was also a key figure in the founding of the St Andrews Preservation Trust in 1938 and he played an invaluable role in saving St Andrews’ historical domestic buildings from demolition. (3)

Clearly devoted both to the University of St Andrews and to the Auld Grey Toon, Cant was also eager to promote Scottish history outwith St Salvator’s ivory tower. Strolling through the cobbled streets and wynds of St Andrews or venturing out from his home on Kinburn Place and along the viaduct, Cant stopped to speak with this person and with that person, whether an academic or a local. He would engage those passing by with interesting facts, such as his belief that Cardinal Beaton’s tomb lies under the grass in front of South Street’s Madras College. With ease he straddled that grey area between town and gown as day and night he frequently filled lecture halls with both students and locals, the latter waiting with anticipation for his enthralling talks held on Friday evenings.

Ronald Cant must be remembered and praised for his role in the establishment of the permanent study of Scottish history at the University of St Andrews and for his extensive work concerning this university’s own history. He should also be lauded both for his protection of St Andrews’ tangible history and for his outreach to the local community. Indeed, without his vision and preservation work, the historical centre of St Andrews, which we all enjoy wandering around and exploring today, would very likely look quite different.

(1) R.G. Cant, ‘The Scottish universities and Scottish society in the eighteenth century’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 58 (1967), pp.1953-1966; Ronald G. Cant, ‘Origins of the Enlightenment in Scotland: the universities’ in R.H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner (eds), The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment (Glasgow, 1982), pp.42-64.

(2) Dugald MacArthur, ‘Bibliography of the Works of Ronald Gordon Cant’, in G.W.S. Barrow (ed.), The Scottish Tradition: Essays in honour of Ronald Gordon Cant (Edinburgh, 1974), pp.259-263.

(3) Elizabeth Williams and John Lindsey, Saving St. Andrews: A Short History of the St. Andrews Preservation Trust (Fife, 2003).

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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