Photo of Professor Duncan Rice presenting the Sabhal Mòr Annual Lecture 2005The Principal and Vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen Professor C. Duncan Rice gave this year's Sabhal Mòr Lecture at the Scottish Parliament buildings in Edinburgh, where he stressed the need to reassert the value of traditional subjects in Scottish education and the importance of Scotland's northern identity.

Professor Rice, who gave the lecture on Monday (21/11/2005) night, said: "I want to make the case that traditional modes of education and academic enquiry remain a central basis for the success of higher education in society. My second point, and it's no more than a reminder, is that even in this global age we can draw great national confidence from the commonality of our culture with other cultures of the north.

"When I'm talking about modes of education I think we would be unwise to lose, I would very much like you to bear in mind the case of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. When the Gaelic language was arguably most at risk, one of the dangers was that it was not talked about sufficiently. The same danger to liberal learning lies in the debate over universities in Scotland. It's a debate that more often than not ignores subjects which I believe have the highest potential. Our laudable focus on vocational and practical subjects leaves the old subjects of the liberal arts - languages, classics, philosophy, history, pure mathematics - at the margins. They are seldom part of the dialogue, and therefore, as was once the case with the Gaelic language, they come to be at risk. If that continues, they may slip away simply because no one is concentrating on them or championing them."

Talking about the concept of 'northness' Professor Rice said: "Recently I've been thinking much more deeply about this concept because of an inspirational book by my colleague Peter Davidson - 'The Idea of North'. It's an exquisite cultural journey through northern communities in different parts of the world, exploring questions related to our sense of identity, our relation to the landscape that is the backdrop to our lives, and the way we think about our place in the world. It deals with myth, landscape, literature, art, architecture, objects of everyday life, folklore - and it cuts across the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, mainland Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, northern Canada, and northern Japan. Davidson's 'north' is threatening but pure and clean, vigorous and rigorous, set in the tough environment against which all northern societies have struggled."

The university principal argued that confidence could be drawn from being part of a great northern community with other regions and countries. He said that it also presented opportunities in terms of teaching and research.

"The northern paradigm is an expression of confidence and a glorification of difference," he added. "But it should also be connected to the values we support in education. If we are to exploit the opportunities of that identity we must keep alive an appreciation of what it is, and how it relates to other cultures. That won't happen, to go back to the earlier part of my talk, if we cease to value teaching and research in the humanities, in the arts, or in the liberal arts subjects - both where they impinge on our own traditions, and where they draw us into other glorious traditions. It's our job as educational leaders to ensure that the intellectual journey north, as Davidson says, is always ' … a journey into truth'. So none of this is an argument for parochialism. It is quite the opposite."

He said that looking to a northern identity did not signal parochialism. He said: "Making part of our research agenda a northern dimension - though I caution never all of it - doesn't mean imprisoning ourselves or becoming remote from international scientific concerns. Of course we will always work on global problems, but the north itself is a reservoir of a research potential, the solutions to which can be exported worldwide."

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Director, Norman Gillies, said: "We are delighted that Professor Rice agreed to give this year's Sabhal Mòr Lecture, adding to the already high-calibre list of previous speakers. The lecture has consistently provided a platform for some of the most gifted and best known people involved in politics, education, economics and the arts to share their views and aspirations. This year has been no different and the Scottish Parliament buildings provided an appropriate venue for Professor Rice's lecture."

Professor Rice - who was born in Aberdeen and whose distinguished academic career includes five years as Vice-chancellor at New York University - is the latest in a line of high-profile speakers to be invited to give the Gaelic college's annual lecture. Previous speakers include Irish president Mary Robinson, First Ministers Donald Dewar MSP and Jack McConnell MSP, historian and author Jim Hunter and chancellor Gordon Brown MP. The lecture is in its 15th year.