A history of the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership in ten objects

To mark the University of the Highlands and Islands tenth birthday, we invited colleagues to provide an insight into some of the interesting objects which tell the story of our partnership!

1. Sir John Murray’s microscope at SAMS UHI

We believe SAMS UHI to be the oldest entity in the university partnership, having come into existence in 1884. We are also proud to have been one of the founding members of the UHI Millennium Institute.

Our prized object is a microscope once owned and used by Sir John Murray, our ‘founding father’ who is honoured by our main research building, which is named after him and where his microscope is displayed.

Sir John Murray, a member of the Canadian Scottish diaspora, returned to study in Edinburgh and is known as the ‘father of oceanography’. Sir John was a scientist on board the Challenger Expedition (1872 to 1876), the world’s first recognised marine science expedition for science’s sake, covering nearly 70,000 nautical miles. He subsequently led the production of a magnificent set of 30 volumes of reports, which we have at SAMS UHI – worthy companions to the microscope.

During the production of the reports, Sir John established an ‘office’ in Queen Street, Edinburgh, which attracted marine scientists from around the world, to analyse all the materials collected on the voyage – the start of what is now SAMS UHI. The office was soon added to by physical laboratories: firstly, a barge in Granton harbour, which was formally opened in 1884 – the date we use formally for our establishment, but which I think rather underestimates our longevity; secondly, a steam yacht for offshore work.

These were subsequently relocated to Millport on the Island of Cumbrae, where John Murray became the first Director. An impressive laboratory was subsequently built, which is still active as a Field Studies Council centre.

However, in the late 1960s it was becoming clear Millport was not an ideal location, especially with an increasing need to access deep water. A new site was sought and our current location on the Dunstaffnage Peninsula was settled on and the institute was moved in 1970, where we remain, although we continue to grow.

Throughout all this time there have been several name changes, but the core of what we do has not changed: to continue to discover and to promote outwardly our discoveries. Thus, we are very proud of the ‘golden thread’ we can see very clearly running through from our earliest days to now. And no more so than the practical reminder provided by Sir John’s microscope.

The importance of Sir John Murray’s microscope to us and we hope its value to the university partnership in celebrating its tenth birthday, is not only its direct connection with an historical founder, but also its symbol to a key activity of the university – the creation of new knowledge.

Professor Nicholas Owens, Director, SAMS UHI

2. Shetland College UHI’s Lerwick building

Shetland College UHI was first established in 1970. Our Lerwick campus was originally located on the other side of town before migrating to its current location at Gremista. Up until ten years ago, the Gremista campus consisted of two separate buildings with a road passing between them. This set up always felt a little disjointed and we struggled for adequate teaching spaces.

In 2014, our new £4.5 million extension was officially opened by the university’s chancellor, HRH The Princess Royal. The development linked the two existing buildings together to form one single, large building.

The extension created an entrance which leads directly into a library and study area and which provides easy access to the rest of the college. It also helped to expand the canteen and construction workshop areas and provided a new hospitality training kitchen as well as offices and classrooms. Existing classrooms were re-designed to allow improved layout, study spaces and art studios. 

Our new campus is a huge improvement. The development helps us to support and inspire learners, providing opportunities for students to stay in their local community to study.

Euan Robertson, Senior Lecturer in Computing, Shetland College UHI

3. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI’s portrait of Somhairle MacGill-Eain

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI has been very fortunate in its supporters and patrons since its foundation in 1973. None stands out so prominently as Sorley MacLean. This is sufficient reason for the college to have a portrait of him, were it not also for his stature and reputation as the most distinguished of Gaelic poets.

The full-length portrait in oils was one of a series of ‘contemporary poets’ commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 1990 from the artist, Peter Edwards. The artist explained his work as image rather than portrait, projecting what the poet and his poetry meant to him. This purpose was underlined in the London exhibition by each of the poets choosing a poem to accompany their portrait. Sorley MacLean chose Creagan Beaga, with its intense response to the night sounds of sea and land under moonlight. The portrait shows the poet standing on the shore at Peinchorrain in Braes with the Sound of Raasay and Glamaig in the background. In 2005, the artist presented the portrait to the Sorley MacLean Trust for display in Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain was born in 1911 in Osgaig, Raasay, his culture and store of tradition coming from his family and his island community, catalysed by a finely tuned awareness of the history of Gaelic Scotland and of the political position of the Gael. His poetry is powerfully redolent of the land and seascape of Skye and Raasay. But his landscape occupied a different world from the earlier nature poets and, with its litany of placenames, transcended Romanticism in its symbolic recall.

With first-class honours in English language and literature, he embarked on a teaching career. Writing with an intensity and passion, he composed his celebrated love sequence, Dàin do Eimhir, and An Cuilithionn (‘The Cuillin’) against the backdrop of the rise of Fascism and impending world war. Having made the decision to write in Gaelic, his dedication to the language was sustained in a mood of pessimism over its survival. As late as 1974, he wrote: cha b’urrainn cor na Gàidhlig a bhith ach truagh (‘the state of Gaelic could not be anything other than wretched’).

He was witnessing initiatives such as the founding of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig though, commenting that this was ‘the beginning of a beginning compared with what ought to be’ (toiseach tòiseachaidh seach mar bu chòir). Nonetheless his support for the Gaelic college was absolute and heartfelt, as his words of hope express in a poem of commemoration.

……

luibhean ’s blàthan an rùin

mu Shabhal Ostaig, agus solas,

Deò-grèine dòchas nan Gàidheal,

mu bhallachan ùra ’s sean,

…….

the herbs and flowers of aspiration

about Sabhal Ostaig; and a light

sunbeam of the Gael’s hope,

about its old and new walls.

May good fortune and success

be with the great work of the Sabhal.

Gealach an fhàis os cionn Shlèite / A waxing moon above Sleat (1974)

Professor Uisdean Cheape, MSc Senior Lecturer / Àrd-Òraidiche Cùrsa MSc, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

4. IT infrastructure

The project to createour university ramped up in 1997, with £100 million funding arriving for a range of capital initiatives. Information technology was seen as the glue which would bring the partnership together. One of the first initiatives was to deploy video conferencing units to each of our academic partners, made up of very large TV screens on stands and three lines.

The first email system was called ‘First Class’ and comprised an Apple computer acting as a server connected by modems to a single computer in each site.

Over the next three years, we spent several millions to provide structured cabling, a new telephone system and equipment to allow everyone to talk and use the growing video conferencing facilities without incurring very large bills.

Having a fast connection is the most important glue for any IT system so Scottish Telecom undertook their largest infrastructure project in the north. Fibre optic cables were laid from Aberdeen to Thurso via Elgin, Inverness, Dingwall and Wick. New radio towers were built down the Great Glen to interconnect Fort William, Skye and Oban and microwave and fibre optic cables were laid to get to Stornoway. A series of towers were built to connect Orkney and Shetland and this was largely completed by 2000.

By 2001 we invested another £1 million on video conferencing kit to cope with the demand for remote learning. In 2005 we were running more video conferences than the entire higher education sector in the UK combined! We also installed a number of software systems including a common virtual learning environment, student information system and library management system. Our IT helpdesk was created to grow to support the increasing demand from staff and students.

With the growth in computing demand, we also set up our own datacentres in Inverness and Oban – later moving this to Perth. This infrastructure allowed us to have hundreds of virtual servers on just eight large servers, all backed up to Oban.

In 2009, we undertook several projects to roll out Wi-Fi everywhere together with a new local area network. We also deployed updated video conferencing kit to meet even higher demands. In 2011 we moved our email and user directory to Microsoft and in 2016 we adopted the Scottish Wide Area Network SWAN which allowed for 1GB to all the main sites and larger bandwidth to the learning centres.

Together with colleagues in partner IT teams, we have shared knowledge and developed expertise in a huge range of areas which has helped to ensure that we are ready for the next ten years as a university.

Mike MacDonald, Head of IT Services

5. The university’s coat of arms, robes and mace

Once the University of the Highlands and Islands achieved university status on 1 February 2011, the search was on for the appropriate symbols for the ceremonial trappings of that lofty status – our university badge, our robes and our mace. I was delighted to be consulted on the design of these which I feel really reflect the history, location and natural environment of the university.

For example, our badge, with its compass showing the importance of location, its books showing the importance of education, and its hazel leaves which are a symbol of wisdom for both the indigenous Celtic and Norse cultures of the Highlands and Islands, is a worthy symbol of the nature and philosophy of the university. The hazel leaves and catkins also appear on the facings of the university officers’ ceremonial robes, reflecting the great wisdom and knowledge these roles demand.

The mace is now a ceremonial artefact symbolising authority, but was originally a weapon and the bearer a kind of bodyguard at state occasions. Our mace is a wonderful example of modern silvercraft with its freeform and organic symbolism, reflecting our university of the moment. I was asked to make a choice between lime and ash for the shaft. I chose ash because it is indigenous to the Highlands and Islands, which lime is not, and also for its significance in both Celtic and Norse mythology. Like the hazel, it features in the Celtic Tree calendar. It is also a symbol of protection – Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology which supports the entire Norse cosmos, is an ash tree. This is also the case in Gaelic tradition – three of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland were ash. In traditional folklore, the ash tree is particularly associated with the protection and nurturing of young people.

I also thought it complemented the hazel tree, which I had suggested for the badge and robes, as symbols of wisdom and protection but also of our natural environment which defines our university too.

The mace and the robes offer protection and the accrual of wisdom as our students set along life’s path!

Professor Donna Heddle, Director of the Institute for Northern Studies

6. Highlands and Islands Students’ Association awards

The University of the Highlands and Islands was one of the first institutions in the UK to work with the Higher Education Academy and the National Union of Students to introduce student-led teaching awards. They were rolled out across our partnership in 2010, then adopted by institutions across the UK by 2012.

Run by the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, the awards give students the opportunity to thank the academic staff, support staff and students who have inspired and supported them.The annual awards are judged by a student panel who decide the winners based on the quality (rather than quantity) of nominations received for a particular individual.

In 2010, I was delighted to receive a letter to say I’d been chosen in the ‘greatest expertise in video conference delivery’ and ‘best assessment feedback’ categories. The awards themselves (a column of glass stars balanced on top of each other) were presented to me at the autumn graduation ceremony in the not very atmospheric Clickimin Sport Centre in Lerwick.

I have to admit to being inordinately proud of my awards, particularly the one for best video conference delivery. It inspired me to publish papers about the use of video conferencing in teaching. Do take part, it made my day ten years ago.

Dr Simon Clarke, Senior Lecturer, Shetland College UHI

7. Highland Theological College UHI’s library

Highland Theological College UHI has the largest library by volume in the partnership.

Since the inception of the college in 1994, the collection has grown significantly, due in large part to many generous benefactors over the years, not least of which was the family of the late and dearly loved Martin Cameron. As librarian and a pillar of college life for some twenty years, Martin built the collection from the ground up to the 60,000 plus volumes we are privileged to be custodians of today.

The college has three main special collections. The Rutherford House Collection, comprising 11,500 books and 1800 periodicals and pamphlets, including rare and important monographs which belonged to what is now the Rutherford Centre for Reformed Theology based in Dingwall. The William Temple collection, comprising books of important Anglican heritage from the personal library of former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944). And the Fort Augustus collection, containing some 10,000 volumes from the former library of St. Benedict’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic Monastery from 1880 to 1998. A more detailed history of the collections held by the library is featured as part of the library’s online guide.

It’s always fascinating and exciting to come across resources which give an enriching insight into Scottish church history and we look forward to digitising this content to make it readily accessible. One such primary source held at the library is a handwritten book of some 28 sermons dating from the 18th century. It was penned by Rev Thomas Simpson of Avoch, an ancestor of a gentleman whose wife generously donated the book to the college in 2020. The postscript reads:

‘This first volume of sermons was begun at Avoch the 27th day of October 1760 years and finished the first day of October 1761 years by me Thomas Simpson minister of the Gospel at Avoch. Deo Juvante.’

Geordie Cryle, Librarian, Highland Theological College UHI

8. SAMS UHI’s Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa

Algae are the unsung heroes of the sea, providing food for larger creatures and absorbing some of the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity.

More than 3000 different strains of algae, protozoa and seaweeds have a home at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) UHI, where scientists at the Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) maintain a unique collection that goes back more than 100 years.

The global reputation of CCAP, which regularly sends marine and freshwater samples to researchers and companies all over the world, showcases the university’s science credentials on the world stage.

Perhaps the oldest sample in this collection is the algae Chlorella vulgaris. It was first isolated in 1892 by Dutch scientist Martinus Willem Beijerinck, who is credited with discovering viruses. This particular strain is used in ecotoxicology tests and is therefore ordered on a regular basis, as well as having citations in more than 100 academic papers.

Chlorella vulgaris was part of the original collection started by Professor Ernst Georg Pringsheim at the Botanical Institute of the German University of Prague in the 1920s. In response to the Nazi invasion of Prague, Pringsheim and his cultures moved to the UK. The collection grew and was split between marine and freshwater algae, with the marine elements coming to SAMS in 1986. However, when SAMS UHI opened the Sir John Murray Building in 2004, the freshwater collection came to Oban too, creating one of the most diverse algal collections in the world.

Euan Paterson, Communications and Media Officer, SAMS UHI

9. Cachaileith na Colaiste at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

‘The gateway of the college’ is a symbol of the welcome experienced by students over the years on entering the enfolding arms of the old building. This is the entrance to the old steading of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, the building in which the Gaelic college was founded in 1973.

The iron gates were not a part of the original building, but were brought from the house of Rosemount, Tain, about 1982 and re-erected in their present position. They were dedicated by Lady Ray Bannerman in a ceremony which included unveiling a fine bronze war memorial to the fallen of the 1939-1945 War mounted on the steading wall beside the gates. This also celebrated a landmark moment for the college with validation of the first SCOTVEC further education courses.

The gates, fine products of the craft of the blacksmith (whose name is not recorded), were probably made about 1949 when An Comunn Gàidhealach set up its annual summer youth camp at Rosemount or Cnoc nan Ròs at the direction of John M Bannerman (1901-1969). Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, Liberal politician and farmer, rugby internationalist and Mòd Gold medallist, was president of An Comunn Gàidhealach from 1949 to 1954 and worked tirelessly for the promotion of Gaelic.

The gates remind us that the high art of metalworking belonged to the Gàidhealtachd of Scotland and Ireland; the same patterning and decorative flourishes are found on the earliest fine metalwork, on carving and sculpture and in the embellishment of manuscripts, and are symbolic of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI’s role in the preservation and perpetuation of the language.

Professor Uisdean Cheape, MSc Senior Lecturer / Àrd-Òraidiche Cùrsa MSc, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

10. The Cairns Bowl, Orkney

In July 2018, the oldest wooden bowl found in Orkney to date and the only prehistoric wooden bowl, was found during our excavation at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay.

The 2000-year-old vessel was recovered from an underground chamber beneath the Iron Age broch that once dominated site. It is very finely carved, exceptionally finished and was carved from alder wood.

Measuring around 27 centimetres in diameter, it has an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Tool marks are visible in the interior, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about 16 strange-looking, strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large, ancient crack.

The strips are in fact an unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to prolong the vessel’s life. The care taken over the repair of the bowl suggests such items were not common and that it was highly valued.

It is thought the bowl was placed in the subterranean chamber – at its deepest, innermost end – sometime between AD150-200.

The bowl is currently undergoing a long process of conservation and consolidation in Edinburgh. When the process is complete, the bowl will return to Orkney and the Archaeology Institute, and thereafter, when all the field work and analysis on site is complete, it can hopefully take up a place in the museum here so locals and visitors can see this miraculous survivor from the ancient world.

The craft and cleverness that went into the bowl and the exquisite repairs show that 2000 years ago Iron Age Islanders had sophisticated and artful sets of skills.

The resilience of these communities and their willingness to sustain their possessions, and their culture more generally, is surely an inspiration for the university and its contemporary cultural, economic and environmental mission across the Highlands and Islands.

Martin Carruthers, Archaeology Lecturer, Orkney College UHI

4 thoughts on “A history of the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership in ten objects”

  1. What a good idea, and what interesting expositions. I have certainly learned from reading them. Even although the mace (trying my diplomatic best here) has never impressed me, I do at least now appreciate the ideas behind it.

  2. Ah! Firstclass, by the Canadian company SoftArc, a brilliant system. I remember when we got the external HDD…it was massive, well compared to the 20Mb and 40Mb hard drives of the LCC Elonex 286/386 machines…it was 1Gb 😀

  3. How intersting to learn these things about UHI. Although a new univeristy, these stories must add to our gravitas in the international education sector. I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s