Rachel Hart, Deputy Head of Special Collections, looks at the history of the University’s smallest capacity Hall of Residence.
John Burnet Hall (or ‘Jeebs’ as it is now known by the student community) began life as the Atholl Hotel in 1897. In the early 1960s the University was actively looking to expand student accommodation because it had plans to increase the student population from 1600 to “as high as 3,000”. This caused some consternation in the town and there was protest in the local press at the change of use of the Atholl and the loss of hotel beds for golf and beach tourists.
Meanwhile, an anonymous donor – a ‘well-wisher of St Andrews University’ – gave a gift of shares to the University worth more than £40,000 on condition that it was used to commemorate John Burnet. His original letter of gift in 1962 stated: “I have long felt that the expansion of St Andrews University on the right lines could be of signal service to Scotland.”
This generous donation came at just the right time. Locations for six residences had originally been identified in the North Haugh (with the intention to name a wing of one of the new halls after John Burnet) but in the event only Andrew Melville and New Hall were built. Luckily, the Atholl Hotel came up for sale in 1964, complete with furnishings and fittings.
Principal Knox spotted this not-to-be missed opportunity and asked Professor T Erskine Wright – who had until recently been Professor of Humanity (Latin) – to approach the donor to see whether he would be willing for his gift “to be used to buy the Atholl hotel, call it Burnet Hall and use it as a residence hall”. A telegram of December 1964 replied: “Benefactor agrees proposal.”
Planning was granted in 1965 and intense renovation began in the summer of 1966. The main hotel lounge was converted into a common room, the second lounge into a study and the former cocktail bar into a TV room. The bedrooms, it was noted, had ‘the advantage, inherited from the hotel, of wash hand basins’. Such luxury!
In February 1967 the same anonymous donor gave an additional £25,000 to purchase the adjacent Fairways and provide a further extension. One curved annexe and an extensive refurbishment in 1994 and the original Atholl Hotel had completely morphed into the Jeebs we know and love today.
So why was the Hall named after John Burnet?
Quite simply because Burnet was one of the most gifted academics and teachers of his generation, his students adored him and he contributed wholeheartedly to the University throughout his life.
After attending the Royal High School of Edinburgh, Burnet took his degree at Oxford and came to St Andrews for a short time in 1887 as Assistant to Professor Lewis Campbell. He became a Prize Fellow at Merton College, but returned to St Andrews as Campbell’s successor in the Chair of Greek in 1891, where he remained until he resigned due to ill health in 1926.
He was an internationally renowned Plato scholar producing critical editions of the whole texts of his work. Douglas Young (MA 1934) Scottish poet, scholar, translator, politician and lecturer in Latin and Greek said of Burnet: “…his habit of life was to teach in the forenoon, take three quarters of a pint of wine with his lunch and then walk seven miles. He would work till late at night, sometimes taking a dram of whisky.”
Burnet also contributed widely to the University. He served for 16 years on Court and 12 years as Dean of Arts and was a member of the University Dramatic Society. He revised the Arts curriculum, was one of the founders of the Classical Association of Scotland and was active on education committees and boards.
But it was as a gifted teacher that he will be remembered most, and for which he was commemorated. Wilhelmina Anderson (Willa Muir) studied Classics from 1907 to 1910, graduating MA First Class Honours in July 1911. She was quoted in the Alumnus Chronicle of 1967 as saying: “For three years I never cut one of Burnet’s classes. I think he was a shy man, but he must have sometimes felt that we loved and revered him. There was a harmony between him and his scholars which made his teaching unforgettable.”
William Laughton Lorimer, Professor of Greek, adds to the picture: “His teaching was not merely illuminated by the light of the intellect but quickened by the fires of the spirit.”
John Burnett Hall Today
Dr Toria Johnson (PhD 2013), Teaching Fellow in the School of English and current Warden: “Ah, the impossibility of distilling 50 years of John Burnet Hall into a single memory, a single paragraph. ‘Jeebs’ is too many things: the guarantee of a friendly face (or twelve) waiting in Front Hall to welcome you back, yips echoing down the hallways.
“Perhaps, instead of a single memory, a list: of the sights and sounds and smells (often heart-warming, frequently mindboggling) of JBH. Our deputy Senior Student, living in a tent in the back garden for three days, after a foolish bet on Raisin Weekend. The hours and hours we spent painting the JBH logo onto our flag. The reliability of good chat in the dining hall. That student who blasted Wagner during his Sunday baths. That other student who took a date… to the Warden’s Garden. Seeing the terrifying competitive fury that Jeebs brought to a ‘friendly’ match of ‘Capture the Warden’: I have perhaps never been so proud.”
Alumni can read the extended version of this article in the 2016 edition of alumni magazine Chronicle, issuing this month. To ensure alumni receive their copy they should ensure their contact details are up-to-date.
Photos courtesy of Oli Walker.University news