Seizure of College Records by Town Council, 1704

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Attempts by staff of Edinburgh University to assert their right to self-government led to the seizure of the University's records by the Town Council of Edinburgh in 1704.

In the interval between the death of Gilbert Rule (c1629-1701) and the appointment of a new Principal in William Carstares (1649-1715), the Regents and Professors of Edinburgh University took a number of steps which challenged the Town Council's authority over University matters. Firstly, they issued a protest against the requirement that they consult with the Town Council when electing Edinburgh University's Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church Scotland. Secondly, at a meeting of 20 January 1703, at which they styled themselves the 'Faculty of Philosophy', they resolved that the current 'magistrand' class would graduate privately rather than publicly as was usually the case. In order to justify their proceedings, the 'Faculty' evoked 'their undoubted right contained in the charter of erection, and their constant and uninterrupted custom in such cases'. Any such right was highly questionable, and it would have been normal procedure to request permission from the Town council, who had historically taken considerable interest in graduations as a public function.

Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884), the University's most authoritative historian, interprets this move as a deliberate challenge to the Town Council, and the Council certainly treated it as such. The immediate result was a visitation of the University by Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council on 15 February 1703 which forced the University to back down on both matters. The Town Council issued an order requiring that the 'magistrand' class graduate publicly. On 12 May, however, they acceded to a petition from regent William Scott "primus" (1672-1735) that they be permitted to graduate privately after all, as so many of the class had already left Edinburgh at the end of the session. They nonetheless expressed their displeasure at learning that as many as fourteen of the class had privately graduated before the petition, and expressly forbade any such conduct in future.

Over the coming months, the Town Council asserted their authority on a number of other matters, ordering, for example on 12 May that all diplomas of graduation have the Town's Seal appended to them and make honourable mention of the Town Council as patrons. Finally in 1704, they ordered the College Records be seized on the grounds that they contained numerous inaccuracies and used the term 'Faculty' in a manner implying that the university was a self-governing body. William Carstares, the recently appointed Principal, was told that the Records would be returned once they had been corrected, but they remained in the Council's hands.

Under the Principalship of Carstares, harmonious relations between the University and the Town Council were gradually restored. The eighteenth century was largely a period of fruitful collaboration between the two bodies, particularly during George Drummond's six terms of office as Lord Provost of Edinburgh between 1725 and 1764. Conflict would break out again in the first half of the nineteenth century, until the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 granted Edinburgh University full control of its own affairs.

Other Key Events of Carstares's Principalship


  • Alexander Bower, The History of the University of Edinburgh. 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1817-1830.
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)