At the Re-Opening of the Men’s Student Union, St. Andrews


On 10 October Kipling made his principal speech as Rector of St. Andrews, collected in A Book of Words, 1928, as “Independence.” At the official dinner following in the United College Hall he made another speech, of which I have found no text: according to the St. Andrews Citizen, 13 October, it was “of a witty nature.” Next day, at the re-opening of the men’s student union at the university, he made the speech here reprinted, evidently with a good deal of information supplied by his university hosts.

The “Lang” referred to is Andrew Lang, a graduate of St. Andrews and one of the group of older and established men in the Savile Club who encouraged Kipling on his coming to London to make his literary fortune.


When Dr Johnson visited this University 150 years ago he noticed with approval that its students were not exposed to “the levity and dissolluteness of a capital city, nor to the gross luxury of a town of commerce.” (Laughter.) Otherwise he took no comfort in the sight of “a University in decay and struggling for life.” Dr Jolmson said that it filled his mind “with melancholy thoughts and ineffectual wishes.” (Laughter.) One is sure that the Doctor’s wishes for any seat of learning would have been good ones, and could he revisit us now he would find that they had not been ineffectual. But one is equally sure that he would favour us with a few words on “gross luxury,” if he saw the quality and the equipment of the building which, thanks to Dr Low, was opened today. What Dr Johnson forgot, though his own life proved it, was that even the strongest of human driving forces are subject to intervals of lethargy. What he underestimated, even with Boswell so long at his elbow, was the indomitable tenacity of the Scot in the struggle for life, liberty, and just as they saw there—happiness. It is a mere trifle of some 40 years since the Students’ Representative Council first appointed a Committee to inquire into the establishment of a Students’ Club and the chance of its success. They were assured from the first—for man clubs by instinct the world over—(laughter)—but the concrete realisation of the idea took as long to bring about as the generality’ of things in this imperfect world. There w’ere proposals and counter-proposals, compromises and make-shifts, conditioned by that “eternal lack of peace” which hampers many aspirations, but tided over by the efforts of men and women, unknown and unrecorded now, who toiled loyally and zealously at the first collection of funds. I fancy Dr James Cunningham, still a member ol the University Court—(applause)—is the only member at present of that great Bazaar Committee, when your own Lang, kindest and most unselfish of men of letters—(applause)—helped to open the bazaar in the United College in the middle ages of ’87. On the strength of the funds then collected a start was made, and the University’s constitution was proposed bv the students and accepted by the Senatus, with the recommendation—it is curious to notice it now— that billiards should be barred. (Laughter.) But thev were not—(laughter and applause)—and the formal opening of the Union in its small rooms at the Imperial Hotel was performed by Lord Aberdeen in those distant and inexpensive days of the ’eighties, when its income was under £70 and its expenditure a trifle over £30 per annum (laughter)—but its comradeship and good fellowship were then, as now, unbounded. (Applause.)

Shortly afterwards, Lord Bute most generously offered £1000 towards building a
dining-room and debating hall, a sum which was nearly equaled by collections from other quarters, and the University Court notified that they were willing to contribute an additional £500 to the Union under certain conditions. In 1891, therefore, the Admirable Crichtons house was purchased from the University Court, and there in due time the Union was established. This time the students unanimously agreed to have a billiard table of their own, and took care to send a copy of their resolution to the Senate, who evidently gave way under conditions and limitations. For two years later we find them sanctioning billiards “only from 2.30 p.m., and not from 12.30 p.m.,” as the students had asked. (Laughter.) The matter is outside my jurisdiction, but I incline to think that billiards at half-past twelve is trifling alike with one’s game and one’s meals. (Laughter.) Evidently, it took time for people to get used to billiards in the closing years of the nineteenth century; for the annals of the Union contain several cryptic references to “the billiard table again causing trouble.” (Laughter.) None the less, the world went on; and as the Union increased, the students continued in their wish to expand. One does not know whether more to admire the centralized and cautious Senate, with its eye on all moral aspects, or the pioneering and persistent Students’ Representative Council. Every one on both sides seems to have said, and with clarity, exactly what he thought, but between the clash of minds—and wills—the thing grew as a pine tree grows between the storm and the granite—slowly, but with sure foot-hold and sound heart. Even with the additions made to it, the Admirable Crichton’s house proved inadequate, and the first systematic attempts at expansion began when the Governing Board of the Union commissioned plans for a complete building at a proposed expenditure of £7500. The Senatus and the Court Committee hereupon objected, and proposed an architectural compromise and the addition of an extra room next to the billiard-room, their old battleground. (Laughter.) Later, they withdrew their objections, provided the money could be raised. And, while the long campaign of raising it went on, the war fell across all such things, and the Union buildings passed into the hands of the military. These hands—not to mention those feet—(Laughter.)—do not add to the beauty of any structure. (Laughter.) I believe that in due time the War Office paid all due claims for reparation, but the real damage of the occupation was that it interrupted the laudable custom, initiated by the Father of the Union, Sir Peter Scott Lang—(applause)—of the students’ daily common dinner there. I trust that I do not over-step if I say that it would be a good thing, in your new conditions, to restore that binding and beneficent ritual. (Applause.) The aftermath of war swept away much, but it brought an ample realisation of the Union’s desire for an adequate and equipped institution when Dr William Low’s wise and munificent generosity smoothed your paths with a gift £6500 to enlarge and worthily round out the whole idea on the excellent plans of Mr Waterhouse, the architect.

The University Court gave £3000 to augment Dr Low’s gift out of a Government grant which that gift had elicited. This may prove that generosity begets generosity even in Governments—(laughter and applause)—and the Union at last stepped into wealth and the position which it holds here. And the war brought other changes. Men in authority here saw youths whom they had regarded almost as children, snatched out of the fenced order of centuries, given desperate command in the face of death, whirled through inconceivable experiences, and returned, such of them as lived. A generation apart, wise in philosophies no school had taught, but, as years were reckoned, youths still. These, your predecessors, changed your world’s attitude towards youth, and it is you who reap the advantage in the large control that you now exercise over your own affairs. It is no longer a question how much or how little billiards may be allowed to young men, but how completely they may be left to their own guidance. Both views are extreme. A man does not go to perdition through handling a cue, any more than he is saved by sitting on library or kitchen Committees. (Laughter.)

Each case depends on temperament and circumstance, and when the red dawn of revolution is followed by the grey morning of responsibility, one may find, as a young friend of mine from a southern college recently wrote me, “our most advanced men often seem to be our biggest idiots about finance and management.” (Laughter.) This has happened before in other Unions, but you at St Andrews have behind you a long tradition of self-government, which means that one strains every nerve to select a Committee to manage one’s affairs, and then strains everybody else’s nerves bv pointing out how biased, bad, and inadequate is every motive and action of one’s own executive. (Laughter.) It is therefore, as you will find later, a grand training for public affairs.(Laughter.) I hold no brief for secretaries or Committees, though I have been a secretary, and I serve on Committees. I merely wish to point out to this public at large, that ambassadorial tact, financial genius, rhadamanthine justice, and Job-like patience are rarely combined in one person—however young. (Loud laughter and applause.)

The ideals of such a Club as yours are high ones. It exists to clubmen—(Laughter.)—who otherwise would have remained unclubbed—to their lasting detriment. It softens the ferocious, gives countenance to the meek, and comfort to the solitary, educates the over-learned, silences the argumentative, and has been known to arrest the predestined prig on his downward path. (Laughter and applause.) Moreover, it offers place for those suddenly begotten eruptions of jest, extravagance, and absurdity that reduce all concerned in them to the helpless, aching, speechless mirth which is as necessaiy to the health of a young man’s mind as grit to the gizzard of a fowl. (Laughter and applause.) And believe me, the remembrance of these joyous interludes will return to you, across a generation, and will warm your hearts in the day when you may not be in the way of much laughter.

By virtue of the authority which you have vested in me, your Rector, I declare this Union, founded on youth, fellowship, and generosity, re-open, and re-dedicated to goodwill, companionship, mirth, and honourable memories. (Loud applause.)

—St. Andrews Citizen, 13 October 1923