School of History, Classics & Archaeology

I was taught by Maester Cressen - Memories of a History Graduate, Class of 1965

A recent BBC Radio 3 programme brought back memories of studying history in the 1960s for Ralph Gordon, and a surprise as to who was teaching him.

HCA Oliver Ford Davies
'Olly Beak' aka Oliver Ford Davies (Image: Rocco Redondo, CDA Theatrical Agency

"When I heard the actor Oliver Ford Davies on Radio 3's 'Private Passions' a few weeks ago, he referred to the two years he spent as Assistant Lecturer in the History Department of Edinburgh University.

We 3rd and 4th year students had no idea he was only 3 or 4 years older than us – he said that even as a young thespian, he always played older men – in any case he was most notable to the students in the department at the time as the wearer of a mustard-yellow corduroy suit. It really stood out in the Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland.

He probably didn't know that his affectionate nickname among his students was ‘Olly Beak’ after an owl-puppet on children's TV at the time. Some few years later when he appeared as the Duke in a Birmingham Rep production of ‘As you Like it’ at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand in London, his first entry was greeted with a penetrating stage whisper from the audience of "Oooh! It's Olly Beak!"

We who graduated in 1965 were the last Arts faculty undergraduates to be housed in Old College. In the south-west corner, the ground floor was occupied by the Kirkpatrick Library (the History Honours library) while alongside and upstairs were the rooms of the two Professors, Hay and Horn (Medieval and Modern), the Reader, the Lecturers and Assistant Lecturers where tutorials were held and two lecture theatres. I believe that from 1965-66, the whole department was moved out to George Square, where the rest of the Arts Faculty had already been relocated.

HCA Old College vintage
Old College

Until autumn 1962, when in our 2nd year, we became entitled to use ‘the Kirkpatrick’; it was a place mainly of quiet study and research. Somehow, we quite quickly effected a change of tone to that of a History Department social club, for conversation, laughter and gossip.

Those who wished to have quiet for study (or daydreaming about holiday planning) had to resort to the History Reading Room in a converted church in College Street, or to the National Library of Scotland which one could join once you had reached 3rd year. All research was from print volumes of often-considerable weight.

Essays and exams were handwritten some almost illegibly to the extent that one contemporary was summoned to read aloud his written Finals papers in their entirety. He got a 2i.

The first year 2nd Class Honours awarded was divided into ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ was 1965. I suppose it was perhaps in anticipation of the arrival of larger numbers as a result of the post-war bulge. It was said that only 7% went to University in our day; the History Honours class had about 30 students and there were never more than three First-class degrees awarded.”


 - Ralph Gordon, Class of 1965

Ralph Gordon was born in Edinburgh and raised in North Berwick where attended the High School. After Graduation he joined the Bank of London and South America, before moving to Morganite Carbon in Battersea - Quentin Crisp was a regular sight on his commute - then into commodity trading, and industrial export marketing dealing with the Middle East, India and East Africa.


BBC Radio 3 - Private Passions - Oliver Ford Davies

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