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The teaching of history at Edinburgh University began in 1719 with the foundation of the Chair of Universal Civil History and Greek and Roman Antiquities, the first of its kind in Scotland.

Foundation of the Chair of Universal History

On 28 August 1719, the Town Council of Edinburgh passed an order establishing a Professorship of Universal History at Edinburgh University. The Council noted that despite ‘being very much esteemed and the most attended of any one profession at all the Universities abroad’, history teaching was ‘yet nowhere set up in any of our Colleges in Scotland’. The explicit desire to remodel Scottish universities along European lines is consistent with the programme of reforms introduced by William Carstares (1649-1715), during his term as Principal of Edinburgh University from from 1703 to 1715. Although Carstares had recently died, University historian Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884) suggests that the Council was carrying out measures urged before his death. It is no coincidence, he argues, that their choice – announced on the same day -- fell upon a protégé and intimate of Carstares in Charles Mackie (1688-1770).

History Teaching, 1719-1780

As his title indicates, Mackie's remit was extensive, encompassing Western History, Scottish History, and Greek, Roman, and British Antiquities. Mackie’s conception of the historian’s duties was exceptionally broad, and his courses covered many topics later taught by Professors of Constitutional History, Roman Law, and Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Mackie was a popular and influential lecturer whose pupils included such future luminaries of Edinburgh University as William Robertson (1721-1793), Alexander Monro ''secundus'' (1733-1817), and John Home (1722-1808).

In 1753, ill-health led Mackie to request that the Town Council appoint John Gordon (1715-1775) as assistant professor. Gordon himself resigned within a year, but the appointment of William Wallace (d. 1786) on 23 December permitted Mackie to retire from teaching. He nonetheless remained co-holder of the Chair until 1765 when he finally resigned in favour of John Pringle (1741-1811). It appears that Pringle (like Gordon and Wallace before him) performed his duties in a somewhat perfunctory fashion. For twenty years before 1780, no lectures were given from the Chair, though it appears that payment had also been irregular.


The Chair was revived through the teaching of Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813), Lord Woodhouselee, who held the postfrom 1780 to 1801. In his course of lectures, published as Elements of General History (1801), he traced the history of civilization from the earliest ages to the present age, a subject of pressing interest to some of the finest minds of Enlightenment Scotland, including William Robertson (1721-1793) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). His lectures were also a major formative influence on the historical theories of the young Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). His classes were small, however, as the subject was not part of any curriculum and was not thought useful for professional purposes. By the time he was succeeded by his son William Fraser Tytler (1777-1853) in 1801, classes sometimes fell to as low as 17 students in a year. William Fraser Tytler ceased to lecture at all after some sessions and eventually resigned in 1821.


Tytler's successor, Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) made a renewed attempt to revitalize the Chair, offering a 'historical survey of the relations of the political system of modern Europe and its dependencies', coupled with an overview of European literature. He also petitioned the Senatus Academicus to admit his subject into the Arts curriculum, but without success. In 1828, he wrote to the Royal Commission charged with reforming Edinburgh University, urging them to make attendance of the History class compulsory for the M.A. degree. So far with meeting with success, the Commission actually recommended the abolition of the Chair. Hamilton gave up lecturing in 1833, when the City of Edinburgh became bankrupt and was no longer able to pay his salary.

In 1836, Hamilton was transferred to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics, and the following year George Skene (1807-1875) succeeded him in a post, which Sir Alexander Grant notes, 'had come to be regarded as a subsidiary and temporary appointment for advocates of a literary turn'. It is unsurprisingly, then, that Skene should resign in 1842 to take up the post of Sheriff-Substitute of Lanarkshire. The post was also something of a stopgap for Skene's successor, the metaphysician James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864), who left to assume the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University in 1846.

The next professor, Cosmo Innes (1798–1874) was one of the nineteenth century's major historians of Scotland, pioneering a newly rigorous approach to studying historical records and source materials. His lectures accordingly focused on Scottish literature and proved exceptionally popular when Innes initially waived the course fee. His calculation that students would be happy to pay once their appetites were whetted proved unrealistic. The reintroduction of fees saw his class dwindle dramatically. Innes eventually renounced his efforts to make the course remunerative and gave up lecturing entirely.

Reconstitution of the Chair, 1862-1892

In 1862, a radical reform was introduced by the Executive Commission formed to implement the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The Commissioners issued an ordinance which changed the title of the Chair to History alone and divided it between the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Law. The Professor of History was required to deliver an annual course of forty lectures on Constitutional Law and Constitutional History which were a compulsory requirement for a Law degree. Innes took up these new duties, lecturing on English and Continental Constitutional History until his death in 1874.

After Innes, the first appointee to what was, in effect, a wholly new Chair of History was Aeneas James George Mackay (1839–1911), future Advocate-Depute of Scotland. He was succeeded by John Kirkpatrick (1835-1926).

Two Chairs of History, 1894-1909

The last decade of the 19th century saw further radical reform. The Commissioners appointed to implement the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 issued an ordinance that led to the recognition of History as an Arts degree subject in 1892 and the creation of a wholly new Chair of History in 1894. The first appointee to this post, which focused essentially on British History, was Sir George Walter Prothero (1848-1922).

There were now, in effect, then, two coexistent Chairs of History, one (in the Arts Faculty) dealing with general British History, the other (in the Law Faculty) with Constitutional History. The latter, however, was renamed the Chair of Constitutional Law and Constitutional History on the retirement of John Kirkpatrick in 1909. From this point onwards, it is no longer possible to identify a single chair as the direct successor of the original Chair of Universal Civil History and Greek and Roman Antiquities.

History in the Faculty of Arts, 1909-1954

A third historical Chair was created in the Arts Faculty by the Foundation of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography in 1901. The early twentieth century saw considerable expansion of the Department of History with the creation of lectureships in Modern History, Political Science, Greek and Roman History (a shared post with the Classics Department), Economic History, European and Medieval History, Military History (discontinued after the First World War), and Colonial and Indian History (later Constitution of the British Empire). A Lectureship in Geography, created in 1908, was initially placed with the History Department before the creation of a Chair of Geography in 1931. (The Professor of Ecclesiastical History, whose Chair was founded in the Faculty of Divinity in 1702, also gave classes within the Arts Faculty.)

The years immediately following the Second World War saw a further proliferation of courses taught within the History Department, including Imperial and American History, Palaeography and Diplomatic History, Islamic History, and International Relations

New Arts Chairs, 1954-

A further major reform took place on the retirement of Richard Pares (1902-1958), Professor of History, in 1954. Two professors were appointed in his place to newly created Chairs of Modern History (David Bayne Horn (1901-1969)) and Medieval History (Denys Hay (1915-1994)). 1956 saw the foundation of a Chair of Economic History, but from 1963 onwards the teaching of Economic History, Politics, and Social Anthropology was transferred from the Faculty of Arts to the new created Faculty of Social Sciences. Scottish History, meanwhile, had involved into a discrete department.

The 1960s saw the foundation of two new Chairs, the William Robertson Chair of Commonwealth and American History (1963) and the Richard Lodge Chair of History (1966), followed, in 1970, by the Richard Pares Chair of History. From this stage onwards, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to trace a direct line of descent from the original Chair of Universal History to current History chairs. The Chair of Modern History (created 1954) has been vacant since 1977, and the Chair of Medieval History occupied intermittently. They appear to have been largely superseded by the Richard Lodge Chair (devoted to British History) and Richard Pares Chair (devoted to European History).

Since the Reconstitution of Edinburgh University's Faculties into Colleges in 2002, the History subject area has been part of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology in the College of Humanities and Social Science. It now contains chairs such as Economic History and Economic and Social History which were formerly part of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

History in the Faculty of Law (1909- )

The Chair of Constitutional Law and Constitutional History was renamed the Chair of Constitutional Law alone in 1955. Although, no longer a strictly historical chair, it has a strong claim to being considered the only extant direct successor of the original Chair of Universal Civil History and Greek and Roman History.


The following is an attempt to list the holders of the original Chair of Universal Civil and Greek and Roman Antiquities and of its its successor in the Faculties of Law and Arts and in today's College of Humanities & Social Science.

Universal Civil History and Greek and Roman Antiquities (1719-1862)

History (Faculty of Law) (1862-1909)

Constitutional Law and Constitutional History (Faculty of Law) (1909-1955)

Constitutional Law (Faculty of Law) (1955- )

History (Faculty of Arts) (1894-1954)

Modern History (Faculty of Arts) (1954-1977)

(Subsequent Professorships of Modern History have been Personal Chairs.)

Medieval History (Faculty of Arts) (1954- )

(There appears to be some overlap between holders of this (currently vacant) Chair.)

William Robertson Chair of Commonwealth and American History (Faculty of Arts) (1963- )

Richard Lodge Chair of History (1966- )

Richard Pares Chair of History (1970- )


  • Andrew Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)