A right royal rumpus
11 October 2012
A visit by the Queen to Stirling four decades ago this week resulted in a fiasco that humiliated an administration, Richard Evans recalls
Forty years ago I arrived at the University of Stirling to start my first job as a lecturer. The campus and its setting bowled me over with their dramatic unity of buildings and background. Set against heather-clad hills, with the white brick-and-glass residences descending stepwise down to a loch, a theatre and cultural centre with a large lobby and bar adjoining the library on one side, and a covered footbridge on the other leading over the water to the teaching block, behind which the ground rose again, topped by the granite finger of the Wallace Monument pointing to the sky, Stirling seemed to me a model of modern university design. It clearly owed a huge debt to the vision of its founding vice-chancellor, Tom Cottrell, a chemist who had been appointed five years earlier and had overseen its establishment and early growth.
Coming straight from the University of Oxford at the age of 24, just finishing my doctorate, I found a good deal about the university to wonder at, not least the radicalism of its student politics. The summer before I arrived, the communists had been ousted in a students' union election and replaced by Trotskyites. The long march through the committees was about to give way to the struggle on the streets. All might still have been well had the vice-chancellor not decided to mark the completion of the university's construction by inviting the Queen to come down from Balmoral for a visit. Doubtless, after a day of patriotic and deferential celebrations, he would get his well-deserved gong and Stirling would be definitively on the map. Unfortunately, Cottrell failed to take the students' union into his confidence. The university did get on the map, but not quite in the way he hoped. As flower beds in full bloom began to appear on the campus and ladies' lavatories in strategic locations were hastily redecorated, the union began to realise what was about to happen. Scarce resources were being spent that should, they thought, have been devoted to a worthier cause. The union called a protest meeting for the day of the visit, to be held in the theatre lobby.
To help the students celebrate the day, the university closed down the library, cancelled teaching and evicted everyone from the residences, where carefully selected undergraduates in tweeds or twinsets and pearls were placed in readiness for the royal walkabout. In fact, the only part of the institution not closed was the bar, conveniently located in the lobby where the protest meeting was due to take place. As students arrived in their hundreds, the bar was soon drunk dry, and within a short time the liquor shelves of the campus supermarket were empty as well. Fresh supplies were soon being driven up the hill from the nearby village of Bridge of Allan by canny shopkeepers eager not to miss out on the opportunity to sell a few hundred wee drams. By the time the protest meeting began, virtually the entire body of students - many of them 17-year-olds unused to alcohol - was completely smashed.
As the union leaders tried to make themselves heard across the heaving lobby, the Queen with her retinue came into sight on the bridge, making their way from the teaching block towards the library. With a shout, the students surged towards them. One of them, a red-haired, red-bearded history undergraduate called, memorably, Jackie Mackie, raised a bottle of whisky above his head as the Queen passed beneath. "I was onlie saying slainte tae her Maj," he said later, when the photo had been sold to the national press. Other reports claimed there had been chants of "f ck the Queen". Burly ladies-in-waiting were seen wielding their handbags to drive the students back. The diminutive figure of Her Majesty, visibly alarmed, was somehow ushered to safety. "Smile defeats louts," said the tabloid headline the next day.
In the aftermath of the scandal, irate landladies summarily ejected some 80 students from their lodgings in the town, while companies that had pledged to provide funds for various university projects threatened to withdraw them unless those responsible for the fiasco were brought to book. The vice-chancellor, his gong having disappeared along with the university's reputation, called an emergency staff meeting. Appalled at the damage done to the good name of the institution where we had chosen to work, we all pledged our backing as he shakily promised to undo the damage. But in the following months he threw away our support as he clumsily tried to have the leaders of the students' union disciplined and sent down. The cry of "victimisation" rallied support around the union executive, and in the spring of 1973 the main administration block was occupied and festooned with a large banner proclaiming it to be "under new management", while Stirling's academic staff passed a motion of no confidence in the hapless vice-chancellor.
As the day of the disciplinary hearing arrived, excitement in the university reached fever pitch, the National Union of Students staged a protest march across the campus, and the radical law professor John Griffith arrived from the London School of Economics to mount a successful defence of the union executive, which, he noted, had only been carrying out a vote of the entire student body, as it was obliged to by its constitution. The prosecution collapsed, and shortly afterwards the university chancellor, the formidable Lord Wheatley, a very senior Scottish judge, descended on the campus to bang heads together. He forced the vice-chancellor to climb down, end the occupation and restore normality. Poor Cottrell's humiliation was complete. The strain was too much for him, and at the end of the academic year he had a sudden heart attack and died.
The rest of my academic career has had its excitements, but nothing has ever quite lived up to the drama of that first year. The whole catastrophe from beginning to end was an object lesson in how not to run a university. It should not be forgotten.
Sir Richard Evans is Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.