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Edinburgh Graduations - The real story behind the 'Geneva bonnet'

Every year, thousands of graduates from the University of Edinburgh line up to be tapped on the head by the so-called ‘Geneva bonnet’. But what’s the real story behind the hat, and is it really made from the breeches of John Knox himself?

The University of Edinburgh’s graduation ceremony arguably contains one of the most unique traditions in the UK. Unlike most ceremonies, where graduates walk onto the stage and doff their mortar board hat to the Chancellor, here at the University of Edinburgh our graduates go through their very own ‘sorting hat’-style ceremony in McEwan Hall.

Graduates must wait to have their names called out before walking up to the stage, where the University’s Principal taps them on the head with the ‘Geneva bonnet’. Students have to be careful they lean in enough so that the hat can touch them properly! After they’ve been ‘capped’ by the bonnet, they are free to exit the stage as a fully-fledged graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

 

student capped by geneva bonnet
A student being 'capped' by the Geneva bonnet

What is the ‘Geneva bonnet’?

The Geneva bonnet is a ceremonial hat made of velvet and silk. It has been used in graduation ceremonies at the University of Edinburgh for over 150 years.

Legend has it that the bonnet was originally constructed out of material taken from the breeches of John Knox, the 16th century Scottish scholar. Knox was a pioneer of educational change, and his reforms actually led to the establishment of the University of Edinburgh.

Did you know...?

You can find a statue of Knox wearing a hat very similar to that of the Geneva Bonnet in the New College quadrangle. Look out for him next time you’re in the area!

 

Is it really made from the breeches of John Knox?

The short answer is…probably not.

statue of john knox on the mound
The statue of John Knox at New College

Although some people might like the idea of being tapped on the head by the pants of a 16th century religious scholar, this myth seemed to have been dispelled completely in the early 2000s, when the bonnet was undergoing some much-needed repair work.

The people involved in restoring the hat found a label sewn into the top of it which was inscribed with the words: "Henry Banks, 22 Duke Street Edinr 31 July 1849". At the moment it’s unclear how Henry’s hat came to be at the centre of the ceremony…and some experts now argue that the label may have been placed there during an earlier restoration.

The mystery continues…

 

The Geneva bonnet in space

As if the story of the Geneva bonnet itself wasn’t interesting enough, did you know that part of the hat has actually travelled into space?! Piers Sellers was a British astronaut and University of Edinburgh graduate who embarked on a 13-day mission to the International Space Station in 2006.

He took a scrap of cloth embroidered with the University logo on his travels, which was then carefully stitched into the inside of the cap.

You can read more about Sellers’ adventures in space by following the link below.

One small step for John Knox, one giant leap for university

 

Did you know...?

Our graduates don’t wear mortar board hats like other universities. Instead hooded robes are traditional, with the lining of each hood symbolising a different degree subject and level.

 

Related Links

The University of Edinburgh Graduations

Is an online degree a 'real' degree?

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