Building a New University : a study of the buildings and related interiors at the University of St Andrews, c.1890-1914

  • Jessica Anne Burdge

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


In his Opening Address of the 1910-11 session, Principal Donaldson looked forward with pride and optimism to the ‘500th year of the existence of the University’ of St Andrews. An anniversary that it may not have reached had the intentions of the 1883 Universities (Scotland) Bill to dissolve the University, been enacted. In the twenty-five years of his Principalship, from 1890 – 1915, the University of St Andrews had undergone a transformation from an institution that was struggling financially, with ‘ruinous’ buildings and decreasing student numbers; to a financially stable institution that had expanded on all fronts to lay the foundations of the modern University. In response to the changes instigated by the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1889, and under the determined leadership of James Donaldson, the University of St Andrews had reasserted and redefined its identity. This thesis brings together educational and architectural histories, to examine the influence of the juxtapositions of historic and modern, Scottish and English, on the developing identity of the institution of the University of St Andrews, as it transitioned to the modern era. The thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach in order to investigate the development of the built environment as intertwined with, and as a physical expression of, the changing institutional identity.

This thesis studies a selection of new building work, significant refurbishments, and associated interiors or furniture items, created at the University of St Andrews between 1889 and 1914. It examines the relationship between a notable period of building activity and the educational, institutional, and sociological changes that took place. It concentrates on the developing University purpose, as well as architectural preferences of the time that came together to define the multi-layered identity of the newly-formed University of St Andrews.

Through each of the case studies, this thesis examines the implications of the 1889 Act in prompting Principal Donaldson and his colleagues to pursue physical expansion. As such, links between the buildings and the changing concept of university education are highlighted, alongside the greater influence of donors and philanthropists such as the Marquis of Bute and Andrew Carnegie, and the University’s freedom to choose its architects, who range from the nationally acclaimed figures of Robert Rowand Anderson and Robert Lorimer, to local house designers Gillespie & Scott and Mills & Shepherd.

The works are examined against the backdrop of the period’s architectural emphasis on a national style relying on historic examples, and the potential conflict this brought with it between style and function, preservation and modernisation. The attempts of the architects to express the University identity within the context of Scotland’s oldest University and a developing modern purpose are compared and evaluated as a parallel to the complex delineations of Scottish and English education systems that dominated much of the debate on university reform at the same time.
In conclusion, the works are re-considered together as a narrative for this important period of change, when the University of St Andrews was striving to flourish in response to modern needs and expectations. In doing so, it claims the recognition due to Principal James Donaldson as the most influential figure in this process to resurrect the fortunes of the University.
Date of Award15 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorJeremy Charles Howard (Supervisor)


  • Architecture
  • Education
  • University
  • University of St Andrews
  • 19th century
  • 20th century
  • Robert Lorimer
  • Robert Rowand Anderson
  • Gillespie & Scott
  • Mills & Shepherd
  • Walter Wood Robertson
  • Scottish architecture
  • Higher education
  • Principal Donaldson
  • Sir James Donaldson
  • University Hall
  • Students' Union
  • Library
  • Dining Hall

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 25 May 2026

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