Posted in Features

SFU, Scotland, and me

SFU’s Scottish history can at first be hard to spot, but once you notice it, you see it's everywhere

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Image Credits: Adobe Stock

There’s a plaque on the wall up in Saywell Hall. You probably walk past it every day, not giving it a second thought if you see it, possibly not even noticing it at all. But this plaque provided me a small chuckle the other day. Why? Because I was entering the classroom that houses SFU’s pipe band.

It’s important that you know I’m a Scottish exchange student, spending four months at the beautiful SFU.

I don’t know how many classrooms there are at SFU, but just take a moment to think of this from my perspective — what are the odds that, as a Scotsman abroad — I would have my first class in a room that openly celebrates bagpipes, one of Scotland’s most recognizable gifts to the world?

Playing the name game

SFU’s celebration of its Scottish heritage goes beyond being able to lay claim to one of the world’s finest pipe bands. Since its very inception in 1965, the university has enjoyed a close relationship with all things Scottish, although as Katie McCullough, director of the university’s Centre for Scottish Studies, explains, the ties to Scotland weren’t immediately obvious.

“The naming of SFU is really interesting,” McCullough said.

“[SFU] wasn’t founded to be a Scottish institution — the university here was meant to serve the people of the Central and Fraser Valleys, and what’s important here is, of course, the Fraser River. So, it was originally to be named after the river and be called Fraser University. However, what does that shorten to? FU. . .”

Thankfully, they came up with a different name. While we’re named after Simon Fraser, an explorer, there is a whole history of the Clan Fraser of Lovat that came along with that decision. This connection led to a memorable moment at the official opening of the institution, and one whose legacy is still present today.

“The BC minister for advanced education at the time was a close friend of Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, and they served together in World War Two,” said McCullough. Again, this Simon Fraser, is not the same one that sailed down the Fraser river. Simon Fraser, the explorer after whom we are named, died in 1862. So Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, was invited as the living representative of the Fraser clan. Still with us?

“Having a lord show up to convocation was a pretty big deal — people would have heard of him, and the Scottish community here would have had a buzz. [Fraser] is also the guy that donated the claymore present at every convocation to this day,” added McCullough.

Bringing the two countries closer

Nowadays, the Scottish heritage of the university is in little doubt, with the Centre for Scottish Studies just one such example in today’s SFU. Formed in 1998, it remains an important part of the continued academic excellence of the institution.

“We are both a research centre and a public outreach,” McCullough explains.

“[Academically,] we’ve had many conferences over the years, and this year we’re hosting the World Congress of Scottish Literature Conference (June 2125). The centre also runs a guest speaker program every fall to give talks, which are open to all. Scottish culture is really alive here.

“It’s really important for us to have this centre. Metro Vancouver is the third-largest settlement of Scots in Canada [behind Montreal and Toronto], so it makes sense for us to have the centre as the link to the community and, indeed, to Scotland. There’s a real interest on both sides of keeping the close ties between the two countries.”

As a Scottish student in Canada, I am all for the closer ties that McCullough alluded to. Let’s face it — we’re two pretty similar countries, all things considered. Kris Torno, manager of international mobility for SFU’s International Services for Students, agrees.

“Students tend to find Scotland’s weather fairly similar to Vancouver’s weather!” said Torno.

“That similarity aside, being in Scotland gives students an opportunity to study in a rich historical context and gain insight into the past and present connections between Scotland and Canada.”

SFU students currently have the option of studying abroad at three Scottish universities, with Glasgow, Strathclyde and – my home institution – Stirling among the destinations available to prospective SFU exchange students. So is Scotland an appealing location for those wishing to participate in the exchange program? As Torno explained, most definitely.

“SFU’s partnerships in Scotland have always been important destinations for SFU students, but we have noticed a marked increase in activity in the past few years,” said Torno.

“We are jumping from sending four SFU students to Scotland in 2015, to sending an anticipated 18 students in 2017.

“The University of Glasgow immediately became a popular exchange destination [upon its addition in 2015] and now, in 2017, we are running our first SFU Field School to Scotland, where students will be studying cybercrime — an inherently international subject — based at the University of Strathclyde.”

Tartan-coloured team spirit

Yet academia is far from the only area in which SFU finds itself displaying its Scottish roots. Spearheaded by the iconic McFogg the Dog, the SFU Clan represents Canada in the NCAA with Scottish heritage to the fore.

Tartan-clad Scottish terrier and all, the Clan takes their name from the traditional Gaelic word for family, with SFU athletes representing their institution under this banner since the university’s inception.

One of SFU’s teams takes the connection to their Scottish heritage a step further, however. Prior to departing for NCAA National Championships in Birmingham, Alabama earlier this month, the SFU swim team stepped out in front of the university media — myself included — resplendent in their team uniform: kilts.

“It’s a tradition that started before my time here. I think it was the early-to-mid 1970s that someone said, ‘You know, we’re really a Scottish team — we should be wearing kilts!’” said head coach Liam Donnelly.

“So one guy wore a kilt in transit to the National Championships, then the other guys caught wind of it and said, ‘Well if he’s wearing it, we’re all wearing it.’ From then on, over the last 40 or so years, every National Championships we’ve been to, we’ve worn kilts, regardless of what nationality or heritage you are.”

As one can imagine, the SFU swim team has turned quite a few heads over the years with their sartorial elegance. It’s a tradition that Donnelly and the team are keen to preserve, as he explained:

“We’re very proud of that tradition — we know it relates back to Scotland, but it also says a lot about our team.

“I think the kilts say a lot about the Clan, and we’re very proud to wear them. It brings us a lot of attention too!”

Hear the pipes from home and abroad

Undoubtedly the most famous connection between SFU and Scotland, however, is the iconic pipe band. Prior to arriving here in January, I knew two things about SFU — it was a university in the Metro Vancouver area, and it had a world-famous pipe band.

In fact, I arguably knew more about the pipe band than anything else about the university, having seen them in Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival long before realizing I would one day be spending part of my university life at their home institution. The band itself, though, grew out of more humble beginnings, as piper Kevin McLean explains:

“The pipe band was originally formed in 1966, so pretty early on in the university’s history. It was a sort of more informal organization at that time though — a few students would get together and play at events.

“Then, in 1981, the City of Port Moody Pipe Band, run by Jack and Terry Lee, was approached by the university to take on the SFU Pipe Band. That was the first real band at SFU, and the leadership grew the band to what it is today.”

Today, the reputation of the SFU Pipe Band is known across the globe. The first non-UK pipe band to win the prestigious World Pipe Band Championships on more than one occasion, their six triumphs to date see them sit behind only the current world champions, Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band. From Northern Ireland, the the most successful non-Scottish band in competition history. However, as McLean outlines, the band is still very much rooted within the local community.

“The SFU band has a junior program, called the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band, which is a series of bands that lead up to the highest level. The organization was named after two former members of the band who were killed in a car accident in the early ‘90s, and started in 1994. I got involved through that program – I was 13 at the time – and worked my way up until I joined the SFU band in 2011.

“[The SFU Pipe Band] is a huge family. Literally, there’s a lot of families in it — both Jack and Terry Lee’s sons are also in the organization! It’s also a metaphorical family though. It’s a very close-knit organization. Everyone knows everyone and we spend a lot of time together.”

As arguably the most recognizable symbol of SFU overall, let alone its Scottish roots, all eyes will be on the SFU Pipe Band when they make the trip over the Atlantic in August for the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow. McLean admitted that the trip to Scotland’s largest city is the highlight of the year for the band.

“They’re huge for us. That’s pretty much what we work for all year round, getting ready for the World Championships, and the challenge of winning is our motivation to continually improve.

“I think one of the benefits for the university in having us is the international exposure we get — we’ve played in venues like the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, and more. It really takes the Scottish roots of the university and promotes it through the pipe band.”

For better or worse, this is SFU

SFU is undeniably a Canadian university. The raccoons, Tim Hortons, and singing of the national anthem at sporting events make sure of that. However, academically, athletically, and aesthetically, it will always be inherently linked to Scotland. And there’s not a single thing wrong with that combination.

Nous sommes prêts. Alba gu bràth. Unmistakably SFU.