Sue Hill remembers medieval history… with cucumber sandwiches

Aileen Fyfe
Wednesday 24 August 2022

In the 1970s it was a truth universally acknowledged that most people from Dumfries Academy – my secondary school – went on to Glasgow University to study. I might very well have done the same (writes Sue Hill, MA 1982) had it not been for my English teacher (the poet Tom Pow) who told me about the beautiful, quaint, seaside University town he had studied at, or for my French teacher (Harry Neilan) who organised a trip to St Andrews for sixth years in October 1977.

I had never been to St Andrews before, but when we stepped out of the minibus that blustery day I was instantly smitten with the ancient cathedral, crow-stepped gables and medieval buildings. It had a completely unique atmosphere and I knew before we drove home that this was where I wanted to study.

Female student in St Andrews red gown, outside a doorway
Sue outside University Hall in her final year (1982)

I had initially applied to do a degree in English and Music, but I’m forever grateful to the Scottish Higher Education system (and to my excellent Course Advisor John Kitchen) for giving me the flexibility to discuss and explore different options and change my mind once I had arrived at university. As a result, I decided since I didn’t play keyboard that it was probably best to swap music for another subject.

I looked down the list of possibilities and stopped at Medieval History. Monty Python and The Holy Grail immediately sprang to mind. (I loved that film so much I had bought the script.) ‘Twas a sign! It was with images of King Arthur and the Black Knight in mind, therefore, that I signed up to study it. I was immediately sucked into a fascinating world of feudalism, flagellation, relics, crusades and buboes.

By the end of second year I was completely hooked – so much so that I decided to study the subject to degree level. Despite my dad’s misgivings – “What are you going to do with that, Sue?” – I knew it was the right decision for me.

Female student in black gown, with man in suit
Sue and her dad, at her graduation in 1982

The courses just got better and better as I moved into Junior and Senior Honours. In particular, it was a privilege to study James III with Norman MacDougall. We were only the second group of students to take his option and when his book James III was published in 1982 (the year I graduated), he mentioned each of us in the Foreword. My signed copy will always have pride of place on my bookshelf.  

But one of my fondest and most enduring memories is of the course I took on Romanesque and Gothic Art and Architecture with Lorna Walker, who was also Warden of University Hall. Not only did it give me a deeper insight into the culture and philosophies that drove many of the political and religious developments during this time, but hers were also the most civilized and inclusive tutorials I have ever attended.

They always took place in the University Hall Common Room and unfailingly featured tea and cucumber sandwiches before we began – and I think we even sometimes had sherry! Lorna created an atmosphere that made you feel valued and confident about speaking out because she always listened and responded to your opinions with respect and consideration. At that time, I was a shy and self-conscious 21-year-old and I often found it difficult to work up the courage to voice my opinions in tutorials – but that was never the case in hers.

Lorna Walker absolutely lived and breathed her subject, and it was probably only after I graduated that I fully appreciated this. Many of the slides she used to illustrate her lectures were taken while she was on holiday each summer. I also vividly remember a trip she organised to Durham Cathedral one weekend. Thanks to her, we were given behind-the-scenes access to restoration work, where we watched craftsmen using the same techniques that the original medieval masons had employed to build the cathedral hundreds of years before. It was awe-inspiring – like watching history in action.  

The legacy of all this, of course, is that since I graduated, I have dragged friends and family (mostly willingly), my two daughters (also mostly willingly) and my partner (thankfully always willingly) around churches and cathedrals throughout the UK, waxing lyrical about lintels, buttresses and gargoyles.

Because after all (in answer to my dad’s question) Medieval History is for life – not just for a degree.

Woman and man outside medieval chapel
Sue and her partner Callum, at Rosslyn chapel

Sue Hill graduated in 1982 with an MA in Medieval History which (much to her dad’s relief) provided her with a wonderfully fulfilling and varied career. After a PGCE in Primary Education at Moray House, she became Primary Education Officer at the Design Council Scotland and then Head of Publishing at the Scottish Consultative Council for the Curriculum (later Learning and Teaching Scotland) where she was responsible for publishing all the 5-14 Exemplification materials sent to Primary and Secondary schools in Scotland. She also set up the team that published material for Higher Still. After having two daughters, Sue became freelance and worked for organisations such as SQA, Scottish Opera and Bright Red Publishing. She has now come full circle and is happily ensconced as the Publications Officer for the Development team at the University of St Andrews.

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