Transfer of Rectorship to Lord Provost of Edinburgh, 1665

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On 10 November 1665, the Town Council of Edinburgh ruled 'that the Lord Provost, present and to come', should always serve as Rector of Edinburgh University. The Rectorship had existed as a distinct role since 1620, when Andrew Ramsay (1574–1659) was appointed to the post. The Rector's duties had only been clearly defined, however, since the appointment of Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646) in 1640. As Rector, Henderson functioned as a supervisor or inspector on the Council’s behalf, but also as the spokesman for the College when making overtures to the Council. The transfer of the Rectorship to the Lord Provost appears to have been an act of self-assertion on the Town Council's part. They appear to have felt slighted by William Colville (d. 1675), Principal of the University, whom they believed had given greater importance to the College of Justice than to the Council when choosing a Professor of Humanity. On the same day as they announced the transfer of the Rectorship, they called Colville before them to be 'gently reproved' for abusing his authority.

University historians such as Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884) have rued the short-sightedness of the Town Council in depriving themselves of their 'eye' at the University and the University of a mouthpiece in Council sessions. Alexander Bower (fl. 1804-1830) suggests that it may have been an act of spitefulness from the then Lord Provost Sir Andrew Ramsay (1619-1688) (child of Andrew Ramsay (1574–1659), whose son had been chastised by one of the Regents. The Lord Provost seems to have acquired no greater authority from assuming the Rectorship, and indeed the title soon became purely ceremonial. By 1838, Lord Provost Sir James Forrest of Comiston declared himself uncertain whether he was Rector or not at the trial of students following a 'snow riot'. The Rectorship was formally reconstituted as a discrete post following the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, and is now elected by staff and matriculated students.

The transfer of the Rectorship marked the commencement of a power struggle between the Town Council and University culminating in the seizure of the College Records by the Town Council in 1704. Under the Principalship of William Carstares (1649-1715), relations were gradually repaired and would remain harmonious through most of the eighteenth century. 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.


  • 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)