Public Law

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The Regius Professorship of Public Law was created in 1707, leading to the foundation of Edinburgh University's Faculty of Law.

Creation of the Chair

Some controversy surrounds the creation of the Regius Professorship. It resulted from a sign-manual issued by Queen Anne, which amended the terms of an annual grant of £300 awarded by her predecessor William III. The grant had hitherto funded twenty bursaries in theology to supply ministers for the many vacancies in the Church of Scotland following the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. Anne's sign-manual stated that this purpose had now been met, and that it would be of greater public benefit to employ £150 from the grant to endow a chair of 'Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations'. The number of theology bursaries was reduced to five, and Charles Erskine, 1680-1763 was appointed to the newly created Chair.

For some of the University's historians, such as Andrew Dalzel (1742-1806) and Roger L. Emerson, the creation of the Professorship was essentially a cynical means of creating a sinecure for Charles Erskine who enjoyed much influence at Court. Dalzel points to the protest raised by the Town Council of Edinburgh and to the fact that Erskine was immediately granted leave of absence to pursue his studies abroad. Erskie, in fact, appears to have used his salary as a means of qualifying himself for the Scottish Bar, eventually rising to the position of Solicitor-General, Lord Advocate, Judge, and Lord Justice Clerk. Another historian Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884) is a little more inclined to believe that the Chair was a deliberate first step towards the creation of a law faculty. He argues that it was consistent with the programme of reforms initiated by Principal William Carstares (1649-1715) which aimed to remodel Edinburgh University along European lines. These reforms would lead in 1708 to the abolition of the regenting system and the creation of the Faculty of Arts. Grant notes too the growing desire for a Scottish law school which would prevent the need for Scots to study abroad at centres such as Leiden, Groningen, Utrecht, or Halle if they wished to practise law. There was certainly a strong argument for instituting a chair in a discipline that was popular among Scottish students, but which they had hitherto been forced to go abroad to study.


Whatever the intentions behind the creation of the Chair, it was soon treated as something of a sinecure, and, for over a century, the teaching of Public Law was intermittent. The Chair was the most richly endowed in the university and was essentially bought and sold. The Lord Advocate of Scotland would confer the appointment upon any person willing to buy out the existing professor. It became a means of rewarding politically useful lawyers when judgeships or other forms of legal patronage were unavailable. Moreover, the study of Public Law was not necessary for graduation, so there was little student demand for teaching.

Nonetheless, two of the early professors, in particular, appear to have taught extensively. Robert Bruce (1718-1785) lectured regularly to large classes but demitted his post in 1764 when he became a Lord of Session. Allan Maconochie (1748-1816), who lectured even after being appointed judge, revitalized the teaching of Public Law through adapting the Scottish Enlightenment ideas of Adam Smith. He abandoned the Grotian approach to natural law for a Smithian emphasis on the historical evolution of law, based in the feelings and the development of social institutions.

Maconochie's successor, Robert Hamilton, however, does not seem to have taught at all, and, on his death in 1831, the Chair fell into abeyance for over 30 years.


The Chair was revived and radically reconstituted as a result of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The Executive Commission formed to implement the Act created the new degree of LL.B in 1862, of which Public Law (now understood as Jurisprudence and International Law) was to be a vital part. The Commissioners ordained that a newly appointed Professor of Public Law 'shall deliver a course of not less than forty lectures on International Law during the Winter Session of the University yearly'.

The first appointee, James Lorimer (1818-1890), was a strong advocate of university reform, who studied in Geneva, Berlin, and Bonn. In tandem with James Muirhead (1831-1889), Professor of Civil 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. He became a respected author in legal theory and international law, and may be said to have founded these as modern disciplines in Scottish academia.

Lorimer’s was followed by Sir Ludovic James Grant (1862-1936), who held the chair from 1890 to 1922. Son of Sir Alexander Grant, the former Principal of the University, he was perhaps as much an administrator as an academic, serving as Dean of the Faculty of Law, 1894-1910, Secretary of Senatus, 1897-1918, then Secretary of the University, 1918-1919. Increasing specialization led Grant's successor William Wilson to teach only International Law, while Jurisprudence was taught by a separate lecturer.

Archibald Hunter Campbell (1902-1989), appointed in 1945, had spent the Second World War working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. He published notable work on Fascism and legality, on obligation and obedience to law, and on the structures and sources of Stair's Institutions. As a young man, Campbell's friends included the poets W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, and he left his personal library, rich in English literature of the 1920s and 1930s, to Edinburgh University Library.

Campbell's successor Sir Donald Neil MacCormick (1941-2009) was both a distinguished legal philosopher and a prominent political figure. He published widely and influentially on the quality of legal reasoning, on the institutional character of law, on the links between law, politics and morality, and on relations between overlapping legal and political systems in an increasingly interconnected world. Besides his academic career, he was a SNP Member of the European Parliament, member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, and officer of the Scottish National Party.

Since 2008, the Chair has been held by Neil Walker (1960- ), an authority on constitutional theory.

Professors of Public Law

From 1831, the Chair lay in abeyance until it was reconstituted in 1862.

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)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)