With various Christmas dinners looming, I was wondering what students might have been eating for their Christmas dinners in times past, if they were not lucky enough to be going home.
From the foundation of the university in 1410, until the 19th century, students had been able to live in college accommodation and attended common table for their dinners. The term ran from November to March and students were not expected to return home during that time except on Meal Monday to pick up supplies of food for the rest of term.
There are diet books for each of the colleges, which show what was being used by the college kitchens each day from 1586 until 1784 (St Leonard’s from 1586, St Salvator’s from 1696, United College from 1768 and St Mary’s earliest shown here).
There is no discernible difference for Christmas Day! Just bread, either wheat or oatmeal (panis triticum or panis avenaceus), ale (cervisia), some beef (bubula), mutton (carne ovilis) or fish, just as any other day. Christmas of course was not really celebrated in Presbyterian Scotland and many people still remember working on Christmas day.
Gradually the common dinner tradition died out as students preferred to live in lodgings in the town. The last common table in St Marys was held in 1816, the last in the United College in 1820. However the professors missed it and talked regularly about reinstituting it.
The reminiscences of Sir Peter Redford Scott Lang (1850-1926), Regius professor of Mathematics at St Andrews, 1879-1921, tell how ‘dines’ were resurrected in 1886. Lang was interested in the history of the University too and when a manuscript of a student’s days came into his hands, he published it with a commentary on conditions in the past as Duncan Dewar: A student of St Andrews 100 years ago, His accounts 1819-27.
With a keen interest in student welfare, Lang wanted to make sure that poor students got a decent meal every day. He tells stories of student existing on potatoes or pease meal brought from home for the whole year. They ate solitary meals alone in their lodging rooms, missing out on the collegiality and social intercourse afforded by eating together with fellow students.
The new form of common dinners was set up in St Mary’s dining hall, to accommodate 80-90 diners Monday to Friday, from November to March, at a cost of three guineas – £3 3s 0d, working out at 8d a head. In his reminiscences Lang admitted that he would help out any students in hardship, giving them their dinner tickets for free. The menu would be soup, meat and pudding, and students would help serve to keep costs down. Bread and potatoes would fill up the young men and dinner lasted a bare half an hour! The old Latin grace was revived and special music written for the occasion by Sir Alistair Campbell Mackenzie.
Here is a typical week’s menu from 1889:
Lang’s first Christmas common dinner was in 1887, attended by 2 Principals, 5 Professors and 27 students. I had thought to re-create the dinner until I saw the menu. The starter was hare soup, but no cute little hares were being souped in the interests of historical blogs!
In 1887 the hares were provided by Sir John Gilmour of Montrave, a frequent benefactor of the University. This was followed by roast beef and plum pudding.
So, fairly traditional fare. The still traditional turkey, an American import, had been known since the late-18th century, as seen in a bill of fare for 25th December 1806 which features turkey and truffles along with sirloin of beef as the main first courses.
But turkey was expensive and seen as a luxury even into the 20th century. Goose, favoured by Victorians, would not have been big enough. So beef was the choice for dinner on a budget. Prices were 1/- for students and 5/- for professors. Plenty of alcohol was provided with burgundy from Lang’s own cellar, champagne, claret, and later sherry and port. ‘I purposely did not provide Whisky; for they were all young lads very few over 20 years of age.’
The Christmas dinner was a great success and was repeated twice more but sadly ‘some men came the worse of liquor to the dinner and others brought whisky’ and Lang reluctantly called a halt to the shenanigans.
In 1892 the Students Union and Students Dinner Committee bought the Butts Wynd building in which what is now known as ‘the Old Union Diner’ is found to replace St Mary’s; part of the building is still in use as a cafe today, although the beautiful plasterwork ceiling of the main hall is now seen only in meetings, lectures and exams.
Between 50 and 90 diners were fed each term, until the start of WW1 when so many were leaving to join the forces that numbers became unviable, and the building was lent to the army. The Common Dinner ticket signed by Scott Lang for David Stiven was one of the last – Stiven himself was leaving for active service and few were left to need dinner.