Alumni Services

Mary MacLean

In 1941, a coffee was a rare treat for Mary McLean and her fellow students. Her advice to current students is to drink less coffee and to dance your way through university, as she did.

Name Mary MacLean (nee Forrester)
Degree Course MA (Ord)
Year of Graduation 1941
Mary MacLean

Your time at the University

I couldn't afford an honours Chemistry degree, so studied an MA (Ord) degree with two years of chemistry included. I lived very near King’s Buildings and had enough leisure time to enjoy Edinburgh and its environs.

I danced my way through university. I was a good dancer and loved it. Back then it was the waltz, the foxtrot and some of the funny dances - the Bumpsie Daisy, the Lambeth Walk and so on. In those days we hung on to our partners and behaved ourselves.

I attended the opening ball at the King’s Buildings Common Room, and also the last graduation ball before the war, at what to us were the most glamorous Assembly Rooms. There were lots of “hops”, even after the war started.

We girls who were close friends were all short of money, but on Friday mornings we would indulge in a cup of coffee if we had 3d after saving bus fares by walking.

Five of us would go youth hostelling, cycling to get to the hostels, although you were only allowed to travel so far because of the war.

Alistair [Alistair MacLean, BSc Chemistry 1939, PhD 1941] was in the last year of his PhD and I was in the final year of my degree when we met at a hop at the King’s Buildings Common Room. Three months later we were engaged and we graduated on the same day in 1941.

After my degree I did a teaching qualification, a year and a term at Moray House. We were the last to do four terms: when the war came it became just one year.

My grandmother went to St Andrews University in about 1880, but she didn’t get a degree because women couldn’t at that time. She was a “Lady Literate in Arts”. My mother came from a brilliant family and I think she was the most brilliant of them all, but she didn’t get to go to university. So I think she was pleased to see me go, though she never said it.

Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University

After we graduated, the boys were all called up, but those like Alistair, doing science, had to stay and carry on. I taught maths and science in Edinburgh in my old school, Boroughmuir, for six months, but then we went to London, where Alistair was researching penicillin.

We were married in 1943. To go on our honeymoon on Iona I had to get a permit to travel. I remember the soldiers waving us through smiling, saying, “have a good time”.

After the war, Alistair got a job as a chemist in cocoa research in Ghana, which was then the Gold Coast, where we had two boys. I came back to Edinburgh to put David into school, then Alistair came back a year later, and later our daughter was born.

Two of our three children studied at Edinburgh: Donald took a BSc Engineering and Margaret studied MA Geography and then a year of sport management at Cramond.

Mary MacLean

We were very lucky that Alistair got a job at T&H Smiths as a chemist. Mostly he was extracting vitamin A and he always ponged of fish oil!

When Margaret was five, and in the local school, David wanted to go to Denmark with the Scouts. That cost £50, which was a tremendous amount of money, but I thought that with a fortnight’s teaching I could get that, and my mother could look after Margaret during the day. But I was very lucky, because I got a job where Margaret was at school, so I didn’t need my mother’s help. When I arrived at the school, the head said, “I want somebody to Easter”. This was October, and I nearly died because every newspaper was full of mothers who worked and had delinquent children. I stayed for 20 years, and the children all survived.

Two of our three children studied at Edinburgh: Donald took a BSc Engineering and Margaret studied MA Geography and then a year of sport management at Cramond. Two of our grandchildren also studied at Edinburgh.

Last year Alistair and I celebrated 70 years of happy marriage with family and friends. Six months later Alistair slept peacefully away.

Alumni wisdom

Don’t drink so many coffees. We walked miles to save pennies, and once a week a coffee was a real treat.