Written by
Henna Cundill, Cumberland Lodge Fellow 2021-23 and PhD researcher at the University of Aberdeen

“It’s very nice to be back here at Cumberland Lodge. Helen and I had twelve and half years here, which were really, really happy.” (Alastair Niven, Cumberland Conversation, 11/01/2022)

Over the centuries, Cumberland Lodge has hosted its fair share of royalty. Welcoming the putative King of Scotland*, therefore, felt like a fitting start to a year of celebration to mark 75 years since the foundation of the Lodge as a unique educational establishment.

Fortunately for Cumberland Lodge, its former Principal Dr Alastair Niven has not yet acceded to the throne, but instead made good use of lockdown to pen his memoirs, In Glad or Sorry Hours. The book charts an exceptional life, from modest beginnings as a scholarship student at Dulwich College, to an academic career that comprised of a first degree at Cambridge and then a Commonwealth Scholarship to enable further study with the University of Ghana.

Dr Niven’s time in Ghana coincided with a period of change, when multiple African nations were achieving their independence, and Ghana itself, having recently experienced a coup d’état, was under a period of military rule. Reflecting on this, Dr Niven shared his observations of educational reform, as the University of Ghana ceased to award ‘University of London’ degrees and strived to become an exemplar for what higher education should look like in a modern, forward-looking Africa.

Bringing the focus back to Britain, the interview then drew out Dr Niven’s concern about a type of ‘unimaginative self-satisfaction’, a fault to which he feels well-established institutions are particularly vulnerable. He explained how a concern to avoid such a fault has shaped his own work, striving within the various institutions at which he has held significant steering roles. This has included the Arts Council, the British Council, the Africa Centre and, of course, Cumberland Lodge itself. Dr Niven advocated for working within organisations, having the confidence to speak up with suggested improvements and new ideas. He also stressed that, for him, listening to the good ideas which had come from other people, and seeking to put other people’s ideas into motion, had frequently served him well in leadership.

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Among the many good ideas which Dr Niven put into motion at Cumberland Lodge is the Cumberland Conversations interview series, although he probably never anticipated the day when he would find himself in the hot seat being interviewed. Dr Niven endured his ‘light grilling’ with grace, sharing his regret at the many people and events that he was forced to leave out from his book, particularly from his years as Principal of Cumberland Lodge, partly for the sake of word-limit and partly to prevent himself becoming an “insufferable name-dropper”.

Such events included the time that the Lodge’s Patron, Her Majesty the Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh came to inspect the renovations of Studio Cottage, newly designated as the residence for the Principal of the Lodge. Having thought that the cottage’s drinks cabinet was suitably stocked with whatever beverage the royal visitors might want, Dr Niven recalls being caught unawares by the Duke’s request for a tomato juice! Having apologised for not being able to offer this particular drink, they were amused when the Duke produced his own bottle of tomato juice from the glove box of the royal car. The empty bottle remains in the possession of Dr Niven’s son to this day.

Fittingly, this conversation with Dr Niven formed part of a larger event, showcasing the hard work and ingenuity of Cumberland Lodge’s volunteer archivists. Having made thoughtful selections from the wealth of documents and artefacts stored at the Lodge, their curated 75th anniversary exhibition in the Ante Room will remain in place all year, leading visitors through some of the key tenets of history, life and work at Cumberland Lodge. Enormous thanks go to the volunteers for the time and thought that has gone into the display (although sadly, at present, it does not include the empty bottle of tomato juice).

*For a precise account of Dr Niven’s claim to the throne, the reader is directed to purchase his book, In Glad or Sorry Hours. 

Resource Type
Published Date
2 February, 2022