People familiar with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might recognize the concept behind Glasgow University’s Blackstone Chair. The current chair, which is part of the university’s Hunterian Museum collection, dates from the late 18th century. Its origins are thought to be much earlier though, dating back to the institution’s inception in 1451.
The chair was used as a way to test the educational proficiency of its pupils. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series, students were required to sit in the chair while they were tested on their knowledge of a particular subject.
The Blackstone Chair was made in 1775-6 and contains a piece of polished black dolerite, from which it gets its name. In order to graduate from the premiere Scottish university, students would sit on the Blackstone Chair for oral examinations. A beadle, a ceremonial officer of the college, would stand in front of the student with a silver mace to give the assessment, and an hourglass filled with sand would run for approximately 20 minutes to time the exam.
After the allotted time, the beadle would shout, “Fluxit!” (Latin for “it has flowed”) and strike the floor with the metal cudgel. However, if the beadle was not convinced of the student’s knowledge, the timer would be reset and they would have to begin the exam all over again. Use of the Blackstone Chair continued up until the middle of the 19th century. The chair is still used today for honorary graduations and Cowan Medal awards recipients. The latter is named after James Cowan, and are decorations given for excellence in Greek and Latin from the Classics Department, and are competed for annually.
The chair was already well-known when an unknown student wrote these lines in 1817: “For I was born in Glasgow, and have sat, / Upon that dreaded chair with bottom black; / Ah, seat of terror, to Collegian pale! — / And I have seen the Students gazing round, / And I have sat, and trembling seen the while, / Two bushy eyebrows and an under lip, / Were big with meaning. While my every limb, / With terror shook, and arch’d each quiv’ring hair; / And I have heard, and I was glad to hear, / Ad alium, Domine, from honest John.”
Know Before You Go
The Hunterian Museum is situated in one of the university's main buildings, the Gilbert Scott Building, which is a five-minute walk from the Hunterian Art Gallery. The chair is on the ground floor of the building. It is situated in an alcove just before the entrance hall.
For obvious reasons, resist the urge to sit on this antique chair.
Admission is free and the museum is open Tuesdays - Sundays, 10 AM - 5 PM, (closed on all major holidays). Check the website to avoid disappointment: https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/visit/openinghours/