But the roots of Scottish education reach back much further than 1560. Several schools still in existence today can trace their origins to the twelfth century (Dunfermline High School, High School of Glasgow, Royal High School Edinburgh, Stirling High School and Lanark Grammar School). Higher education also has a long history in Scotland. Before 1410, Scots had to leave Scotland to obtain a higher education. The most common destinations were England (Oxford and Cambridge), France (Paris and Orleans), and Italy (Bologna), although doubtless some Scots studied elsewhere. An excellent source for these early Scottish students is Donald Watt’s A Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Graduates to AD 1410 (Oxford, 1977).
By 1410, the division of the Catholic Church with two rival Popes made it essential to found a seat of higher learning in Scotland itself. A group of masters, mostly graduates from the University of Paris, set about founding an institution in St Andrews, in Fife. Henry Wardlaw, Bishop of St Andrews, granted the school a charter in May 1411. At the time, only the Pope or the Emperor could grant university status, so Bishop Wardlaw wrote to Pope Benedict XIII seeking confirmation. On 28 August 1413, Benedict granted university status to what was now the University of St Andrews in the Bull of Foundation.
St Andrews was to remain the only university in Scotland until Pope Nicholas V granted a papal bull to Bishop William Turnbull (a St Andrews graduate), authorising him to establish the University of Glasgow. In February 1495, Pope Alexander VI granted a bull to William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and a Glasgow graduate, establishing King’s College in Aberdeen.
The last of the four ancient universities of Scotland to be founded, the University of Edinburgh, had a different start in life. Unusually for the time, it was established as a civic institution, by Royal Charter of James VI, in 1582 as the Tounis College. They were to remain the only universities in Scotland for hundreds of years.
These days, when around half of school-leavers go on to higher education, it’s easy to forget that for most of their history, universities were for a very few only. My own alma mater, the University of St Andrews, has doubled in size in the 25 years since I graduated. So it’s likely that few of your ancestors would have gone to university. If they did, however, there are records to be found, although they may not provide much information.
One very useful source for identifying people who studied at St Andrews is James Maitland Anderson’s The Matriculation Roll of the University of St Andrews 1747-1897 (Edinburgh, 1905). This has been digitised by the Internet Archive and can be found here. The information included is very limited, but it can offer some confirmation that your ancestor studied at the finest university in the world. (That last sentence may contain some personal bias …) For students before 1747, there is Robert N Smart’s Alphabetical Register of the Students, Graduates and Officials of the University of St Andrews 1579-1747 (St Andrews, 2012), although this is not available online.
The University of Glasgow has an excellent site dedicated to the history of the University. As well as background information, it includes a database of nearly 20,000 graduates to 1915. Many of these entries contain additional information about the lives and careers of Glasgow graduates. This is an ongoing project and is regularly updated by the University Archive Services, who welcome any contributions of photographs and information about individual graduates.
The University of Edinburgh Library and University Collections maintains a database of Alumni. As the site itself acknowledges, it is far from complete. The Special Collections department holds the University archive which includes many other records of university life. There are also some printed registers of graduates which can also help track ancestral students. Several of them are available in digitised versions online:
Alphabetical List of Graduates of the University of Edinburgh from 1859 to 1888
A Catalogue of the Graduates in the Faculties of Arts, Divinity, and Law, Of the University of Edinburgh, Since Its Foundation (Edinburgh, 1858)
There are also a number of graduate rolls for the University of Aberdeen:
Officers and Graduates of University and King's College, Aberdeen, 1495-1860 edited by Peter John Anderson (Aberdeen, 1893).
Roll of the Graduates of the University of Aberdeen, 1860-1900 edited by William Johnston (Aberdeen, 1906)
Roll of Graduates of the University of Aberdeen : 1901-1925 : with supplement 1860-1900 by Theodore Watt (Aberdeen, 1935) [We are unaware of any online version of this]
Roll of Graduates of the University of Aberdeen : 1926-1955 ; with supplement 1860-1925 compiled by John Mackintosh (Aberdeen, 1960) [We are unaware of any online version of this]
The individual universities may have additional information on some of their graduates, and it is always worth contacting their alumnus relations departments or libraries/archives to check, although you should always bear in mind that sometimes they may be unable to search their records due to a lack of resources, and that often the records themselves may contain limited information about your ancestors.