Bartilmo Somerville's Endowment of the Chair of Divinity, 1639

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The endowment of the Chair of Divinity by Bartilmo Somerville of Saughtonhall in 1639 was the University of Edinburgh's first major gift from a private benefactor.

Early Bequests

The only previous large bequests to University funds had come from institutional donors. In 1590, the Lords of Session, Faculty of Advocates and Writers to the Signet had collectively contributed £2,000 towards the maintenance of a 'Professor of the Laws'. In 1608, the Kirk-Session of Edinburgh made over £8,100 to the Town Council to augment the salaries of teaching staff. They attached the condition, however, that the Ministers of Edinburgh should now have an equal vote with the Town Council in electing the Principal, Masters, and Regents of the University. In these early years of the University, private donations came in the form of bequests of books to the University Library by Clement Litill (1580) William Drummond of Hawthornden (1626).

The Chair of Divinity

The Chair of Divinity had been founded in 1620, following the separation of the roles of Principal and Professor of Theology. It soon began to attract private donations and bequests. Between 1618 and 1634, the Town Council received 8,475 merks from ten separate donors towards the upkeep of the Chair. These sums, however, were dwarved by the funds bestowed by Somerville.

Bartilmo Somerville

The son of Peter Somerville, a rich burgess and baillie of Edinburgh, Somerville was one of the city's most successful money-lenders. He had accumulated an extensive private fortune which had permitted him to buy the local estate of Saughtonhall. In the words of Michael Lynch, Somerville 'seems profitably to have combined piety and usury', not only endowing the Chair of Divinity but leaving 10,000 merks to the 'good cause of the Covenant'.In December 1639, Somerville mortified 26,000 merks to the University of Edinburgh, of which 20,000 were for the endowment of a Chair of Divinity, and 6,000 to buy Sir James Skene's house of Curryhill to serve as a dwelling for the Professor.

The Professor's Lodgings

The University proceeded to buy Skene's house and garden, which were located in the angle of the town wall behind the High School. In 1656, a new house was built on the College grounds by John Mylne (1611–1667), and the Town Council sold Curryhill to the Incorporation of Surgeons (who used it as their Hall until 1697).

The new house bore a Latin inscription commemorating Somerville's endowment. It read:

The City of Edinburgh had this monument erected to the memory of Master Bartilmo Somerville, a most generous Burgess of the City, who left in his will 40,000 merks for pious purposes in the City and in the College.


  • 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)
  • Andrew G. Fraser, The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair & the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
  • 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.