Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, and graduates of the University of St Andrews.
Congratulations to you, our graduates. Today marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another; and the journey starting today is one you will commence with more letters after your name. One of the highlights of graduation day is that it is the one day in all your time here when you just had to do what you were told, charmingly, by our Graduation Office staff. No real thinking required. No essays to be submitted, no examinations or vivas to take.
And I would like to take ‘the journey’ as my theme for this celebratory address. You have graduated today in a mesmerizing panoply of degree programmes, from Astrophysics, Computer Science, Earth Sciences, Geography, Geology, Physics and Sustainable Development. I wonder how many of you knew, before you started here, what your journey was going to be like.
No graduation address is complete without a few quotations from some learned source. In keeping with our own mediaeval origins, I turn to the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri (1265 to 1321) and his epic, The Divine Comedy, written in three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. His journey of self-discovery, of human nature, opens with the famous lines:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!
I do hope that anything “harsh and wild” has been short-lived – maybe it was that first semester of lectures or the first diet of university examinations; maybe it was Raisin Monday or the May Dip. University study is not meant to be easy. Indeed, my learned friends behind me do not set out single-mindedly to torment you. Today you wear the gowns of your labours. In fact, in the words of one Cardinal John Henry Newman: “An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron university, and nothing else.”
Today will pass as a day spent in the swish and swirl of gowns with their silken adornments of tassels and silver frogs, among other emblems. Make one final journey before you leave St Andrews: take a journey around this town. Look around you; look above you. Know that you are now part of our illustrious history and we are very proud of you and the fact that you too, now, are part of our future as you tell the world that you are a graduate of the University of St Andrews.
Your journey to and through this fine university is a time in your life that you will not get back again, but know that your traces will add to the centuries-old layers of learning, culture, turbulence, debate and innovation that have been and will continue to be the hallmarks of this most ancient of the Scottish universities. As the tectonic plates of the East Neuk of Fife shift and settle over the next 600 years, be proud of your achievements and the reward of the degrees bestowed upon you today.
To close, let me cite again from Dante, who, you will be delighted to hear, made it through Hell:
We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.