Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dunbar's Forgotten Tower

Very little of Bishop Elphinstone’s original Kings College quadrangle still stands in Old Aberdeen, bar the Chapel, dating from 1500.  The façade we see today was completed in 1832.  About the time of its construction, architect Alexander Fraser was dreaming up the fairytale towers of Powis Gate for his client, Leslie of Powis.  It is said Fraser was inspired by the old towers of Kings College, which were topped by lead-covered spires, and stood at either end of the south elevation, containing some of the student dormitories. 

Katherine Trail, whose father, Professor Milligan taught Biblical Criticism from 1860, recalls that the medieval student “halls” were named after planets, the south-east being ‘Jupiter’ or ‘Jove’s’ Tower.  The sometime Jupiter tower was originally called the Ivy Tower, and is now the only other survivor from the sixteenth century. 

Jove's Tower to the right - Parson Gordon's Map 1661
Hidden around the back of the current Divinity and Moral Philosophy classrooms, the tower is a four-storey, rubble-built circular structure with a conical roof. Elphinstone’s successor, William Dunbar had it built in 1525, thus it is also known as Dunbar’s Tower.  The leaden spire was destroyed in a storm in 1715, resulting in the change to the roof. 

Kings escaped much damage during the Reformation due to the bravery of Principal Alexander Anderson, who armed the students against a mob of “reformers” intent on sacking the Catholic university.   Thus much of the changes to the College were due to the need to modernise and expand.  Dr William Guild, Principal from 1640, had no qualms about knocking down the old Snow Kirk and the ruinous Bishop’s Palace in order to provide building materials for new walls.  17 years later, Cromwell’s preferred man, John Row, replaced Guild, and constructed new residences in the “Square Tower” or Cromwell Tower as it is known today.  Dunbar’s Tower remained only because of the increased need for classrooms in the 1830s.

Slezer's Etching of Old Aberdeen

Dunbar’s Tower links with a time when all students were male, aged 14-20, and were not allowed to leave campus without the express permission of their tutors.  Expected to rise at 5am, undergraduates also had to attend several church services throughout the day as well as their lectures, all of which were conducted in Latin.  Yet the story of Sacrist Downie — which follows next time — illustrates that even in the Middle Ages, students were not adverse to mischief!        

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