Pure Speculation Part 1 – Nothing Ever Happened

By Alex Shaw

The recent review by Professor Mary Bownes, University of Edinburgh Senior Vice Principal, into the University’s “historic relationship” with the Speculative Society suggested that the Society be given six months to admit female members and open its doors to the wider public. According to a University spokesperson, the report “has been agreed by senior management” and was in light of the University’s commitment “to the ethos of equality and diversity on its campus.”

But an investigation by The Student can reveal how the University turned a blind eye to staff concerns over the Society’s presence on University premises and how senior management failed to examine the issues raised for over 15 years.



“The most rewarding aspect of working within a university environment is the sense that the activities we undertake – across all disciplines – have the potential to influence and change things for the better. At the heart of what we do sit our students and staff yet, increasingly, they are not the only beneficiaries of the knowledge and appetite for discovery that we have within our community.”

“Over the centuries we have gained renown for the research that is carried out at the University – research across medicine, science and the humanities and social sciences. This is not activity that is carried out in ivory towers – quite the reverse.”

– Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, University Principal and Vice Chancellor (University of Edinburgh Annual Review 2012/2013)


In the shadow of the Old College dome there is a locked door. Located along the north east quadrant of the building’s ground floor, hundreds of students’ feet have beaten a weary path past it on their way from the building’s main entrance to the Law and Europa Library. It is an unremarkable door, no signs point towards it; the windows beside it are boarded up.

There are three rooms behind the door: a library, an anteroom and a candlelit debating hall. Designed by the great Scottish architect William Henry Playfair, the rooms have remained largely untouched since their design in the early 19th century and contain many valuable historic artefacts.

In the debating hall, an 18th century wooden candelabra looks down on portraits by Raeburn and marble busts. The library contains the jotter Robert Louis Stevenson used at his University classes and some first editions of his works. Also held within the rooms are the death mask of Sir Walter Scott and the flag Stevenson’s body was wrapped in following his death.

For one evening a week from the third Wednesday of October to the second to last Wednesday of March, the door is unlocked, candles are lit, claret is poured and a select and secretive group of men meet in formal dress to debate essays. Since 1819, only these men have had use of the rooms.

They are the Speculative Society, or the “Spec” as the club is known to its members. Founded in 1764 for the purposes of “improvement in literary composition and public speaking”, attendance is granted by invitation only and strict fines are imposed for conduct breaching the club’s laws. Whilst the Society has no formal rules against women members and no legal requirement to admit them, none have been admitted for 250 years.

Though the University owns the rooms, they cannot be accessed without the Society’s permission. Outside of meetings, they remain locked to the public, to University staff and students.

On February 15 2014, Professor Lesley McAra, then the Head of the Law School, told The Student:

“To clarify the Speculative Society is not a University Society and has absolutely no links to the School of Law.

“The rooms which are used by the Speculative Society do not belong to the Law School nor do they belong to the University. The School has researched this on more than one occasion and the title to the rooms belongs to the Speculative Society itself – this goes back to the original construction of Old College.

“The School of Law actively endorses the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy and we always strive to ensure that the values of equality and diversity, dignity and respect infuse all dimensions of our practice. Sexism has no place in our scholarly community.”

This was not strictly true.


Nothing Ever Happened

“You asked if the University investigated its relationship with the Speculative Society in 1998. The University has searched its records and can find no information regarding either an investigation taking place or a decision being made not to conduct an investigation.”

– Response by the University of Edinburgh to Freedom of Information request submitted by The Student (August 25 2014).


On December 20 1998, Scotland on Sunday reported that the law faculty had agreed to a proposal to raise the issue of the Society’s presence on University premises with senior management. The move followed Law School staff tabling a similar motion earlier that month.

The campaign, led by staff members Sandra Eden and Professor Elspeth Reid, cited pressure on teaching space in an attempt to open up the Society’s rooms to other users. The University was also asked to investigate whether any free services were provided beyond the University’s legal obligation to the Society regarding its claim to the rooms.

The Spec’s all-male membership was also highlighted, though, as Reid told Scotland on Sunday: “we are not coming to this from a specific feminist perspective. This is a matter of concern not just for women, but for all university staff and students.”

“There is majority support from members of staff,” said Professor Graeme Laurie, who supported the move. “We are drawing attention to the pressure on space and that the university may well be providing services to an organisation that conflicts with its equal opportunities policy.”

Eden added: “We are doing this with a lot of support from other members of the faculty and others within the university who share our disquiet at the present arrangements.”

The news was dismissed at the time as a “storm in a teacup” by Gavin MacColl, one of the Spec’s five rotating presidents, who said the issue was being raised for “political motives”.

He added: “We have not had anything put to us and we are just carrying on as we always have done.”

According to documents released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, at that time, the only recorded correspondence between the University and the Society since 1990 was a series of letters dated between December 17 1993 and October 3 1994 concerning the anonymous loan of items related to Robert Louis Stevenson to the University for a 1994 exhibition in Old College.

The correspondence was between: Iain Robb, University Assistant Secretary; the Secretary to the Society (name redacted); and Martin A Hogg, the Society’s Librarian at the time and current Deputy Head of the Law School.

Hogg could not be reached for comment as, according to the University, he is on sabbatical leave until December 31 2014.

The University appeared to respect the law faculty’s proposal. As the article stated: “A university spokeswoman confirmed the society’s status was being investigated, but stressed that it had no control over the society’s affairs.”

However, according to one Law School staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, nothing ever happened.

“It mostly did rumble on for a bit […] the club was divisive in the School,” they told The Student. “There were people who are – and were – members themselves, so the matter was not entirely uncomplicated. We assumed something would happen.

“As time went on, we all eventually started to focus on other things and [the issue] died down. There was never any suggestion for us to drop it.”

FOI requests submitted by The Student appear to confirm this account.

“You asked if the University investigated its relationship with the Speculative Society in 1998,” said the University on August 25 2014. “The University has searched its records and can find no information regarding either an investigation taking place or a decision being made not to conduct an investigation.”

The requests also reveal no record of any correspondence between the University and the Society from October 1994 to November 2002.

Senior management should have already been aware of the Spec’s position within University premises. A list of the Society’s honorary members since 1900, held in the National Library of Scotland, notes that Sir Stewart Sutherland, University Principal 1994-2002, was made an honorary member in 1995. The Duke of Edinburgh, University Chancellor 1953-2010, was given a similar position in 1954 and remains “quite a keen member”, said one Society insider. According to an article in The Herald on November 15 2003, the Duke had nominated Lord Cameron, another Spec member, to serve as the Chancellor’s Assessor on the University Court; the University’s governing body. FOI data states that Cameron was on the Court until September 1989.

Despite this, the issue appears never to have been discussed.

Speaking to The Student, a University spokesperson said: “I can confirm that the Speculative Society was not discussed at Court during the last ten years. It is also very unlikely that the Speculative Society was discussed at Court during the prior twenty year period as there is no mention of the Society in the Court index.

“However, to confirm the Society was not discussed would require a manual search of the minutes and papers of every meeting. Doing this would cost more than £600, the limit over which the University is not required to respond to freedom of information requests.”

On February 16 2001, the following passage appeared in The Scotsman:

““We hoped that something would happen when the issue came to light a couple of years ago,” says Elspeth Reid, a law lecturer who protested that the society should not be granted its own rooms in an institution suffering a severe shortage of teaching space. “But any interest just fizzled out.” A university spokeswoman confirms that taking back the rooms, which were granted to the Speculative Society when the Old College was built in the 18th century, is “not a current issue”.”

The Student Newspaper 2016