William Dick

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William Dick

Citizen of Burntisland
 Founder of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies


  William Dick   Mary Dick  
William Dick and Mary Dick

Professor William Dick (1793-1866) is best known as the founder of the world renowned Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, which has since 1951 been part of Edinburgh University. He was born on 6 May 1793 in White Horse Close at the foot of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. He worked first for his father, a blacksmith and farrier (a person who shoes horses). Then in 1817, after whetting his appetite with attendance at anatomy lectures at Edinburgh University, he set off for London to further his veterinary education. So impressed by this was his sister Mary (later to be one of Burntisland's grand old ladies) that she declared: "Oor Willum's gaun tae be a graun' veet'nar ... He's saved enough siller noo tae tak the lang road coach for London, and he's making his will afore he sterts." The following year he was awarded a diploma in veterinary science by the London Veterinary College.

Suitably inspired, he returned to Edinburgh and set about trying to do something about the complete absence of veterinary education in Scotland. His perseverance was rewarded, and in 1823 he became Edinburgh's first lecturer in veterinary subjects. By the time of his death in 1866, he had created a major veterinary college, largely financed from his own pocket.

It wasn't uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries for members of the Edinburgh establishment to maintain two homes - one in Edinburgh and one in Burntisland - and they would divide their time between the two. William Dick certainly fell into that category, but in addition he was a great deal more active in Burntisland than the average part time resident. The extent of his activities is not fully known, but the following notes give the information which we have at present.

In Burntisland, William Dick was probably what we would now call a property developer with an interest in town planning. He built houses in Aberdour Road, in the High Street and, most notably, in Craigkennochie Terrace. The late William Erskine recorded that the Terrace "recalls the memory of its principal founder, Professor Dick, and Miss Dick, who for many years graced one of the central mansions with her venerable presence. She had the roadway and the protecting wall and railing erected with the Council's consent and at her own expense, and thus beautified the height that commands the charming view of the Forth and the great metropolis beyond. The completion of the Terrace was a work of time, and associated with it is the name of one of the burgh's old-time builders, Mr Henry Harcus."

Here is some additional information from current Craigkennochie Terrace resident Kevin Thompson: "The house I live in (27 Craigkennochie Terrace, formerly number 8) and several round about were built by and lived in by Prof Wm Dick and his sister Mary. He was the founder of the famous Dick Vet School in Edinburgh and a prominent citizen of the town in his day. The house was built around 1851 and initially lived in by the Dicks and servants, one of whom was from Skye and - according to the census of the time - had a young baby (banishment for misdeeds perhaps!)."

The later 1881 census shows Mary Dick, then aged 89, living at 5 Craigkennochie Terrace (old numbering). She was described as an "Independent Lady". Not completely independent though, as the other occupant of the house was Helen Graham, a 23 year old domestic servant from Orkney.

According to William Erskine, William Dick was at one time a town councillor in Burntisland. Subsequent councillors clearly thought a lot of him, as in later years three streets in the town carried his name - Dick Crescent, Dick Terrace and Dick Place. Surely a record! The name Dick Crescent survives. Dick Terrace and Dick Place have been absorbed into Aberdour Road and Kirkton Road respectively.

The late Robert Livingstone identified "William Dick, Professor of Anatomy and Surgery, Edinburgh" as a Burgess (broadly, leading citizen) of Burntisland, with the accompanying date 17 May 1851. Livingstone also provided us with a quotation from an 1869 article about William Dick by a Mr R.O. Pringle: "Having acquired property in Burntisland, in the County of Fife, he devoted himself with characteristic energy to the improvement of that burgh, and at securing certain privileges to the inhabitants of which they had been deprived, in which he was eminently successful."

William Dick also had the rights to two seats in Burntisland Parish Church - a much sought after status symbol in the town.

The Dick Trust, administered from Edinburgh, was established on the death of William Dick in 1866. Most of the Trust's assets were in Edinburgh, but it also fell heir to his Burntisland properties; his land holdings in the town, which included the Seamills area; and of course his two seats in the Parish Church! Subsequent Burntisland valuation rolls show property holdings in the town in the name of the Dick Trust.

This extract from William Dick's obituary in the Scotsman gives us a good idea of the type of man he was: "Mr Dick was a man of strong natural abilities and in his own profession of great acquirements and experience. In political and ecclesiastical matters his views were somewhat extreme and always expressed with no reserve and some roughness. He did not know fear and had neither time nor skill for the mincing of words. But he was so honest, so truthful, so good-natured and so free from self-seeking that he had almost no enemies and hearty friends everywhere. The figure and the name of 'Willie Dick' were long and conspicuously among us and for long too he will be missed and mourned."

Although William never married, he apparently had a lifelong girlfriend - the daughter of a wealthy banker - but class differences in their early years prevented a marriage. It was therefore his sister Mary who provided him with support and encouragement as his plans developed. Mary outlived her brother by 17 years, all of which were spent at what was by that time her permanent home in Craigkennochie Terrace. She died there in 1883 at the age of 92, and was laid to rest beside her brother at the New Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh.

Writing in 1923, historian O. Charnock Bradley said of Mary Dick: "From the birth of the first uncertain glimmerings of William's scheme for the foundation of a veterinary school, to the full fruition of his plans, Mary encouraged, sympathised, consoled, rejoiced. To her the school owes a great and enduring debt of gratitude; for now, when the passage of time permits of a proper perspective, we are left in no doubt that, though William was the originator of the scheme and the main and acclaimed founder of the school, the school was really the creation of William and Mary. Mary Dick was a most energetic and business-like woman. ... austere and calvinistic, [she] was also general censor of the manners and morals of the students, and before her had to appear, much to their embarrassment, all delinquents - there were few misdemeanours that escaped detection, and no detected culprits who escaped reproof. Nevertheless, she was held in sincere respect and affectionate regard by all over whom she exercised her despotic but kindly rule."

William and Mary Dick rose from very humble origins and contributed more than anyone else to the early development of veterinary science in Scotland. Their place in Burntisland's hall of fame is assured.

Our thanks to Kevin Thompson and Dr J.E. Phillips for material used in this article. Additional source - History of the Edinburgh Veterinary College, O. Charnock Bradley, Edinburgh, 1923. Please click here for the website of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. (Postscript, 2018: the March 2018 issue of the iScot magazine contains a comprehensive biographical article on Mary Dick by Alastair Macdonald and Colin Warwick.)

Iain Sommerville 2006

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