Civil Law

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The Chair of Civil Law was founded in 1710, the second in the Faculty of Law following the creation of the Regius Professorship of Public Law in 1707.

Foundation of the Chair

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries no legal training had been available at Scottish universities, and prospective lawyers had been obliged to study abroad, generally in the Netherlands. By the turn of the 18th century, there were growing calls to reduce the cost of a legal education by providing training at home. A number of Advocates now began to give private lessons on the Civil Law and Scots Law and one of these, James Craig (1672-1732) was elected as the first holder of Edinburgh University's Chair of Civil Law in 1710. The University's Law Faculty had been somewhat controversially founded in 1707 with the creation of a Chair of Public Law. Opposed by the Town Council, this position had seen by many as the creation of a sinecure for the politically well-connected Charles Erskine (1680-1763), who does not appear to have taught his subject. The Chair of Civil Law, conversely, was a creation of the Town Council and was seen to meet a pressing need. Initially, however, unlike the exceptionally well-endowed Chair of Public Law, it was unsalaried. Only in 1716, did it become a Regius Professorship with a settled salary and tenure.

18th Century

James Craig, the scion of a distinguished legal family, was a deeply knowledgeable and conscientious scholar. His successors were largely nominated by the Faculty of Advocates. Thomas Dundas (1706-1784), Kenneth Mackenzie (1699-1756), Robert Dick (d. 1796) were all diligent lecturers of genuine national or international standing but by the second half of the century, Edinburgh was increasingly losing students to Glasgow University whose Professor of Civil Law, John Millar (1735-1801), was teaching an innovative, modernized curriculum reflecting the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly those of Adam Smith. One of Millar's innovations was, however, rapidly introduced to Edinburgh: Robert Dick followed his Glasgow counterpart by lecturing in English rather than Latin (although oral examinations continued to be conducted in Latin until the mid-19th century).

The Law School's fortunes revived with the appointment of John Wilde (c1764-1840) in 1792. Influenced by Enlightenment developments, his course focused strongly on the historical development of Roman Law. Sadly, he was forced to demit his post in 1800 due to deteriorating mental health.

19th century

By the first half of the 19th century, the Edinburgh Law School had recovered its dominance of the Scottish scene, with Glasgow declining dramatically after Millar's death. The teaching of Civil Law remained conservative, however, and largely indifferent to the dynamic new approach to Roman Law in Germany and other continental universities. Wilde's successors were Alexander Irving (1766-1832), raised to the Bench as Lord Newton, Douglas Cheape (1797-1861), perhaps better known as a satirist than as a jurist, and Archibald Campbell Swinton (1812-1890), author of two volumes of Justiciary Cases (1838, 1841), who became an important university administrator as Rector's Assessor on the University Court (1871–77), Curator of Patronage (1878–84), and Chancellor's Assessor (1881–87).

The reforms triggered by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 and the creation of the new degree of LL.B revitalized the teaching of Law at Edinburgh. Appointed in 1862, James Muirhead (1831-1889) established modern Roman law teaching in Edinburgh, drawing on the most up-to-date German scholarship, and publishing an important edition of the The Institutes of Gaius and Rules of Ulpian (1880) and an Historical Introduction to the Law of Rome (1886). In tandem with James Lorimer (1818-1890), Professor of Public Law, he raised the international profile of the Edinburgh law school through his continental contacts and participation in the burgeoning world of European legal scholarship.

Muirhead's approach was continued by his successors Henry Goudy (1848-1921), author of the still standard Law of Bankruptcy (1886), and James Mackintosh (1858-1944), author of a textbook on The Roman Law of Sale (1892) and Roman Law in Modern Practice (1934).

20th Century and Beyond

The Chair maintained a relatively low profile through the first half of the 20th century but was again revitalized by a series of university reforms in 1960, which saw the LL.B become a full-time undergraduate degree. Sir Thomas Broun Smith (1915-1988), who held the Chair from 1958 to 1968, revolutionized the Civil Law course, drastically cutting down on the teaching of classical Roman, and focusing instead on the reception, the modernus usus and the mixed jurisdictions.

Smith's successor Alan Watson (1933- ) is global authority on Roman law, comparative law, legal history, and law and religion. He is the author of nearly 150 books and articles, including the revolutionary Legal Transplants: An Approach to Comparative Law (1974), Society and Legal Change (1977), and The Evolution of Western Private Law (2000).

Watson was followed by Peter Birks (1941-2004), author of An Introduction to the Law of Restitution (1985) and Unjust Enrichment (2003), who resigned the Chair in 1987 to transfer to the University of Southampton. The Chair then remained vacant until the appointment of John W. Cairns, the current holder, in 2012. Prof. Cairns is a specialist in the legal literature of Scotland and England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is currently researching law and slavery in 18th-century Scotland. Presently completing a monograph on the history of Scottish law, his long term projects include a research project on the relationship between legal thought and legal education in the Scottish enlightenment.

Professors of Civil Law

Related Pages


  • Alexander Bower, The History of the University of Edinburgh. 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1817-1830.
  • John W. Cairns and Hector L. MacQueen, Learning and the Law: A Short History of Edinburgh Law School [[1], accessed 14 July 2015]
  • Andrew Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862)
  • Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008)
  • W. M. Gordon, 'Swinton, Archibald Campbell (1812–1890)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)