Alumni and Careers

A collection of photographs and reminiscences from Modern Languages alumni.

Rosemary Park (MA Hons, French and German 1968)

In 1964 I was one of the first cohort of first year students to use the Buchanan Building. In fact, I seem to remember some delay over its opening. Was it the first major modern building to house a St Andrews University department? There was an aura of pride about the achievement but there were surely plenty of teething troubles as well.

My period abroad was in 1967. That was before the invention of the full year abroad. Instead, we were sent off for about 6 months from April of our third year until the beginning of our finals year in the autumn. Since I was taking a joint honours degree in French and German, that meant spending about 3 months in the country of each language, with encouragement from the French Department to go off and enjoy ourselves and insistence from the German Department on the production of a long essay! 1967 was the year when funds taken abroad were limited to £50, so we had to get permission to take more (£200) and were constantly aware of the need to eke it out.

The first three months took me to Besançon in France, where foreign students were enrolled on a course with much ‘dictée’, but our ‘carte d’étudiant’ also gave us access to regular lectures for French students, which were a more interesting cultural experience – some local students took along their knitting as a matter of course! And there was an exciting day out with some of the Archaeological Department looking at Merovingian humps in some woodland but including a lengthy ‘déjeuner’ in a good restaurant.

My first digs were not a success, since the family ran a small SPAR shop in a block of flats, went to bed early and got up early, while in dispute with the lady upstairs because of her noisy habits (high heels clacking about on parquet floors). So, because of the noise of the geyser, there was no running of hot water after 10pm – we had to be ultra-quiet to get the point over – and eventually I had to leave after returning from a day out in the Jura with a lovely bunch of wild narcissus and a glass jar to put them in, which I dropped on the hard landing outside the front door, where it shattered very noisily… ‘Je ne peux pas vous garder.’

So I moved to digs with an older couple who preferred to have male lodgers, because they are less likely to occupy the bathroom for long periods, but they were happy to have me in the short term and we became good friends. Every so often there was a piece of home-made ‘clafoutis’ or some other treat waiting on my table. However, it was clear that ‘la baignoire ne se prête pas’, as it was always full of objects or dirty washing, and I had to manage with the odd shower at the home of friends, who gave me many good days out in the region as well. To this day I am still in touch with other members of my landlady’s family, however, with whom I shared many experiences later.

When I moved on to Germany, I first visited a family in the Black Forest with whom I had done an exchange previously. A holiday language course at Heidelberg University followed. Since I had booked the course from France I found myself in accommodation with 2 French students, 2 Italian students, and a Czech lady who arrived at 2 am and turned out to be my room-mate in a tiny room! We were all in what was a flat for 2 students during the academic year, with a toilet with no window and no light (there was a torch), and washing facilities in the kitchen with cold water only unless we put something in the meter. As none of us were impressed by the hospitality, we exchanged among ourselves the gifts we had brought for our landlady! But this was my first real experience of speaking different languages in quick succession and it led to far more later in life.

After graduating, I trained as a teacher and then worked for the three recommended initial years in one secondary school, absorbing how year groups move forward. But I was keen to work abroad, having not had a full year abroad as a student. I was lucky enough to land a job as part of an exchange (Central Bureau for Academic Visits and Exchanges) at a ‘Gymnasium’ near the Alps in Bavaria, and spent two wonderful years in the ‘Voralpenland’. Since that gave me a taste for teaching English abroad, I went on to do a TEFL training, and worked as a contract teacher for the British Council for two years (1976-1978) at a university in what was then very much still Czechoslovakia, where, every so often, I met up with my room-mate of Heidelberg days (we remain friends to this day). A further two years of TEFL followed, working directly for the British Council, but in Hamburg.

After returning to the UK, Adult Education in French and German became my field, and led to part-time work for 15 years at Lancaster University German Department. Town Twinning links were being established in places which had never known such connections and I found myself co-opted onto Twinning committees and enjoying making new friends, getting to know new places, and helping people to travel abroad who had never done so, certainly not in a personal situation, visiting private homes. I realise now that it is the joy of my languages that underlies so much of my life, and I have been lucky enough to be able to maintain that knowledge throughout, while making many wonderful and lasting friendships of various nationalities in the process.

Photo taken at the Chateau de Meillant, France.

Ian Arnott (Class of 1971)

I have fond memories of my time as a student of Modern Languages in the Buchanan building.

I attended the University from 1967 to 1971, studying French and German and graduated with Honours in French. It was striking how popular languages were then – from a total student body of about 1700, there were 200 in first year French and around 100 in German. Sadly languages seem to have become less popular nowadays.

At that time the courses were highly biased towards literature and the language work was also highly literary – I can recall having to try to translate passages from Virginia Woolf into French. A fair number of the staff had served in the war or in national service so there was a certain rigour to some of the teaching and perhaps less tolerance than today for those students who struggled with the work- it was not unknown for third class honours degrees to be awarded.

I remember in particular Prof Sam Taylor, Dr Ronnie Wilson – who is the only person I knew who had read all of Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu” – he informed us he had done so one summer vacation when he was laid up with gout. (I gave up after volume 1, – “Chacun a son gout” I suppose!) Malcolm Scott was also a highly appreciated lecturer as were Ian Higgins and Liz Williams. Peter Branscombe introduced me to the poetry of Heine and to German Lieder.

In my second year I lived in what was then called a “bunk” – private lodgings – in North Street just along from the Buchanan, the only heating I had was a small paraffin heater and given the St Andrews winters the warmth to be found in the Buchanan library was much appreciated.

Other departments – particularly Philosophy and Fine Arts, also used the Buchanan lecture theatre. I remember the Moral Philosophy lectures (which was a compulsory subject for all Arts students) principally for the paper aeroplanes launched from the balcony when a particularly unpopular lecturer was at the podium. Fine Arts was introduced by the flamboyant Professor Steer in 1969 or 1970, his lectures attracting many non Fine Arts students.

I attach a photo of some of us celebrating the end of our finals – which had been a gruelling ten three hour papers written – by hand – taken in the space of just about one week. (I am first on the left in the photo).

Unlike today there was no requirement to spend a year abroad, only to spend the third term of the Junior Honours year at a foreign university. I was fortunate to have chosen as one of my options Swiss French literature, which was introduced in 1969 to the syllabus by Prof Taylor, and he arranged for a small group of us to attend the University of Lausanne in the summer term. As well as a fairly intensive French language course we benefited from teaching by specialists in Swiss French literature – to the extent of visiting one of the set authors, Maurice Zermatten at his home. As well as the academic work we also profited from the beautiful Swiss scenery by being taken on weekly excursions into the countryside and mountains around Lausanne. I attach a photo from one of those excursions when we visited the house where Rousseau lived and wrote his “Reveries”.

My professional career was spent in the Civil Service in H M Customs and Excise where I served for 40 years – mainly as a VAT inspector. I did have some recourse to using my languages In 1991 I was the first British Customs and Excise VAT Officer to participate in an EU exchange scheme and spent two weeks in Germany with officials

from several other EU states on a study visit to the German Ministry of Finance. Given that I had not used my German much for over 20 years I was grateful that Customs sent me on a German refresher immersion course before the visit as despite the teaching I received at St Andrews I always had a struggle with German grammar! With the UK’s departure from the EU it is regrettable that such opportunities will be now be denied to British officials.

I also did some French language training for Customs staff who were to be controlling the new channel tunnel checks. I was also able to benefit from my French and German knowledge when I was the assigned officer for VAT audits at Thomas Cook, which involved scrutiny of foreign invoices.

I also did some adult education French evening class teaching in both Aberdeen and Peterborough – again due to financial constraints such classes are now rare.

My wife also has a degree in French and German (from Aberdeen) – and most of our holidays have been to French or German speaking countries and we have been struck by how surprised people have been to meet British citizens who can converse fluently in these languages – particularly German. So although I have not had a career where languages were essential the St Andrews experience did have a significant and beneficial impact on my life.

I have tried to keep up with my French and German and attend University of the Third Age classes in both languages – sadly in abeyance at the moment due to the virus.

Our daughter Katie also studied French at St Andrews and graduated in 2011 – almost 40 years to the day after I did!

I hope this is of some interest and look forward to seeing other memories of modern languages and the Buchanan.


Christopher McInnes (Class of 2017)

Modern Languages and the Department of Modern Languages at St Andrews mean the world to me. It is like a good investment, it pays dividends, later rather than immediately. Since graduation, where I have worked and pursued further study in European Union Affairs, I have never once thought that Modern Languages were a waste of time, money or effort. Nearly everyone might speak English, yes. But speech is only but one part of communication that helps us understand different cultures, peoples and places. I have gained so much more historical, cultural and life knowledge, and ultimately good fun, as a result of my ability to speak and understand French and some Spanish.  If anything, I only wish I had taken more time to learn more languages (German, Chinese or Arabic) at St Andrews.

I am sure that there is no better place in the U.K. to learn French or any other Modern Language offered by the department. A particularly strong and favourite memory from my time at St Andrews is from the Senior Honours module “Creative Writing in French” . This small class, that I was part of, were lucky enough be indulged with a creative writing retreat in a country house near Brechin. It was the perfect culmination of years studying French language, literature and civilisation. We were treated to getting to know a little more our professors, as well as our peers, while receiving expert advice on how to improve our plume with the guidance of a French author. As a part of my final year at St Andrews, it was la cerise sur le gâteau.

Why Modern Languages?

Modern Languages enables me to have and be so much more than I could have ever imagined when I first submitted my UCAS application a decade or so ago. Thanks to Modern Languages, I will continue to learn, live and enjoy life in mainland Europe. I cannot imagine what my professional and personal lives would look like without having passed through the Department of Modern Languages, especially the School of French.


Alastair Reid (Class of 1978)

At this time most of the Modern Language Department (and its library) was concentrated in the Buchanan building. Unlike many of the older, more beautiful University buildings, the ‘Buch’ was a paradox. The place always seemed cool and empty whenever you walked in, but as your ears grew accustomed to the stairwell, it filled with a distant, gentle murmur of endless fascination. It was like some harsh Tardis lined with monastic cells of excellence, each decorated with its own chaos of books, scattered papers and images of mediaeval treasures. But the place inspired, or rather the people inspired.

A brisk walk at dusk, face down into a biting easterly wind along North Street, red gown pulled tight against the cold, to enter the bright, warm comfort of the Buchanan lecture theatre and enjoy the insight it would bring.

A sleepy, sunlit afternoon sitting in a tutorial on Racine, suddenly pierced through by a shaft of cold fear on opening my brand new (unread) copy of the play, to find that the entire section of the book containing Act 3 was in fact missing. Lacking the brass neck to feign some imaginary toilet trouble and escape our intimate group of four, I had to rely instead on waffle, and already dimming sixth form memories.

The charming Professor DDR Owen opening the door to another life as bright and as full of human frailty as our own. We met Roland, Guillaume and Tristan in person; together we searched for the Holy Grail…. Plût à Dieu que vous fussiez ici!

That crazy, hare-lipped Canadian defibrillating Molière, or Tony Hunt’s genuinely fascinating commentary on life without Latin, somehow left you with a tremendously empowering feeling that everything was possible; that you could learn, be or do anything.

Bland though it seemed on first acquaintance, the ‘Buch’ also served as a backdrop for Self-conscious youth to play at life; it’s surrounding wynds of snug coffee shops the setting for many a pounding heart, my own included, to break down those aching walls of shyness.

Strangely though for all the French, both ancient and modern, I was to use the German more. I used to groan at the prospect of one good Doctor’s lectures, when he so ponderously read every word and every single laboured joke, from his truly vast book of bollocks. And yet somehow I later found myself flying Search and Rescue helicopters for the German Navy, not long after reunification.

To witness first-hand the bloodless defeat of the Soviet and East German armies; to view from on high the acres of discarded military equipment; to watch the stream of impoverished, often pathetic, humanity returning to cold Russian uncertainty in convoys of scrapheap cars, their few possessions lashed to the roofs in cardboard boxes; to walk amongst the ‘enemy’ staring incredulously back at this NATO babykiller while their State was dismantled around them; to meet the Stasi and walk away….. these extraordinary and privileged times would not have been possible without the Modern Language Department of the University of St. Andrews.

It was, is and will be, my gateway to the world.

Discarded NVA (East German Army) equipment gathered at Peenemunde airfield
The author (blue flying overalls) in front of his aircraft, and the former NVA commander at Parow airfield, near Stralsund.