Town Council

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A unique element in the history of Edinburgh University is the prominent role played by the Town Council of Edinburgh in its foundation and in its governance until 1858.

Foundation of Edinburgh University

Following Bishop Robert Reid’s bequest of funds to found a college of higher learning in Edinburgh in his will of 1558, the Town Council of Edinburgh was determined to establish a university in the capital. In August 1562, they thus petitioned Mary, Queen of Scots to grant them the site of the former Collegiate Church of Mary in the Fields (or Kirk o’ Field) ‘to build a school’. Eventually, in a charter of 13 March 1567, Mary granted all monastic property in Edinburgh to the Town Council, but stipulated that it would be for the support of Protestant ministers and the poor, and that all present incumbents would enjoy a life-rent of the benefices. Little further progress was made over the years of civil conflict which followed Mary’s abdication in 1568, and in the face of opposition from the Bishops of Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St. Andrews who opposed the establishment of an institution which might compete with the universities already established in their dioceses.

Plans to establish a university were eventually revived in the late 1570s, thanks to the efforts of James Lawson (1538–1584), first Minister of the Kirk of Edinburgh, and allies such as advocate Clement Litill (founder of Edinburgh University Library), and his brother William Litill, future Provost of Edinburgh. The Town Council set up a committee in 1579 to investigate the possibility of siting a school in or near the old Trinity Collegiate Kirk, and when this plan was thwarted, reverted to the original plan of siting the college at Kirk o’ Field, which the Town Council was finally able to purchase in 1581.

The temporary abolition of the episcopacy between 1580 and 1584, aided the Council’s scheme, by neutralizing the opposition of the Bishops of Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St Andrews. In April 1582, James VI, petitioned by the Town Council, issued two charters. The first (11 April 1582) empowered the Town Council to recover the money bequeathed by Reid for establishing a college, which remained unpaid by his heirs. The second (14 April), extended Mary’s charter of 1567 to permit the town to use monastic properties for educational purposes, empowered the Council to appoint and remove professors and to build houses for their accommodation, and ratified the sale of Kirk o’ Field to the Town. The Town Council proceeded to refurbish Hamilton House on the Kirk o’ Field site, fitting it with class-rooms, a college hall, and seventeen sleeping chambers for students.

Opening of the University

The Town Council next looked for a regent who, in the first instance, would be solely responsible for all teaching and administrative duties. At the recommendation of James Lawson, they turned to Robert Rollock (1555-1599), who had been educated at St. Andrews University and employed there as a Regent of Philosophy since 1580. Having responded favourably to Lawson’s overtures, Rollock was interviewed by the Town Council and appointed Regent, initially for a one-year period, on 14 September 1583. On 16th October 1583, the Town Council appointed a committee to devise a curriculum for a four-year Master of Arts degree in consultation with Rollock. Next, the Town Council and Rollock devised an entrance examination on 11 October 1583, leading to the official opening of the College only three days later 14 October 1583. The Town Council would retain ultimate authority for appointing staff, approving curricula, and administering examinations until 1858.

Rectorship of Edinburgh University

When Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646) assumed the hitherto purely ceremonial role of Rector of Edinburgh University in 1640, it was his duty to be ‘the eye of the Council of the Town’. While the Principal was responsible for the discipline and administration of the College, the Rector was to function as a supervisor or inspector on the Council’s behalf, but also as the spokesman for the College when making overtures to the Council. The Rectorship survived in this form until 1665, when the Town Council of Edinburgh resolved that the role of Rector should be held ex officio by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. This appears to have been a determined act of self-assertion on the Town Council's part. They appear to have felt slighted by William Colville (d. 1675), Principal of the University, whom they believed had given greater importance to the College of Justice than to the Council when choosing a Professor of Humanity. On the same day as they announced the transfer of the Rectorship, they called Colville before them to be 'gently reproved' for abusing his authority. University historians such as Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884) have rued the short-sightedness of the Town Council in depriving themselves of their 'eye' at the University and the University of a mouthpiece in Council sessions. The Lord Provost seems to have acquired no greater authority from assuming the Rectorship, and indeed the title soon became purely symbolical. By 1838, Lord Provost Sir James Forrest of Comiston declared himself uncertain whether he was Rector or not at the trial of students following a 'snow riot'.

The transfer of the Rectorship marked the commencement of a power struggle between the Town Council and University culminating in the seizure of the College Records by the Town Council in 1704.

Seizure of College Records by Town Council, 1704

In the interval between the death of Gilbert Rule (c1629-1701) and the appointment of a new Principal in William Carstares (1649-1715), the Regents and Professors of Edinburgh University took a number of steps which challenged the Town Council's authority over University matters. Firstly, they issued a protest against the requirement that they consult with the Town Council when electing Edinburgh University's Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church Scotland. Secondly, at a meeting of 20 January 1703, at which they styled themselves the 'Faculty of Philosophy', they resolved that the current 'magistrand' class would graduate privately rather than publicly as was usually the case. In order to justify their proceedings, the 'Faculty' evoked 'their undoubted right contained in the charter of erection, and their constant and uninterrupted custom in such cases'. Any such right was highly questionable, and it would have been normal procedure to request permission from the Town Council, who had historically taken considerable interest in graduations as a public function.

Sir Alexander Grant interprets this move as a deliberate challenge to the Town Council, and the Council certainly treated it as such. The immediate result was a visitation of the University by Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council on 15 February 1703 which forced the University to back down on both matters. The Town Council issued an order requiring that the 'magistrand' class graduate publicly. On 12 May, however, they acceded to a petition from regent William Scott "primus" (1672-1735) that they be permitted to graduate privately after all, as so many of the class had already left Edinburgh at the end of the session. They nonetheless expressed their displeasure at learning that as many as fourteen of the class had privately graduated before the petition, and expressly forbade any such conduct in future.

Over the coming months, the Town Council asserted their authority on a number of other matters, ordering, for example on 12 May that all diplomas of graduation have the Town's Seal appended to them and make honourable mention of the Town Council as patrons. Finally in 1704, they ordered the College Records be seized on the grounds that they contained numerous inaccuracies and used the term 'Faculty' in a manner implying that the university was a self-governing body. William Carstares (1649-1715), the recently appointed Principal, was told that the Records would be returned once they had been corrected, but they remained in the Council's hands.

Harmonious Relations Restored

Under the Principalship of Carstares, relations between the University and the Town Council were gradually repaired. The eighteenth century was largely a period of fruitful collaboration between the two bodies, particularly during George Drummond's six terms of office as Lord Provost of Edinburgh between 1725 and 1764. Conflict would break out again in the first half of the nineteenth century, until the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 granted Edinburgh University full control of its own affairs.

Visitation of Edinburgh University by Royal Commission, 1826

In 1826 a Royal Commission visited Edinburgh University and drew up reform plans which recommended taking ultimate control of university affairs away from the Town Council of Edinburgh. It was largely appointed in response to a dispute between the Senatus Academicus and the Town Council over which body had the power to make regulations for degrees. This had arisen in 1824-25, when in response to a petition from James Hamilton (1767-1839), Professor of Midwifery, the Town Council required that a full course in Midwifery be made a compulsory component of a degree in Medicine. The Senatus argued that arrangements for degrees and graduation were their responsibility alone, but were compelled to conform following a visitation of the University by the Town Council on 10 November 1825. An appeal to the Law Courts failed with the justiciary finding in favour of the Town Council.

Shortly before the Town Council's visitation however, the Senatus Academicus had petitioned the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel to appoint a commission to settle the respective rights, powers, and privileges of the Senatus and the Town Council. On 25 August 1826, a Royal Commission was announced, partly in answer to the Senatus's petition but with a far wider remit. It was called to frame a code of rules, statutes, and ordinances for each university and college in Scotland. The Royal Commission arrived in Edinburgh on 31 August 1826, finally issuing their codes of regulations for the various Scottish Universities on 28 October 1830. These largely vindicated the Senatus Academicus. The Royal Commmission recommended the creation of a University Court with powers to inquire into and control revenues and expenditure and to originate 'improvements on the internal system of the University'. It was nearly thirty years, however, before the Commission's recommendations came into force. After an unsuccessful attempt to introduce legislation in 1836-37, they were finally embodied in the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858.

Universities (Scotland) Act 1858

The Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 largely removed control of university affairs from the Town Council of Edinburgh, investing it in the university itself through the following measures:

  • The establishment of a University Court, chaired by the Rector (elected by the students), and consisting of the Principal, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and of Assessors appointed by the Rector, the Chancellor, the Town Council, General Council, and the Senatus Academicus. The Court's functions were to revise, on appeal, the acts of the Senatus Academicus, to sanction the expenditure by the Senatus of University funds and generally to undertake supervision of the professors.
  • The establishment of a General Council consisting of all the graduates of the University
  • The creation of the office of Chancellor to be elected by the General Council
  • The creation of Curators of Patronage to assume responsibility for university appointments (including the Principalship). There were to be seven curators, four appointed by the Town Council and three by the the General Council.

Other significant measures included:

  • Removing the requirement that the Principal be a Minister of the Church of Scotland
  • Increasing stipends for professors
  • Providing pensions for retired professors
  • Creating new chairs
  • Appointing assistants to professors (i.e. lecturers)


  • Thomas Craufurd, History of the University of Edinburgh, from 1580 to 1646: To Which is Prefixed the Charter Granted to the College by James VI of Scotland, in 1582 (Edinburgh: Printed by A. Neill & Co., 1808)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
  • Robert Kerr Hannay, 'The Foundation of the College of Edinburgh', in The History of the University of Edinburgh 1883-1933, ed. A. Logan Turner (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1933), pp. 1-16.
  • Michael Lynch, 'The Creation of a College', in Robert D. Anderson, Michael Lynch, and Nicholas Phillipson, The University of Edinburgh: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), pp. 1-49.
  • University of Edinburgh: Charters, Statutes, and Acts of the Town Council and the Senatus 1583-1858 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1937)