Long tradition of ancient Mastermind competition continues at the University of Glasgow

Latin student Hirushi Wickramaratne ; Professor of Latin Costas Panayotakis seated on the Blackstone Chair and Latin student and winner of the 2018 Cowan Blackstone Medal Charles Figes.

Left to Right UofG Latin student Hirushi Wickramaratne, Professor of Latin Costas Panayotakis seated on the Blackstone Chair and Latin student and winner of the 2018 Cowan Blackstone Medal Charles Figes.

‌‌On top of the beautifully carved oak 18th century Blackstone Chair sits an hourglass, filled with sand.

Embedded in its seat is the original Black Stone; it was used by the University of Glasgow in its earliest days, before written exams, for students to sit on, while their knowledge was tested.

Today the only nod to this bygone Mastermind-like competition is the Cowan Blackstone Medal - a voluntary public oral competition on Latin texts started in 1839.

This year, for the first time in many years, multiple students have put themselves forward. The students - Charles Figes and Hirushi Wickramaratne- took part in the ancient competition, with the best entrant awarded the medal. The Blackstone Chair

After two years of studying Latin, the students had to answer a series of questions on Latin texts set by University academics in the presence of their lecturers and fellow students.

And much like Mastermind’s iconic black chair, the two students sat on the Blackstone Chair, which now resides in the Hunterian Museum, during the public competition in front of a panel of three examiners and audience. Following the competition, Charles Figes was named as the 2018 Cowan Blackstone Medal receipient.

Professor of Latin Costas Panayotakis, who is organised the event, said: “This is a competition open to those students at the University of Glasgow who have had two years of learning the language.

“It is quite daunting to volunteer and be tested in this way, especially if you bear in mind that the students are doing this on top of everything else they are studying at University.

“Having two students taking part this year shows how enthusiastic they are about the subject. It is exciting to see this and a fantastic opportunity for them to have fun with a subject they really love; at the same time they honour and continue the long-standing tradition of the Blackstone Chair competition.”

The three judges for the competition were Professor Panayotakis, Professor Catherine Steel, Professor of Classics; and Dr Adrastos Omissi, Lecturer in Latin Literature.

The students were tested in extracts from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses Book 3 and from Cicero's treatise De Senectute (‘On Old Age’).

Professor Panayotakis added: “Latin offers much more than the detailed study of grammar and syntax. Yes, it is the mother of many modern languages. But it is also the gateway to a hugely important historical period that was highly influential in the shaping of the Western civilisation, as we have it. Latin connects us directly with an astonishingly rich culture and with remarkable people, who were surprisingly modern in their thinking.

“These societies can still teach us a lot about people (us) and life (our life), about art and architecture, politics and philosophy, literature and culture, sexuality and gender, class and social identity.”

The last recipient to be awarded the Cowan Blackstone Medal was in 2015 but that year it only involved a single competitor, as it has often been the norm in recent times.

The Cowan Blackstone Medal was founded in 1839 by James Cowan, who had been an undergraduate in Arts at Glasgow. James Cowan founded the Grange School in Sunderland, which in the 19th century was the largest boarding school in the north of England.

It is awarded after voluntary public oral examination on extra Latin texts, taken by the candidate sitting on the Black Stone in the Blackstone Chair. The chair is also used at honorary graduations at the University. It is on permanent display at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow.

On the front of the Blackstone chair are various brass plates: the largest show the arms of the University and of its constituent College. Above the former are the names of the founders, Pope Nicholas V, King James II of Scotland and Bishop Turnbull of Glasgow. The smaller plaques, to either side, record the names of the principal royal benefactors. On the back are carved the Royal Arms of Scotland, and the Royal Arms of England.

Almost all the names of those who received the Cowan Medal are inscribed on the walls of the Humanity Classroom, including many well-known and distinguished professors and classicists.

Among the recipients of the Cowan Blackstone Medal were:

  • Alan Rodger, Baron Rodger of Earlsferry (1944 –2011) a Scottish academic and lawyer. He served as Lord Advocate, the senior Law Officer of Scotland, before becoming Lord Justice General and Lord President of the Court of Session, the head of the country's judiciary. (Medallist 1963)
  • Professor Gilbert A Highet (1906-1978), the Charles Anthon Professor Emeritus of the Latin Language and Literature at Columbia University, New York (Medallist 1926) 
  • Professor Jane Gardner, Professor Emeritus, University of Reading (Medallist 1953)
  • Professor Douglas Cairns, the current Professor of Classics at the University of Edinburgh (Medallist 1981)

The well-known author John Buchan also took part in the competition in November 1893 but came second. It was suggested in a 1989 article by Dr Ronald Knox of the University of Glasgow that Buchan may have called his book’s enemy spy ring - The Black Stone – as a nod or salute to his experience on the chair.

First published: 14 May 2018

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