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Rait, Sir Robert Sangster, 1874-1936, Knight, historian and Principal, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir Robert Sangster Rait ( 1874-1936), was born at Narborough, Leicestershire, 10 February 1874. Soon afterwards his father moved the family to Aberdeen, to which city both his parents had originally belonged. Rait was educated at Oldmeldrum village school, at the local grammar school, and at King's College, Old Aberdeen, where he matriculated in 1890 and graduated M.A. in 1894. He then worked as Assistant to the Professor of logic, whilst attending classes in the Free Church Divinity Hall.

He studied history at New College, Oxford, graduating with a first in modern history in 1899, and in the following year he was elected to a fellowship at his college. He threw himself with great vigour into the social and academic life of a young tutor, and his gifts of friendship and ready repartee found full scope during the years in which he was Dean. He was also very popular among the senior members of the university.

The success of the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art, and Industry, held at Glasgow in 1911, had provided funds for the establishment of a chair of Scottish history and literature in Glasgow University. Rait was the first appointment to the post, in 1913, and so had the opportunity to shape the department to his own liking. His lectures were popular, and he encouraged the freer intercourse between teacher and undergraduate, which had been a feature of Oxford. Indeed, he tried to introduce some of the same atmosphere of Oxford into his department. In the beginning, while the number of students were still small, he used to invite his students to his house at least once in each session, the men to lunch and the women to tea.

His work was interrupted during the First World War, during which time he worked at the War Trade Intelligence Department in London, 1915-1918. In 1919, he was appointed historiographer-royal for Scotland. His interests lay mainly in political history and biography, and he wrote accounts of Scotland for various series and publications. Writing easily and forcefully, he contributed many reviews and leaders anonymously to the Glasgow Herald. By these, and by public addresses and broadcast talks on literary and historical subjects, he exercised a profound influence upon the intellectual life of Scotland.

In 1929, he was appointed Principal and Vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow in succession to Sir Donald Macalister. He dispensed with much of the ceremony that had previously surrounded the Principal. He moved his office into the main University building, made himself accessible to all who wanted to see him, and employed a secretary to deal with his personal as well as official engagements. Along with his wife, he made the Principal's lodgings a centre for the social life of the University. In 1933, on his return from receiving a knighthood, he was escorted by hundreds of students from Central Station to the University, in a carriage drawn by Blues with the band of the OTC marching ahead.

However, the great period of University expansion, which had set in after 1918, had ended with the economic depression in 1930, and Rait's task was to conserve and consolidate. With student numbers sharply declining, projected developments of all kinds had to be abandoned or postponed. The anxiety these difficulties imposed on the Principal had a damaging effect on his health. Rait was struck down by serious illness in September 1935, and died at the Principal's Lodging, Glasgow, 25 May 1936.



Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

The Scottish Parliament before the Union of the Crowns, ( 1901)

Life and Campaigns of Hugh, first Viscount Gough, Field-Marshal, 2 vols, ( 1903)

The Parliaments of Scotland, ( 1924)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1894: M.A. King's College, Aberdeen

1913-1929: Professor of Scottish history and literature, University of Glasgow

1918: C.B.E.

1919-1929: Historiographer-royal for Scotland

1921: Honorary Doctorate, University of Aberdeen

1929-1936: Principal and Vice-chancellor, University of Glasgow

1930: Honorary Doctorate, University of Glasgow

1932: Chairman, Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland

1933: Knighthood

1933: Honorary Doctorate, University of Edinburgh

1933: Honorary Doctorate, University of Lyons


List of sources for the biographical information:

, University Memory-XIX, The College Courant, Vol.10, No.19, (Glasgow, University of Glasgow, 1957)

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to the National Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 3 September 2002