First Celebrity Rector, 1948

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In 1948, comic actor Alastair Sim (1900-1976) became the first celebrity candidate to be elected Rector of Edinburgh University.

From the reconstitution of the office of Rector in 1859 through to the end of the Second World War, the post had predominantly been held by politicians or military men. From 1948 onwards, however, the elections attracted a much wider range of candidates including many from the worlds of cinema, radio, and, increasingly, television.

Just as the First World War had seen students elect Lord Kitchener and Admiral Sir David Beatty, the 1945 Rectorial Election had returned a war hero: Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1883-1963). Their successors in 1948 proved to be in a very different mood. The field consisted of only two, widely contrasting candidates.

An alumnus of Edinburgh University, Alastair Sim had set up a school of drama and speech in the 1920s and briefly lectured in elocution at New College. His acting career began late in 1930, but by 1948, he was a nationally famous figure both as a stalwart of the British stage and the star of a string of film comedies. There was also a more serious side to his work placing him at the centre of Scottish cultural life. Since 1940, he had been closely involved with the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow, acting in and directing major plays by his friend James Bridie (1888-1951). His supporters stressed the 'militantly non-political' nature of his candidature.

His rival Harold Macmillan (1894–1986), conversely, was a future Conservative Prime Minister. He had served in Winston Churchill's War Cabinet but was still relatively little known in 1948. His supporter ran a pronouncedly political campaign, urging students to reject the socialism of the ruling Labour Party in the name of freedom.

Sim achieved a comfortable victory, polling 2,078 votes to Macmillan's 802. His Rectorial Address was partly written by Bridie who also wrote a play What They Say about the Rector of a fictitious Scottish university.

At the end of Sim's term as Rector he was awarded the honorary degree of LL.D. He declined an invitation to stand for re-election in 1951, but would stand again, unsuccessfully, in 1968.

Related Pages

Other University Events in 1948


  • Donald Wintersgill, The Rectors of the University of Edinburgh 1859-2000 (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2005)