Master of the unusual

What do a pint of Guinness, Scottish folklore, Action Man figures and the global food industry have in common? Answer: postgrads are studying them.

If youre considering postgraduate study and looking for a change from the traditional courses, youll find many interesting directions to choose from among the estimated 58,000 postgraduate courses available in the UK and Ireland.

In Scotland, for example, a couple of unique Masters are to be found at Heriot-Watt University and the University of Aberdeen.

In the Scottish capital, training in brewing has been available for a hundred years at Heriot-Watt and its former incarnations, with the current MSc in Brewing and Distilling having incorporated distilling in the late 80s.

Worldwide opportunities
The programme attracts interest in the UK and internationally, enrolling between 25 and 30 students per year, with around 120 additional students studying via a distance learning course.

Microbiology, engineering, biochemistry and management are the main theoretical subjects covered, while students are also given the opportunity to explore the practical side of brewing and distilling through technical visits, industry-led lectures and experience within the universitys own pilot brewery and distillery.

This approach, says Paul Hughes, Professor of Brewing at Heriot-Watt University, is unique and has made the MSc a benchmark qualification for those wishing to gain employment in the sector.

A Masters degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University is often cited as a prerequisite for entry into the brewing and distilling industries.

We understand that virtually every brewing company, and many distillers, employ at least one former Heriot-Watt graduate.

Curious minds
In the same way, the MLitt in Ethnology and Folklore offered by the University of Aberdeen is distinctive in being the only taught postgraduate course of its kind in Britain. Although English institutions ran Ethnology undergraduate programmes in the 60s and 70s, changes in the political and cultural climate meant they were later withdrawn.

It sort of swung away from popular culture and tradition and I think that was reflected in academia, as things became more orientated towards money, remarks Dr Tom McKean, Deputy Director of the Elphinstone Institute at the University.

The impetus to create the course came exactly from the fact that no other institution ran a programme in the subject and also the opportunity to offer students from unrelated backgrounds a chance to formalise their interests before moving on to work on a doctorate.

Although the programme has a smaller intake than the MSc at Heriot-Watt (on average four to eight students per year), the exploration of its subject matter is just as in-depth. Beginning with a broad overview of Scottish tradition, the course then develops students knowledge of Scottish traditions and social organisation, as well as exploring technical aspects of the work of folklorists and ethnologists and the ethical implications of observing peoples values and beliefs. Indeed, Dr McKean singles out curiosity as a personal characteristic essential for anyone interested in the subject.

Scottish traditions
Internationally the degree attracts students from North America, from where Dr McKean himself comes.

I was born and bred in the US and did English Literature as an undergraduate but was interested in Scottish songs mainly we used to sing songs in my family, which is of Scottish and English origin. I got interested in Gaelic and decided to come over to Edinburgh in 1987, where I read a PhD at the School of Scottish Studies in Gaelic tradition. Later, I got work with a local council in the North East founding a folklore archive for them and then in 1996 I joined the Elphinstone Institute.

Previous graduates have found employment in museums or continued in academia, while a number of musicians have left the course with a greater appreciation of their art form. But wherever the course leads, Dr McKean is confident Scotland is the most engaging place to study the subject.

England and Ireland have lots of folk traditions but there is certainly a perception that Scotlands are the most living, he says.

Brewing and ethnography are, of course, only two of the postgraduate programmes on offer in the UK there are many more, including Toy Design at the University of Central Lancashire, Refugee Care at the University of Essex, Global Food Development at Sheffield Hallam and Radical Church Movements at Spurgeons College. All you need to do is search for them on Prospects database at

Damien Currie