Theft of College Mace, 1787

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On the night betwixt the 29th/30th October 1787 the door of the Library was broken open by thieves and the University Mace was stolen from the press where it was usually deposited. The Magistrates offered a reward of ten Guineas for the discovery of the Delinquents

So reads the inset entered between the College minutes for 11th September and 3rd December 1787. The origins of the College Mace are unknown but it is certain that one existed by 1640, when it was carried before Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646) as Rector of the University. Despite the generous award money, the Mace was never recovered and the thief never apprehended.

The University would appear to have been without a mace for almost two years. On 2 October 1789, William Creech (1745-1815), the Edinburgh bookseller and member of the Town Council, presented the Senatus Academicus with a new silver mace. It was decorated with the Royal Ensigns of King James VI, founder of Edinburgh University, and with the arms of the City and University of Edinburgh.

The Town Council's readiness to replace the mace was doubtless due to the fact that one of their own body was suspected of stealing it. William Brodie (1741-1788), was a respectable cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild, and town councillor, who lived a secret nocturnal existence as a burglar. His double life was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Brodie was tried and sentenced to death on 29 August 1788 for robbing the Excise Office. After his death, many realized that he had been in an ideal position to steal the mace. As one of the Patrons of Edinburgh University, he knew precisely where the mace was kept. It was widely thought that the Town Council sought to hush the matter up by presenting a new mace as quickly as possible.

The new mace was donated just in time to be used in the ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone of Old College in 1789.

Sources

  • Andrew Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862)
  • C. P. Finlayson and S. M. Simpson, 'The History of the Library 1710-1837', in Edinburgh University Library 1580-1980: A Collection of Historical Essays, ed. Jean R. Guild and Alexander Law (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Library, 1982), pp. 55-66.
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)