In the library of Stirling University, there exists a book known as the Bob Bomont book.
It was published twenty-two years ago, although it had been commissioned three years before that. The professor who had been originally selected to write it – David Waddell, a professor and historian who had headed Stirling’s history department for a number of years – died when he was less than halfway through, and Bob Bomont, the then University Secretary, somewhat reluctantly completed the job.
The book, officially titled The University of Stirling: Beginnings and Today, remains the most definitive history of the University written to date. It’s a little dry, and more than half of its pages are taken up with photographs of classroom scenes and views over the campus, but there’s a more glaring problem: it only tells half of the story. Literally.
The Bob Bomont book was commissioned to celebrate the University’s first quarter-century of existence. Since then, another twenty-five years of history have passed, students and staff have come and gone, and countless stories remain untold.
Last year, the University decided to rectify that in time for the fiftieth anniversary. A band of university employees, headed by Director for Advancement Kerry Bryson, was tasked with creating a university history befitting the anniversary’s importance.
The team didn’t have the timeframe to compile a dense, chronological history in the mould of Bob Bomont’s book, and for a time they struggled to find a structure that would allow many different stories to be told without the need for a thread to connect them all.
From the list of options that had been compiled, though, one in particular stood out. The idea was inspired by a book Kerry had received as a present: Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects.
“So the idea came about, why don’t we do Stirling through fifty objects for the fifty years? Each chapter could tell a different story, and it wouldn’t have to be chronological, because combined we would have a really interesting history of the University.”
The simplicity and potential of that idea locked it in place. Journalism lecturer Tom Collins was approached to be the book’s editor, and the team began searching for objects that might represent scenes from the University’s history. An initial posting in Stirling’s alumni magazine, floating the idea and asking for suggestions, drew 2000 responses.
“But within that 2000 responses, there were lots of people saying, ‘yes I’d be interested in the book’, though not necessarily suggesting an object,” said Kerry. “So, altogether we had about 500 suggestions for objects.”
“Some of the objects chose themselves,” said Tom. “If you want to represent the history of the institution it’s hard to pass things like the bid document, the coat of arms, the Chancellor’s robe, and the mace. Many of these things have intrinsic interest and worth. The mace, for example, was gifted by the congregation of Logie Kirk as a welcome gift from the local community. That’s a powerful message.”
Taking stock of the particularly popular suggestions, like the loch and swans, and focusing on objects with important or interesting stories to tell narrowed the field to just over fifty objects.
For most of the book’s fifty chapters, the person most familiar with the object has written around 700 words on the object itself, its significance, and how it represents an aspect of the University. The final edition includes chapters by University of Stirling Chancellor James Naughtie, Makar of Stirling Clive Wright, and former First Minister Lord McConnell, perhaps Stirling’s most notable alumnus.
There are chapters that are composed of a few lines, and a chapter of flash fiction; there are funny chapters, intriguing chapters, and beautiful chapters, about objects as diverse as a room in H.H. Donnelly House and a karate dojo. Tom, a writer and editor for his entire working life, contributed several chapters himself, and Kerry wrote one on a silver candelabra designed by silversmith and Stirling honorary graduate Dr Graham Stewart.
With a list of objects decided, Kerry and Tom’s team was able to recruit someone to provide the book’s vital visual dimension – photographer Elaine Livingstone.
This was not a particularly difficult choice. Kerry’s department commissioned one of Elaine’s first jobs after she became freelance: photographs of the University’s honorary graduates. Since then, Elaine has covered subjects such as last year’s US presidential election and a women’s farming project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has always maintained close links to the University, though: last year, she took the pictures of staff that appear on posters around campus, and she still takes the official portraits of honorary graduates every year.
Elaine started her work on the book in December last year, and her final shoot came midway through August. Between those dates, she had to contend with such challenges as the frustratingly unpredictable Scottish weather and angrily territorial oystercatchers.
“Whenever I appeared they were just squealing, which was disrupting all the offices in the Pathfoot,” explained Elaine. “It got to the stage where I would just walk in the building and they would start squealing! Eventually I had to shoot them from behind glass, because it was impossible. They just scattered whenever I walked out into the courtyard to shoot them.”
Even so, the project gave her the freedom to explore what she considers the single most important aspect of photography: “how light makes things look”. Her favourite picture in the book is a shot of the stairs in the Pathfoot building, one of Elaine’s favourite buildings in Scotland.
“I came into the Pathfoot, and the light – this is a testimony to how the Pathfoot is designed and built, that lovely permission of light it lets in – the light was hitting the stairs, it was coming through the windows, and it was just this kind of dappled, quite structured, but dappled light coming through the stairs, and I shot it.”
“It was really beautiful, golden light, making this ordinary set of stairs look lovely, and abstract, and otherworldly.”
To Elaine’s delight, this was the picture that was chosen to grace the book’s front cover.
Before too long, a new recruit to the team arrived with organisational skills that promised to make Elaine’s life a bit easier. David Baxter only began working for the University as a campaigns co-ordinator in February, but he was quickly enlisted for the book team and assigned to organise Elaine’s shoots.
At his first meeting with Tom and Kerry, however, he found himself agreeing to do something far beyond that role.
“They were going through the chapters, and for the Dumyat chapter, we needed someone who was a first time participant in the hill climbing race writing about their experience. Tom had known that I’d been to the uni myself, I graduated in 2010, and he said, ‘Have you ever ran the Dumyat race?’, and I said, ‘No, I’ve not…’ He said, ‘Well, do you want to do it?’”
Understandably hesitant at first, and only a week into his new job, David agreed to do it, telling himself that it might be a good way to get a bit more involved in the project. His experience with preparing for and ultimately taking on the race is recounted in the book’s chapter on the Dumyat race starting line.
David isn’t alone in this slightly unexpected display of effort. For some unspecifiable reason, this book has brought out passion in those involved with it – not least in Kerry Bryson.
Kerry, a history graduate, spent most of her weekends and evenings during the project reading through old annual reports, alumni magazines and staff newsletters in an effort to gather a collective history.
As a result, she now has a very impressive knowledge of the most interesting events in the University of Stirling’s 50 year history. While discussing the creation of the book, she often gets sidetracked with a story about another of her favourite objects in the book – the mace, the university tartan, a Humpty Dumpty doll, and so forth.
It is this wonderful enthusiasm, from so many sources, that has made an ambitious project into a success. Unlike the Bob Bomont book, however, this one could never be attributed to the effort of a single person. It took work from hundreds to bring it together – chapter-writers, university employees, organisers and people from across the world who suggested ideas.
“It’s a university project,” said Tom. “I hope it will be seen as very much a community effort and something everyone can take pride in.”
Fifty: The University of Stirling in Fifty Objects is out now. Other contributors include Brig editor Ross Brannigan, former editors Dan Vevers and Paul Martin, and myself, Craig Munro. The book is available at a retail price of £20, or at a discounted price of £9.99 to alumni, students, staff and friends of the University of Stirling.