Dive-In – Why the ocean?

Fish, Mackerel, Sea, Seafood, Healthy, Fresh, Raw

The importance of the ocean cannot be understated, but it is often underestimated.

Seafood is an obvious benefit we gain: not only a nutritious source of protein, but also the basis of jobs and income for many coastal communities. At the global scale, small-scale fisheries are hugely important for the economic stability of many coastal districts. Also, seafood is often (but not always) a source of animal protein with a relatively low impact on the climate. Preferably from a local source, small pelagic fish (e.g. sprats, mackerel, herring) and farmed shellfish (e.g. mussels) can even have a lower carbon footprint than many plant-based protein options. But… all these benefits are undermined if we don’t make sustainable seafood choices, which means making sure we choose fishing and fish-farming practices that don’t damage the environment or catch so many fish that the wild stocks can’t recover naturally.

Run, Beach, Ocean, People, Fitness, Happy, Sea, Running

We all love a day at the beach. Those of us who venture on to, in to and under the water’s surface swear by the restorative, thrilling and life-affirming feelings this brings. The physical health benefits of walking, running, swimming or kayaking on or near the sea need no explanation, but research has also now shown the fantastic mental health benefits of this kind of connection with nature. What’s more, the better the health of our marine environment… with clean water and abundant wildlife… the better it is for us too.

Wind Power, Offshore, Coast, Wind Turbines, Windräder

The ocean environment has been providing energy for our homes and vehicles for a long time. Although we are now all too familiar with its climate consequences, North Sea oil and gas has been fundamental to our daily lives. Now, as we accelerate our transition to low-carbon energy systems, the ocean environment is again proving its worth. Offshore windfarms are going to be a significant part of our energy future; tidal energy potential is starting to reveal itself; and although slower to develop, wave energy remains an exciting possible source of clean and renewable energy.

Cold Front, Warm Front, Hurricane, Felix, Wirbesturm

The physics and chemistry of the ocean function on a massive scale. What happens in distant waters, in the Arctic and in the middle of the Atlantic, has very real consequences for our experience of climate and weather in Scotland, the UK and Europe. The many ways in which a rapidly changing climate effects water temperature, salinity and currents, for example, triggers a complex sequence of knock-on effects that we experience as unpredictable and unseasonal weather systems, and as changes to the creatures appearing near our shores. The ocean is, in many ways, Planet Earth’s climate-control system… and that system is on the verge of breakdown. To give the ocean its best chance of regaining control, we need to do everything we can to keep the ocean healthy and functioning in the way nature intended. In other words, the more we can reduce other pressures on the ocean environment, the easier it will be for it to get on with regaining control of our climate and weather systems.

File:Salt marshes - geograph.org.uk - 481600.jpg

As well as these important climate impacts playing out in distant waters, many coastal areas are also at the front line of climate change. Sea-level rise, storm surges and coastal flooding are a clear and present danger for many people who live in low-lying areas, with ‘climate-migration’ likely to become a phrase we all become familiar with as people try to unliveable conditions. But this problem would be far worse without the help of nature. Natural habitats, like sand dunes and salt marshes, reefs and kelp forests, do wonders to protect land, our homes and our infrastructure from worse outcomes. So protecting, restoring and allowing the recovery of many aspects of nature can help us adapt to the climate-driven changes that are already happening…

…and many of these very same habitats also often serve to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, helping with longer-term mitigation of climate change. This ‘Blue Carbon’ benefit from marine habitats is a current focus for many marine scientists, as they try to better understand which habitats are best for locking carbon away and how to protect them from damage. Saltmarsh, dunes, mussel and oyster beds, seagrass and the deep mud of Scotland’s sealochs are amongst those habitats that benefit us and the planet in this and many other ways.

Clearly the ocean is of paramount importance, for a healthy planet and for the well-being of humankind. It may feel distant and alien, but we cannot afford to overlook it. Our next blog will explore the multitude of ways in which our lives and choices have consequences for the ocean. Some of these will be no big revelation, but others are less obvious and may even surprise you.

 Dr Chris Leakey, Coordinator of People Ocean Planet, MASTS

Dive In! Why this exhibition?

Dive In Exhibition, Wardlaw Museum, University of St Andrews

Last week we opened Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean, a new exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum that takes you under the waves to find out what’s happening in the deepest, most inaccessible parts of our planet.

It’ll introduce you to some weird and wonderful creatures; seals, colourful fish, and others you’ve possibly never heard of. But it’ll also show you some of the problems our ocean faces, all of them caused by humans.

It’s a bit of a change from our last big exhibition, which presented the bright, somewhat surreal art of Philip Colbert. So why have we moved on to a much more serious subject?

The Wardlaw Museum embraces the values of its parent University, which has put social responsibility as one of the key pillars of its strategy. The University aims to make the world a better place through innovation, and at the Wardlaw Museum we want to do the same. One way we can do that is by working with researchers at St Andrews to tackle the big problems our planet faces.

Our ocean is under threat, but there are things we can do to help. Though a serious subject, therefore, the exhibition isn’t all doom and gloom. There are reasons to be optimistic about the future. We’re very open about telling you, the visitor, how to make changes in your life that will improve the health of the ocean, and because what happens in the ocean is closely connected to what happens on land, it’ll improve the world for all of us.

The solutions are tailored to your circumstances. Not sure where to start with living more sustainably? We’ve got some solutions for you; it might be recycling an electrical item to reduce the need for deep sea mining, or finding out about seafood labelling to help protect fish stocks. And if you’re pretty confident about sustainability, we’ve got some ideas for you too; maybe travelling overland instead of taking that plane, or eating a plant-based diet for three months to tackle climate change. And if you’re somewhere in between? Don’t worry, you’ll find ideas that work for you as well.

Here we come to another reason why Dive In! is very much part of what the Wardlaw Museum is about. We see the exhibition as an experiment, and the Wardlaw Museum as our laboratory.  Can we actually, really use an exhibition to encourage people to live more sustainably? We think so, but we’re going to be doing research to find out whether our visitors really do make changes that protect our ocean and the planet, and what we did that helped. For that reason, when you visit you may be asked a few questions or be invited to take part in an online survey a few weeks later.

Call to action poster from the Dive In exhibition, Wardlaw Museum, University of St Andrews

This will help us understand how we really can make a difference, and help other museums do the same. It’s all part of our goal to reimagine what a university museum can be and to innovate, like our parent University.

We’ll be diving deeper (pun intended) into these ideas on the blog over the next few weeks, with guest posts from some of those who’ve put the exhibition together. In the meantime, why not visit the exhibition, take part in one of our events or visit the Dive In! website to find out more.

Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean is a partnership with the Scottish Oceans Institute and the People Ocean Planet initiative from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland. It has been generously funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) and Museums Galleries Scotland.

Matt Sheard, Head of Experience and Engagement

Re-Collecting Empire: Laying the Groundwork

Dr Emma Bond, Reader in Modern Languages, Photograph courtesy of University of St Andrews, ©University of St Andrews

The Museums team and I have been busy working on the Re-collecting Empire project for nearly a year now. This preparatory work is often under-visualised within the final, public-facing outputs of any project, and decisions can feel quite tentative without much outside input. So it was exciting to have the opportunity recently to share our ideas with two external groups.

We held our first advisory panel, made up of University staff and students, external museum professionals and academics; and we hosted a workshop with an invited group of St Andrews academics who hold research expertise in histories of slavery, empire and colonialism. Both were incredibly inspiring.

Our advisory panel challenged us on our use of language and our definitions of key terms such as decolonization. They emphasized to us the importance of working with communities of origin and diaspora communities in Scotland, and they advised us on the support that may be needed to manage any negative responses to the project. Interestingly, one panel member questioned which empire we were referencing to, and whether there were implicit assumptions present in the working title to the project. But the academic workshop helped to show us that any focus on a singular empire may be counterproductive, since imperial histories are always entangled and often interdependent. Traces of multiple empires are present in our University collections, and affective histories of empire and slavery connect these multiple pasts to the contemporary experiences of different members of our St Andrews community of staff and students. From Mexican coins to magic lantern slides via fish specimens, our academic workshop helped to broaden out our scope of enquiry and filled us all with a sense of excitement for the next stages of the project.

The Recollecting Empire project is an important part of our strategic objective to tackle institutional legacies and work for a more inclusive and equitable future​. With a specific focus on Scotland, Re-Collecting Empire will explore present-day entanglements of cultures resulting from colonial encounters in the past, and how creative responses can add new dimensions to heritage objects through examining, re-telling their narratives with a diverse set of audiences. ​

Written by Dr Emma Bond, Reader in Modern Languages, University of St Andrews

Student to Staff: Being a St Andrews graduate 10 years on

Photo of three graduates in their graduation gowns, working along the pier at East Sands, St Andrews with St Andrews Cathedral in the background. © The University of St Andrews – Gayle McIntyre

Graduation has, and always will, be a special time when students celebrate all the hard work they have put in and finally complete their degree. It is a time to reflect, to recollect, and renew your plans and aspirations. St Andrews has many traditions for graduation, with soakings for when you finish you last exam, to being tapped on the head by John Knox’s ‘pants’ as you collect your degree.

These traditions, sadly, could not all take place this year, though that does not diminish the importance and recognition of what graduates have achieved in these strange times.

Since the founding of the University with the Papal Bull in 1413, St Andrews has seen many students graduate. Some going on to make ground-breaking discoveries, some famous faces, and all of them have left their mark on the world.

Only a handful of degrees could be achieved at first, which expanded over the years as different colleges became part of the University. Until 1889 when the Universities Scotland Act was passed, only men could graduate. The Act made it possible for women to also graduate, and Agnes Forbes Blackadder became the first woman to graduate on the same level as men in 1894.

Since then, many other women followed Agnes in graduating from St Andrews, including several members of our museum team.

Photo of Sophie, standing on the stage at Younger Hall, St Andrews,
with others on stage, waiting to receive her degree

Ten years ago, I graduated from St Andrews with a MA. Hons in Mediaeval History. Fresh faced and unsure what I would like to do as a career, I went out into a world still recovering from a financial crisis. Jobs were not always easy to find, and I eventually stumbled into Retail Management, not exactly what you think an Historian might do. After that, I decided to take a few different career paths including working at a Castle, as well as trying my hand at the property sector.

Now, ten years on, the allure of St Andrews has brought me back and I now work as a University staff member as part of the Visitor Services Team for the Museums. I did leave Fife, for a bit, but my love of this wonderful corner of Scotland has brought me back and I thoroughly enjoy working with an amazing team at the museums and seeing the many wonderful objects in the museum’s collections. And most importantly, looking forward to welcoming visitors to the Wardlaw Museum when we open later this month!

Photo of the 7 University Mace bearers, dressed in formal wear, holding the maces and standing around the statue of Oor Wullie – Prince Wullie. © The University of St Andrews – Gayle McIntyre
You can see the Oor Wullie statue now on the Wardlaw Museum terrace

At the Wardlaw Museum, we have some of the most important objects that take part in graduation, the University maces. These are taken by the mace bearers for graduation and normally graduates follow these down North Street to Younger Hall. The maces then stay present throughout the graduation ceremonies. You can find out more about them in Gallery 1 when you visit the Museum.

Did I think I would be here, working at the Wardlaw Museum, ten years ago when graduating? No, likely not. I did not know where my life would go, though that was part of the fun of the journey! Things were tough, and I was not sure which path I wished to take and what I could do after I graduated. One top tip I would say though is please visit the University Careers Centre either as a student, or for up to three years after graduating. I went later as a graduate, and they were very helpful when I was seeking a new direction to go.

Things do seem odd currently, you may not know what you wish to do, but do not let that effect you. Everything will improve in time, you may go down a few different paths and double back, though you will get there. Graduating is but the start of another journey, and you have time to decide where that will take you. Enjoy the ride, and you never know where it might lead you. Even back to the place where it all began.

Photo of Sophie, in her graduation gown and hood, standing on the steps going down into the nave of the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.

Written by Sophie Belau-Conlon, Cultural and Community Engagement Officer/Visitor Services Supervisor

‘Bella, Bella!’ Reassigning Scottish Football Fashion

Dalglish Round Neck Merino Jumper with Cream Silk Shorts (2015) by Atelier E.B (Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie), ©Atelier E.B

For many years the most enduring image of Scottish women’s football came from Gregory’s Girl (1980), a touchstone of 1980s Scottish cinema and popular culture, in which schoolgirl Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) overcomes sexism by proving her skills on the field and replaces Gregory as centre forward in the school team.

The inspiration behind Dalglish Jumper, former footballer Kenny Dalglish, was Scotland’s most successful player who also enjoyed a lengthy and triumphant career playing for Liverpool. In England, Dalglish was acknowledged as a leading talent who contributed to Liverpool’s national and international success in the 1970s and 1980s. In Scotland, the reverence for Dalglish was even greater as he attained the highest number of caps and quantity of goals playing for the national team.

Dalglish is a man of few words, something of a sporting cliché, and like Dorothy preferred his tremendous skill on the pitch to speak for itself. This left a certain space around the man, not simply the aura of stardom but a zone in which his admirers could project their own feelings and values.

It is a similar space in which Atelier E.B operate, whereby ‘the complex narratives that create each collection are expressed in different ways, leaving the wearer to imprint their own story onto the clothes.’[i] The fashion industry is often dismissed as luxurious yet meretricious, an accusation increasingly levelled at the art world. In working between both of these realms, Atelier E.B’s research-based artistic practice unpicks the hidden histories and signifiers of fashion, to create products and material exhibits that provide intellectual and visual stimulation. These are not mutually exclusive, providing entry points for different audiences, in opposition to art and fashion’s ‘gatekeeper’ exclusivity.

The apparently superficial is undercut by a rigorous and ethical approach to research, materials, fabrication and display. In their examination of sportwear, gender issues are analysed in ways fashion commerce markedly fails to address, and sporting history draws us into larger social histories.

Examined from a feminist viewpoint, archival research allows the artists to reveal hidden histories, especially the stories of marginalised women.[ii] The outfit is not merely a passing nod to the habits of young women for borrowing items of their boyfriend’s clothes. Lucy McKenzie has made clear that the design and reference to sports clothing in the work of Atelier E.B is concerned with its emancipatory qualities and with the rise of sports formerly derided or supressed by men such as women’s football, effectively banned in 1921, the Football Association stating ‘…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.’ [iii] This repression was not lifted for 50 years, after which the sport struggled for acceptance and finance. McKenzie views the lack of support as a ‘silent norm’ whereby women’s pursuits are regularly curbed by the male establishment. [iv]

As artists and designers working and subverting within the worlds of fashion and fine art, Atelier E.B are intensely aware of the importance of display, as seen in exhibitions such as Faux Shop (V&A Dundee, 2020). They have turned their backs on the clichés of catwalks and collection shows to examine more neglected, quotidian areas of display. Far from confirming banalities or retro-ironic indulgences, their forensic research reveals new histories of window-dressing, mannequins and retail display, relishing the craft and skills that were involved and appealing for recognition for the unseen workers who attempted to create attainable dreams on the high street.

When Dalglish Jumper was included as part of the group show Rik Wouters and the Private Utopia, (Mode Museum, Antwerp, 2016), the overall installation was intended to resemble a teenage bedroom. The jumper was housed within a glass frame (as is the version in the Boswell Collection), bringing with it connotations of sports bars and domestic display, and was also signed by the artists to further emulate autographed sports memorabilia, the mark of authenticity that raises the mundane and average to a position of covetable value, appealing to the instincts of adult collectors just as Panini football stickers are attractive to children. 

The artists chose to frame these works for practical reasons, to aid conservation and maintain some degree of control over how the work is presented, the nature of display being a core research interest of the partnership.  In the context of fine art, the signature carries its own mark of authorial fidelity, unsigned works routinely being the subject of curatorial investigations and contested provenance. In this case, the lack of signature reflects what Lipscombe refers to as ‘tiny tweaks’ that Atelier E.B employ to tip the finely balanced references within their work one way or another. [v]

Likewise, Dalglish Jumper encapsulates a feminist challenge to the balance of power within a male dominated society. Sly humour mocks the man’s football strip by replacing shorts with frilly knickers, while what undermines masculinity flatters the female body in both form and sensuous material. Although the top is not designed to be worn on the pitch it maintains the utility of sportswear off the field, just as gymwear is as likely to be seen in the home or street as in a yoga class. Women’s reassigning of masculine clothing through stylistic appropriation is part of an evolving expansion of women into the male realm. Atelier E.B recognise this process of assimilation as an opportunity to lift the bonnet of fashion and examine the machinery beneath, to rejoice in process and detail, to pivot between sleek exteriors and intelligent interiors, the attractive and the hidden, and produce clothing and accessories that women want to wear. Through their process of interrogation of histories, techniques and gender politics, a set of propositions emerge in material form. It is the artists’ flexible, non-didactic approach that allows their audiences/customers to engage with the work at any level, whether a magazine reader, retail shopper, or a museum visitor, a feminist inclusivity that spans the perceived gap between art, fashion and sport – knitters, knickers and kickers.  As the character of Susan (Clare Grogan), Gregory’s eventual date at the end of the film explains, ‘It’s just the way girls work. They help each other out.’


[i] https://www.ateliereb.com/about-atelier-e-b/ [accessed 19 October 2020]

[ii] See Laura Gardner, ‘Social Fabric / Atelier E.B.’ Flash Art Online, 17 January 2017 https://flash—art.com/2017/01/social-fabric-atelier-e-b/ [accessed 19 October 2020]

[iii] Lucy McKenzie, ‘How do you know it’s a costume?’ https://www.ateliereb.com/texts/how-do-you-know-its-a-costume/ [accessed 19 October 2020]

[iv] Ibid

[v] Beca Lipscombe in conversation with the author, 16 October 2020

Author Details:

Andrew Demetrius is Visual Resources Curator at the School of Art History, where he is also researching a PhD project, The Public Art of Glenrothes and David Harding.

Then and now: Time travelling with maps

When visitors come to St Andrews a map of the town is very handy for finding your way around! In this blog – one of our museums volunteers, Kat McLaren has researched the Geddy Map – the earliest known map of the town and the inspiration for a new product range by artist Sarah Halliday in the Wardlaw Museum Shop!

S. Andre sive Andreapolis Scotiae Universitas Metropolitana.” (National Library of Scotland MS.20996)

St Andrews is a town steeped in history, and we can probably all take a guess that it is very, very old. Even while on a simple stroll through the streets you can walk past stone facades which are recognisable in early photographs from as long ago as the 1850’s.

The town of St Andrews and the many distinctive buildings which we can see lining the streets are relatively unchanged from how they looked around 500 years ago. Despite being a larger town now than it was in the past, the essence of town has remained so unchanged that the basic layout of the town can still be recognised in the map “S. Andre sive Andreapolis Scotiae Universitas Metropolitana.” drawn by John Geddy (or Geddes). 

This map is held in the National Library of Scotland (MS.20996) and is particularly important as it is among several detailed early maps drawn of Scotland in the sixteenth century. The Geddy map is considered by scholars to be the earliest significantly detailed Scottish map representing a Scottish town, and is important as it shows what the town was like in the early 1580s.

What we know about Geddy is that he was probably born in St Andrews and studied at St Leonard’s College from 1571 to 1574. He worked as amanuensis (someone who is a literary/artistic assistant who writes down what someone is saying, or copies manuscripts) to George Buchanan, the well-known Scottish historian and poet, and served James VI, probably in a diplomatic capacity.

If you take a close look at the Geddy map, you’ll see that some parts of the town considered important by the mapmaker are given rather fancy latin names such as ‘Collegium D Leonardi’ (St Leonard’s College) and ‘Collegium Di Mariani’ (St Mary’s College) . The three main streets, North Street, Market Street and South Street, may be seen converging upon the (still unruined) Cathedral. St Salvator’s Chapel and the Archbishop’s Castle are clearly visible.  If we look closely though, there are major differences between then and now. Firstly, the castle is still there, and at this time it was in a state of disrepair but it was not as ruinous as we see it today. Secondly, that the town is surrounded by a wall, and that the town was comprised of fewer houses then than it has today. It is quite fun to look at how St Andrews has changed over time, perhaps you could give it a go and see what other differences you can spot?

So, how were maps like the Geddy Map drawn? Think of how you would figure out what a town looks like from the air without having access to Google Earth! At the time, maps like this one weren’t particularly accurate and were usually drawn by taking measurements between points of noteworthiness. Sometimes maps drawn during this period were inaccurate and they often tell us quite a lot about the society which made the maps than the place the map is illustrating. This is because maps are made within a social and political context, and therefore they often (intentionally or otherwise) highlighted points of interest in a way communicate a narrative about what is considered important/valued by the person who made the map or the society the map is made for – resulting in the map representing more  than the geography it depicts.

 In the Geddy map for example, the churches are given extra importance by being drawn disproportionately bigger than the generic houses we can see lining the streets, and there are lots more ships in the sea than there probably would’ve been. At the time the map was made, the church was encouraging map-making. Ships flying crossed flags can be seen, and there are perhaps more drawn than would have actually been in St Andrews bay at the time, for the sake of artistic license or perhaps to display the naval strength of the country. There’s even what looks to be a mysterious fin in the water, what do you think it is? It might be a mermaid’s tail, and it might have been added to make a nod to Scottish myths and legends. In this way the Geddy Map acts as a sort-of-accurate and sort-of-illustrative map.

Nowadays, computers are usually used to make our maps, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to draw one by hand yourself. How would you draw the town? And what would you include?

St Andrews Map design by Sarah Halliday, inspired by the Geddy Map

The Geddy Map is reflected in the modern times through Perth-based artist Sarah Halliday’s work. Using modern techniques, and a computer, she has drawn a map of St Andrews from the aerial perspective. Like the Geddy Map, her map has an illustrative quality, however Sarah’s is much more. Her illustration of the town is colourful and modern, and includes distinctive parts of the town which people may have fond memories of (such as Janetta’s!).

St Andrews Map product range by Sarah Halliday from the Wardlaw Museum Shop, image courtesy of University of St Andrews Museums

This blending of the old and the new can be seen in Sarah’s experience of mediums and techniques. Sarah is a trained fine artist in the age-old medium of oil who believes in bringing fine art to audiences on beautiful, yet useful, products. Frustrated by the inability to print her work without colour shifts, she started experimenting with Adobe Illustrator, which has allowed her to be able to print on textiles and other materials. Using the modern medium of Digital Art has enabled her to put her artwork on fabric and stationery much easier and she has been steadily expanding her range of products beyond her fine art. Sarah describes her work as, ‘Classic skills with a modern approach’.

Despite being made by different people, in different styles and techniques, both maps illustrate the same town around 500 years apart. Indeed, when taken together the maps illustrate the contrast between the old and the new, illustrate the passage of time in a visual way allowing us to spot the similarities and differences between the town then and now. Both maps are a little pieces of the history and evolution of St Andrews, and perfectly encapsulate the coming together of the old and the new which we see so much in the town today.

If you like the look of Sarah Halliday’s map, and would like to have your own bit of St Andrews in your home, check out our Wardlaw Museum Shop online. Our Wardlaw Museum Shop has a beautiful range of products inspired by our collections and scenic location. There you can find tea towels, mugs, postcards, and prints decorated with Sarah Halliday’s map of St Andrews, and lots more thoughtful and affordable gifts which can be purchased from our museum shop website.

Women and the Beggar’s Benison

(approx. 3.5 minute read)  

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

For women, the Club existed at a time when they could neither vote nor work in a range of industries, and they did not even have legal guardianship over their own children. In terms of sex, they were not supposed to derive any pleasure from sex. Indeed, it was a common belief in 1700s Britain that a female’s main purpose should purely be to satisfy male sexual needs and bear children. Women had little control over their own bodies. This is especially exemplified by the activities in which members of the Beggar’s Benison participated. 

The Club would fantasize about women through the reading of pornographic texts such as ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ and ‘A New Description of Merryland’ (see our ‘Trip to Merryland: Fantasising About Sex’ blog to learn more about this!) Some of the objects used in their meetings featured imagery of vulvas. However, the most disturbing of the Club’s activities was that young girls were paid to come to private club meetings and exhibit their naked bodies to members.  

Vagina Heart Seal Matrix from The Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Seal Matrix, 1731-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1068, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/seal-matrix/762417 

It is important to note that while many sources refer to these models as women, they were in fact young girls. Their ages ranged from 15 to 19 years old, in contrast to the members whose ages ranged from 30 to 50 years old.1 Unfortunately, we have scarce other details about who these girls were. Certainly, it is clear from the Club records that their identities did not matter to the Club. At private meetings, they would be stripped naked with their face’s half covered and would be made to pose for the members.2  

While there were no consequences for the men who participated in these meetings, even when the Club would become more an open secret than a secret, this was often not the case for the girls involved. Their half-covered faces did little to conceal their identity, and this could have repercussions outside of the Club meetings. Indeed, there is one recorded story where a bride on her wedding day was openly mocked and ridiculed for her previous hiring by the Club.3 Meanwhile, members were referred to as ‘gentlemen’ and there are no accounts of them facing any kind of consequences.  

It also must be stressed that there was likely little consent involved in how the girls were exhibited as part of these meetings. Members of the Club were mostly upper middle-class men from the East Neuk of Fife with influence within the local community, whilst the girls exhibited held much lower social status. This difference in status between the members and the girls in tandem with gender expectations at the time, was unlikely to be conducive to an equitable power dynamic. 

The Beggar’s Benison was not the first sex club in Scotland; there was another before it, although short lived. This club was the Knights of the Horn, established in Edinburgh in 1705. Very little detail survives about this Club. However, we do know that in contrast to the Beggar’s Benison, the Knights of the Horn reportedly held “mixed” meetings – in other words they allowed both men and women to participate.4 It is interesting to note that unlike the Beggar’s Benison, this Club was openly mocked and became the subject of hostile satire, in a way the Benison, to our knowledge, never was, even when the Club became an open secret within the local community. There is no clear evidence why the two were treated so differently. But given that the Knights of the Horn was founded in a similar time period to the Beggar’s Benison, it is more likely that this was due to the participation of women, thus evoking more vocal disapproval for the activities and conduct of the Club. 

 

Women’s March in 2017, London 
 
Equality Hurts No One, © Caroline Gunston, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/151312084@N02/32147533110 

      The Beggar’s Benison brings up issues that are still vitally important to discuss today. Women still do not have the same power or freedoms regarding sex, and they don’t always have control when it comes to their own bodies. Activist groups continue to educate people about the idea of consent and its importance. The male gaze is still a significant factor influencing depictions of a woman’s body in the media. But this is changing. Women and marginalised groups are beginning to take control. They are deciding how and when their bodies can be depicted. Female sexuality is starting to be recognised for being empowering, when consent is freely given. We hope our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club can further amplify these issues through its exploration and display of the Collection of this all-male sex club. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[4] Stevenson, Chapter Four 

  • Baker-Benfield., G.J, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, 1992  
  • Dabhoiwala, Faramerz, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, 2012 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals2001 

Inspired by St Andrews: an Interview with Mark Holden

Mark Holden is a landscape artist who has long been inspired by both the built and natural beauty of St Andrews. Here in the third blog of featuring some of the products from our Museum Shop Caitlin Meldrum, Visitor Services Supervisor for the University of St Andrews Museums asks Mark to tell us more about what inspires him in his artworks:

CM: The prints that we have of yours are well known areas around St Andrews. What is the personal significance of this town?

MH: My Professional Art career was started here in St Andrews in 2002 from challenging beginnings. I was using painting therapeutically to develop back my self-esteem after a period of ill health. My renewed passion for the town was discovered then having been away from it many years. Painting it was the next obvious challenge for me.

CM: What are the reasons for the areas you select to depict in your artworks around St Andrews?

MH: The composition locational choices result from what I see as the places that best reflect the character and charm of the town.

CM: You’ve produced a lot of work which features St Andrews, and some of these in particular, depict some of the university buildings. Why did you select these, and what do you think the University means to the town?

MH: Being the Oldest University in Scotland and it having celebrated its 400th Anniversary in recent years, and having known many students who studied here over many years, it was a good topic of interest for my work to compliment the general landscapes of the town I was working on. The “Town and Gown” relationship is an important link between town folk and University staff and students, given the close interaction physically both feed off and benefit from each other. Having come to know many folk who have taught and learned here it has enriched my life in many ways over many a dinner at my parents.

CM: Are you able to talk us through some your process or mediums that you use?

MH: My main medium to paint with is Oils. It’s the traditional means to paint and conveys texture and colour well. More recently I have been working in watercolours, and these allow for a more delicate interpretation and style of work. Watercolours can be mixed with pen, (pen and wash) to create a nice illustrative style that is good for portraying buildings and townscapes.

CM: How did you get into making art and do you have any inspirations?

MH: It was always a childhood passion, drawing and designing. It was only after many years in a Marketing working environment and subsequent health scare ,that I was able to return to painting and drawing ,and as my passion for this was re-ignited and my work began to be appreciated and purchased, I then turned it into my new career.

CM: Do you have a spot in St Andrews that is your personal favourite?

MH: Probably the most frequently painted view  and commission request I receive  are for the view  of the West Sands looking back towards town, an iconic view in my opinion and one that  best conveys the essence of St Andrews at all times and seasons.

CM: You kindly agreed to give us one of your original artworks for the museum shop. Can you tell us more about this piece? 

MH: Given my answer to the last question, that is why the painting you have is of the West Sands. It is a smaller scale work in Oils, but usually they are in larger formats, ranging from 300x300mm to 600x600mm. Every painting captures a different atmosphere, as is the actual view itself, ever changing with the Fife weather. It is in my Impressionistic style (not representational like a photograph) hence I aim to capture the mood suing this style of painting.

CM: We are aware you have been asked to do some commission pieces for the University of St Andrews. Are you able to tell us anything about these?

MH: The main University painting was commissioned by the University Court, as a gift when Professor Louise Richardson, completed her time at the University before heading to her new role at Oxford University. It was of the West Sands iconic view once again. Interestingly, she also commissioned me personally to produce another view of the town for herself from the Pier looking back to the Cathedral and harbour, as she liked my style of Scottish Impressionism. Both were in Oils. She has written to me after that to say how they feature in her main living space at the University there.

CM: The University Museums are currently involved in a campaign that is part of a call to action to protect our oceans. Other pieces that you do are also based on coastal images, have you noticed a change in this environment, or try to depict this in your art?

MH: This final question is an interesting one, as over lockdown last year I was based at my parents in St. Andrews and photographed and painted a lot of fresh material in that new unexpected time in our lives.. I was drawn to the East Sands more in the early mornings and hence have used that in new work, and in fact have had fresh commissions of that beach view too. I love the interaction of sea and sky, and hence depicting skies is important to me in it many representations as it continually changes and is ever inspiring and a challenge to capture on canvas.

MH: I haven’t notice any specific changes to the coastline, apart from many more people using it for  swimming in. Maybe this is  a consequence of lockdown with folk having more time to enjoy the sea/coast  environment. I am not sure, but I became aware of it. The beauty and quiet of early sunny mornings make it a special experience, hence my appreciation of it too.

I have done Poppies on the coast themes in paintings and the depiction of the coast and fishing villages too. A topic that appeals to many and as you say to be cherished and respected more.

I have a collection of Photo art from this time that may be of interest for you to see in due course, as it was like a photo diary/blog of that challenging and unique time.

The Beggar’s Benison Club in the 21st Century

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of the exhibition microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.   

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Today, the University of St Andrews has objects and archival material in its Collection which relate to the Club. The collection includes badges, sashes, seals, glasses, and a test platter used by Club members, with many being explicitly sexual in nature and often inscribed with sexual innuendos and phallic imagery.  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This Collection is now being put on public display for the first time at the University in our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum. 

The Exhibition displays the objects through a feminist lens, considering the actions of the Club under the three main themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power. For our exhibition team, this was an opportunity to explore and learn from the past, by using the actions of the Beggar’s Benison Club to reflect upon and discuss continued issues in society today. Curated by an all-women team, the Exhibition served as a platform from which to address consent, sexual identity and freedom, and gender equality. 

              In their devotion to all-male sexual liberation the Beggar’s Benison Club participated in many sexually-themed activities. One of the more shocking events was its hiring of ‘posture girls’, an activity that occurred on multiple occasions. Young women, between the ages of fifteen to nineteen were hired to display themselves naked for the members’ pleasure. While the men were not permitted to touch the young women, the action of viewing them is a very literal representation of the male gaze.  

             To this day, women, particularly young women and girls, are often sexualised, objectified and represented in the media through the male gaze.  

 

Wine Advert in Australia from 2008 
 
…or three or four, © Jes, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/91256982@N00/2382662270 

Thanks to television and social media, objectification and gender stereotyping is happening on a global scale, with real world consequences. From a young age, girls absorb hypersexualised images of women which can impact mental health, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Young boys encounter these images too, which can lead to forming of stereotypical ideas of gender roles. These ideas often encourage dominance and aggressiveness in men, which increases risks of violence against women. These stereotypical ideas also cultivate a cultural narrative that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, but in their dominant role men do.   

By displaying this Collection, the audience is prompted to consider the power dynamic that allowed the Beggar’s Benison Club to objectify young women and how this power dynamic still exists today. The exhibition also makes efforts to reclaim parts of the Beggar’s Benison’s legacy for women. Within the Collection only one object shows exclusively female genitalia, a seal with a heart surrounding a vagina. The seal alone is a strong representation of the Club’s possessive attitudes over women’s bodies. In keeping with the feminist theme, the seals design was chosen as the exhibition logo. This not only contrasts with the numerous phallic images in the exhibition, but also demonstrates how women can reclaim the image and use it to represent sexual empowerment.  

Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club, © The University of St Andrews 

            The logo was also the key image used as a pattern for the first event of the Exhibition, an embroidery workshop, hosted on 8 March 2021. Non-coincidentally, the 8 March also marked International Women’s Day, an annual global day which celebrates the achievements of women and raises awareness for greater gender equality. The logo was embroidered alongside other images of women’s bodies to represent female reclamation of their own bodies.  Embroidery itself is part of a wider subversive stitch movement which continues the long legacy of women using needle and thread in protest and resistance. Many of the issues that the Beggar’s Benison Club raise in modern times are issues feminism is still fighting and therefore it is fitting to connect the exhibition to other feminist movements.  

Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert Image 
 
Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert, © The University of St Andrews 

          In viewing this exhibition, audiences will explore the Beggar’s Benison Collection but will also be confronted with the negative power dynamics and objectification that the Club subjected women to. These actions reflect what, over two hundred years later, is still occurring to women. However, today, women have a much stronger voice, proven by the widespread feminist movements to reclaim their power. Audiences should consider whether their daily actions are taking this power from women or placing the power back into their hands

This article was written by Sarah Takhar, Museum and Gallery Studies student 2020/21.

Further reading:

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001.   
  • Swift, J. and Gould, H, ‘Not an Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls’, UNICEF USA, 2021. <https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366>  

Highland Coos: Scotland’s favourite animal!

Highland cattle are extremely popular with tourists, especially this year, the Year of the Ox! Read more to find out what inspired us to include highland cow decorations in the offer for the new Wardlaw Museum shop! Patsy Ng is a volunteer with us here at the University Museums, a fan of highland cows Patsy has researched the fascination with them and has written this blog for us while based at home in Hong Kong due to Covid restrictions!

Highland Cow hanging decoration by Shed Heaven, image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Shop

But despite their recent popularity, highland cattle are not just a fad. They are the world’s oldest recognized cattle breed, with a herd book (a register of all the cattle of that breed) established by 1885.1, 2 It originally distinguished between two different strains of highland cattle – the small black island cattle, and the larger mainland cattle of myriad colours – but they have since been interbred so much that they are indistinguishable, from the highland cattle we know and love today.3


Girl milking cattle, Skye.,
Image courtesy of University of St Andrews Library and D. C. Thomson.,
Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: RMA-H-5253

            However, a herd does not a herd book make. Evolution is a gradual process, and all our modern cattle are descended from aurochs – gigantic horned bovines that roamed Afroeurasia until they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago.4 They were domesticated in two separate events: one in India, producing indicine cattle, who have humps over their shoulders; and one in the Fertile Crescent, producing taurine cattle, who do not have humps, such as highland cattle.5

About 6000 years later, the domesticated aurochs had evolved enough to be recognisably modern cattle. Some taurine cattle had been brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers, and were being herded across the Scottish highlands by Bronze Age communities.6 As valuable sources of milk, meat, and textile material, cattle formed an important part of life in herding communities. People would live near their herds as they travelled to different pastures, and sometimes remained close to them in death.

When someone died, they would occasionally be buried with grave goods such as a cattle hide. The burials were not always the same, with some hides being used as rugs or wrappings, while others were used as pillows or blankets. Therefore, the significance of the cattle hides is not clear – they could be a way of showing respect to pillars of the community; a way of repelling evil spirits; a symbol of rebirth, the community, or animal power; a remnant of a feast or sacrifice; or they could simply be a funerary custom, like how people are often buried in coffins today.7 Nonetheless, communities must have had a reason for placing cattle hides so deliberately into the final resting places of their deceased, and their inclusion with the remains of loved ones speaks volumes about what cattle meant to the community and the individual.

The importance of cattle was not unique to the Bronze Age. Here in St Andrews, the Byre Theatre gets its name from its origins as a cow byre,8 and even though it has gone through two reconstructions since its first opening in 1933, the bones of those who once lived there rest under the floorboards.

In 1970, during the Byre Theatre’s first reconstruction, animal bones dating back to the medieval period were unearthed by an archaeological excavation, removed for examination, and subsequently lost. Reports were left unfinished, but some of the findings were discussed in Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City, a book edited by Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson that will be available in our museum shop when we feature an exhibition on medieval St Andrews next year.9

The bones primarily came from cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They indicated that cattle were regularly raised to old adulthood instead of being slaughtered at a young age, suggesting that high quality hides that came from older cattle were desired more than the maximization of meat production. These hides could be processed and turned into materials like leather and parchment, which could then be used to make items like this catechism book from 1552.

Image of cover of The Chatecisme:
Image courtesy of University of St Andrews Library, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TypBS.B52SH

Though cattle no longer roam the streets of St Andrews, there are still traces of them in our daily lives. From the milk in our cereal to the shoes on our feet, we are surrounded by reminders of how cattle are still just as important to us as they were to our ancestors 10,000 years ago. If these reminders are not enough, you could buy a mini highland cow from our shop, check out VisitScotland’s Coosday tag, or even go outside and find a real fold to watch – keeping a safe distance, of course. 

Sources:

  1. “Breeds of Livestock – Highland Cattle.” Oklahoma State University, accessed April 8, 2021. afs.okstate.edu/breeds/cattle/highland.
  2. “The Highland Cattle Breed.” Highland Cattle Society, accessed April 8, 2021. www.highlandcattlesociety.com/the-highland-cattle-breed.
  3. Same as Source 1.
  4. “Aurochs.” Harvard University, accessed May 1, 2021. histecon.fas.harvard.edu/climate-loss/extinction/aurochs.html.
  5. Pitt, Daniel, Natalia Sevane, Ezequiel L Nicolazzi, Davide E MacHugh, Stephen D E Park, Licia Colli, Rodrigo Martinez, Machael W Bruford, Pablo Orozco-terWengel. “Domestication of cattle: Two or three events?.” Evolutionary Applications 12, no. 1 (July 23, 2018), pp. 123-136. doi: 10.1111/eva.12674.
  6. Lelong, Olivia, Iraia Arabaolaza, Thomas Booth, Jane Evans, Richard Evershed, Susanna Harris, Hege Hollund, Hege Hollund, B J Keely, Angela Lamb, M D Pickering, A P Pinder, Susan Ramsay, Penelope Rogers, Lucija Šoberl, Clare Wilson, and Lyn Wilson. 2015. “Wrappings of Power: A Woman’s Burial in Cattle Hide at Langwell Farm, Strath Oykel”. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 144 (November), 65-132. journals.socantscot.org/index.php/psas/article/view/9811.
  7. Same as above.
  8. “History.” University of St Andrews, accessed April 30, 2021. byretheatre.com/contact-us/history/.
  9. Hall, Derek W, Catherine Smith, ed. Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson. “The Archaeology of Medieval St Andrews.” Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City, (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2017), pp. 173-179. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=L7Q4DwAAQBAJ.
  10. Hamilton, John. Hamilton’s Catechisme, (St Andrews: John Scot, August 29, 1552). Special Collections, library.st-andrews.ac.uk/record=b1339219~S1.