The Speculative Society of Edinburgh

“The Spec”

Harmless oddball students or sinister, quasi-masonic networkers?

Oddball students?: Is the case made by several members who have stuck their heads above the parapet, but is perhaps most eloquently put by extraordinary member Humphrey Errington, producer of Lanark Blue Cheese, who laughed off the claims of an old boy network, Errington said it was composed of some complete oddballs and rogues and has a whole lot of completely antiquated customs, such as not recognising decimalisation and imposing fines for not attending, in units of seven or eight old pence! He went on If I felt in any way it was a club of cronies getting together, I wouldn’t have belonged to it.LINK

Quasi-masonic networkers: Is a suggestion made in a submission to the High Court by Robbie the Pict who challenged themembership of judges and others involved in the Skye Bridge cases on the basis that undeclared membership of a secretive society by judges in court cases would, if made known to an independent observer, raise doubts as to the impartiality of the court and thus fail the objective test of impartiality, required by Article 6 of the ECHR. LINK

The evidence:

The Spec’s origins.

The all-male Speculative Society of Edinburgh was founded on the 17th November 1764, by six students at the University of Edinburgh.

The founder members had a meeting house built- solely for the purpose of their meetings – in spare grounds within the university, where they would meet each Tuesday evening at 7 O’clock. All this was in accordance with an Act of Town Council conferring an area of ground to the Society dated 21 June 1769.

The six founding members of the Speculative, were probably all Freemasons and two of them at least, William Creech, (later Burns’s publisher and Provost of Edinburgh), and Allan Maconochie (later Lord Meadowbank) were members of Canongate Kilwinning No 2 Masonic Lodge, based in John St Edinburgh. LINK

In the first three years of the Spec another 13 members of that same Masonic lodge were admitted by their peers.

So the society was probably based on lines similar to Masonic ones, that is, of secrecy and the mutual assistance of fellows. During the Scottish Enlightenment society meeting rooms were, apart from coffee-houses, the only forum where educated men could meet and discuss new ideas.

The biggest number of societies to emerge in Scotland around about this time were Masonic ones, because at this time the freemasons had widened their pool of candidates by allowing non-operative or speculative members to join.

But clubs of all sorts were the fashion of the day, especially in Edinburgh. Some famous clubs of the eighteenth century were: The Poker Club, The Beggar’s Benison, The Beelzebubians and the Edinburgh Cape Club. Members of these clubs were also members of Masonic lodges and William “Deacon” Brodie was “Sir Llyud” in the Cape as well as being initiated as a worthy brother in Canongate Kilwinning Masonic Lodge on January 8, 1763.

There is no doubt that without these clubs, Masonic or otherwise, Scotland would have been a poorer place and would not have had such a leading role in The Enlightenment.

That we are a clubbable people is evidenced by the fact that even today Scotland has four times more Masonic members per capita than England and more than any other country in the world. LINK

The Spec’s laws

The laws provide for three types of member, ordinary, extraordinary and honorary. The ordinary member is invited by two existing members and then must be accepted by two thirds of the ordinary members for that session (a period each year between October and March).

To achieve extraordinary status, ordinary members must attend for three sessions and submit one essay for each session.

The maximum number of ordinary members in any session is 30, so the membership is guaranteed to be of a certain type of similar persons from the University of Edinburgh; a self-perpetuating all- male elite. LINK

The early laws of the Speculative are published in detail and tell us many things about the rules, but don’t tell us much about the aims of the society. The purpose for which, the society was instituted was said to be: “For the purpose of improvement in literary composition and public speaking.”

However, like the freemasons such societies have a written constitution and another set of unwritten rules taken on oath and in the case of the Masons under pain of death.

No one believes that a freemason would have his tongue ripped out at the roots and be left to die on the shore, but that is the promised penalty for those who would divulge the secrets of the Craft. In reality it would be that anyone “spilling the beans” would be ostracised socially, shunned by his former brethren.

Lord Cockburn, a Spec member alluded to the society in his memoirs (Memorials of his Time, Cockburn 1821-1830) in which he said: “The creed of the Speculative is based on work; the fulfilment of sharply defined duties. A limited membership, compulsory attendance, and the strict exclusion of strangers—these laws are as unalterable as those of the Medes and Persians.”

Some rules however are alterable, and the laws of the Spec, can be amended by the members, so even the original laws are not likely to tell us the whole story of today’s Spec.

Another prominent member, Sir Derrick Dunlop, more recently described the Spec as a “sodality” and went on: “The Speculative is a brotherhood bound by intangible ties of shared loyalty and common tradition.”

So the laws would seem to bond the Spec in a quasi-Masonic way, but to what extent, we outsiders can only guess.

Quaint traditions.

  • The members sign in to each meeting in a register using quill pens and ink.
  • The fines the society imposes for breaches of rules must be paid in old coinage; pounds shillings and pence.
  • The meeting hall of the Spec has no electricity or gas, is heated by coal fire and illuminated by candles with a central chandelier with 22 holders, in which only 21 candles are placed and lit. The missing holder having held a candle that had once dripped wax on the bald head of a president back in the mists of time.
  • The portrait of a famous Spec member, John Gibson Lockhart (Walter Scott’s son-in-law) faces the wall following his criticism of the society [See EEN story below].
  • Members “act the fool” in a sort of Bertie Wooster fashion, as seen in the following video which shows a team of Spec cricketers play at the ancestral home of the Earls of Elgin at Broomhall, according to quaint rules described by the Earl’s son:

The Spec’s membership

From its inception members of the Spec have included the top figures in society such as Lord Cockburn, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, these being but a few of the many among its most illustrious patrons.

Present day membership ranges from the Duke of Edinburgh to the upper echelons of Scotland’s legal, academic and business fraternity, with figures such as former solicitor and now merchant banker, Sir Angus Grossart, today, arguably, Scotland’s most influential businessman and the man Bloomberg Business described as “Scotland’s Mr Fixit”.

However it is in the law that the Spec is most dominant (four of the six founders were lawyers), with their members having an inordinately high number of members holding high office in the judiciary and the legal establishment. This is as true today as it was in the past and is a matter that the Spec is proud to boast of.

The bicentenary edition reproduced a Scotsman photograph of “The Senators of the College of Justice, 1962” and beneath the photo were the signatures of the 15 judges, this plate in the book had asterisks added to indicate which signature belonged to a member of the Speculative Society. 8 of the 16 did. LINK

Also in the bicentenary edition an article by Sir Dereck Dunlop boasts of the Spec’s numbers and powers among the judiciary when he recalls previous challenges to the Spec regarding the ownership of their halls. He writes:

“In the past the University has, of course, made several famous but abortive litigious attempts to put right what it considered to be an untidy state of affairs. It is unlikely that these attempts will be renewed in the foreseeable future—not so much because the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor are honorary members of the Society as because the University realise that their chances of success in the courts would be somewhat slim. There was a time when it was said that if you hadn’t belonged to the Speculative you couldn’t hope to become a Senator of the College of Justice. That is not entirely true today but there are still a considerable number of speculators in the Court of Session. We all know, of course, that the judicature is icy in its impartiality, which is one of the chief glories of this country, but perhaps this impartiality would be strained to breaking point where the Specu­lative is concerned and the University are probably aware of this.” LINK

Similar boasts of the prevalence and power of the Spec within the Scottish legal establishment can be found in other vanity publications, but there is little need for the Spec to boast of this as it is a given, though seldom reported aspect, of Scottish society.

There is no publicly available list of members and what information is available, is again through extrapolation of information from vanity publications, or other publications printed for the society’s members.

My own researches allowed me to compile a list of members up to 1972 which was augmented by a hand written list given to me by Robbie the Pict, who had asked a former member for an update to my list. It goes without saying that this supplementary list cannot be verified. LINK

The Spec does not give out information regarding members, I have asked.

It should also be noted that the Spec can air-brush out members who they disapprove of. This is what they did to Thomas Addis Emmet in 1897 when it was learnt that he had sent treasonous correspondence to France while a member. LINK

Controversies

The first and still ongoing controversy the society has been involved in centres on the use of the Spec’s? University’s? meeting hall.

There is little doubt that the original meeting hall, built on a vacant plot within the grounds of the old university was built with funds provided by the members. But this 25feet long by 19 feet wide single story building had to be taken down in 1817 to make room for the new College buildings; and the Spec say, in accordance with the understanding on which the Town Council’s original grant of a site in 1769, provision for their society, consisting of a debating-hall, library, and lobby, was provided for the Society in the new buildings, by the university.

The question as to whether or not this accommodation was for the exclusive use of the society seems to be debatable and open to interpretation and in 1868 there was a dispute as to payment to the university by the Spec for the use of the hall.

This came about because the Senatus wanted to lock the university gates at 10pm, which would have locked the Spec out after their mid meeting break, which was usually taken in a nearby tavern. The Senatus agreed to accommodate this by employing a night porter on the gate, the costs of which were borne by the university and charged to the Spec.

When the Senatus claimed payments from the Spec for this, including a charge for the hall, none was forthcoming, so they stated that if the amount wasn’t paid by a certain date the Senatus “would consider the claim of the Spec to the use of the rooms to have lapsed.”

The Spec informed the University Clerk that they refused to accept any liability for the use of the rooms. The Senatus responded stating that as their demand for payment had not been met, “entrance to the rooms hitherto occupied by the Society [Spec] would in future be denied to it.”

And so it was that on Tuesday 12th November, 1867 the University Janitor locked the Spec out of their rooms. The stalemate only ended when the Spec backed down and apologised to the Senatus and agreed to abide by the university’s rules. LINK

There have probably been more disputes since the 19th century lock-out but they are not easily traceable and the next dispute to make the press was in late December 1998, when two female law lecturers, Sandra Eden and Elspeth Reid sought use of the Spec’s little-used suite of rooms at the university’s Old College to be opened up to other users and for the Spec to be forced to admit women members.

The university promised to investigate the 234-year-old society’s right to occupy the rooms sited next to the law faculty, and whether it receives any free services from the institution. The move was made following a request from the law faculty member Graeme Laurie, and a fellow law lecturer who had tabled a motion, which was agreed by the law faculty, at a meeting earlier that month.

The result of this challenge to the Spec is not clear but, it seems that the result was a victory for the status quo and the Spec as nothing seems to have changed, and this is hardly surprising given that the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Sir Stewart Sutherland, was made an honorary member of the Spec on 29 Nov 1995. LINK

After this, 20th century, feminist challenge, the antiquated Spec next came under 21st century scrutiny by me as a petitioner to the Scottish Parliament. I argued that membership of secret societies, such as the freemason should be registered by judges and sheriffs so that a litigant would know if the judge or sheriff deciding a case was a member of a fraternal body that may have a bias in favour of their brethren.

In an attempt to engender some legalistic interest in my arguments I wrote to every member of the Faculty of Advocates asking them the simple question “Do you think that members of the judiciary should declare membership of secret societies such as the freemasons?”. I enclosed a S.A.E. for the return of a slip which had a tick box for completion and kept the survey responses anonymous.

My survey resulted in an 11% return from the 435 members of the faculty and of the returns the majority favoured my petition terms, but more interestingly I was contacted by several advocates who reckoned the Speculative Society was by far a bigger obstacle to justice than the Masons.

I researched this claim and wrote back to the full membership of the faculty with my comments and findings about the Spec. LINK

With feedback from the advocates I wrote a third, and hard-hitting letter, to all of the membership: LINK There was no further response from any member of the faculty. N.B. reference to Iain G. Armstrong Q.C. being a member who appeared at the Lockerbie trial was apparently wrong, the Armstrong in that trial was Morag LINK.

In my petition, PE306, I had established by reference to vanity publications that over two-thirds of Scots law lords were Spec members but none declared this fact, and like the Masons, I argued, they should. LINK

The petition was with the parliament until March 2002 when it was closed by the Public Petitions Committee who recommended no further action be taken as the matters the petition centred on did not merit it. LINK

Though my public petition was at an end the question of the Spec’s influence in public life did not disappear because I had informed a large number of people of my research into it and one of them, Robbie the Pict, had managed to get the press interested in this topic.

This resulted in two newspaper articles being published, one in the Guardian LINK and one in the Sunday Herald LINK.

Following on from these articles the Spec came under international scrutiny later that month when the UN-appointed Observer at the Lockerbie Trial & Appeal, Professor Hans Koechler, released a statement LINK to the press expressing his concern about quasi Masonic membership of many of those involved at the Scottish Court in The Hague which convicted Megrahi of the Lockerbie bombing. This news was largely ignored in the establishment press but was taken up by Socialist politician, Henry McCubbin. LINK

As an interesting footnote to the Koechler concerns, I included details of these in my submissions to the Scottish Parliament and felt it only right to advise the prisoner, Megrahi, that he had been tried by judges who had an undeclared membership of a secretive society. I wrote advising him of this but he didn’t seem to understand so I wrote to his lawyer to explain this fact which may have been relevant to the appeal he was preparing at the time. His lawyer thanked me for the information but said he didn’t want to take this point as one of his most vociferous supporters was Professor Robert Black, QC., who was a member of the Spec! LINK

Next in February 2003, came a challenge to the Spec in the High Court from Robbie the Pict a prominent justice campaigner who had long been involved in the Skye Bridge Tolls dispute during which hundreds of residents of Skye had refused to recognize the legality of the toll regime and were criminalised by the courts for their refusal to pay the tolls.

Mr Pict argued that many of the key people involved in the Skye Bridge convictions were, unbeknown to him, Spec members and as such there was at least the perception of bias which was enough to negate the impartiality of the trials. Mr Pict’s arguments were met with reasonable press coverage by some but some newspapers printed dismissive reports of his concerns, particularly the Times, which ran a mocking article, written by Allan Massie, an honorary member, entitled: “Sinister society? It’s all wild speculation” LINK

Mr Allan Massie is a journalist known to me and had similar mocking comment to make on my petition to the Scottish Parlilament on declarations for judges who belonged to secretive organisations such as the freemasons, but it is interesting to note that in the Spec list given to Robbie the Pict there is the name of one Allan Massie who is said to have recieved honorary membership on 13 January 1999. Surely some mistake to have written about my petition when he was a member of a society that would be affected by my proposals, without declaring that fact, as an interest, in the article he wrote? LINK

Despite securing a hearing in the High Court before a panel of non-Spec judges Robbie the Pict’s point was rejected by the courts in a written judgement. In their judgement the panel accepted the proposal that the Speculative Society of Edinburgh was not a secret society because Raymond Doherty, QC, advocate depute, (now Lord Doherty) produced a list of members from an internet site to show the “Spec” was not a secret society. I was in court as a member of the public and had to stifle a laugh at Doherty’s brass neck, because the only lists of members of the Spec had their genesis in the one I compiled, added to by the Pict (see above) and both of these lists were not public matters. Mine, up to 1972, take from a vanity publication for the members and Robbie’s given him by a member. LINK

Perhaps I should have sent a bill to Doherty for my research?

As a result of the publicity following the High Court challenge by Robbie the Pict the Spec declared in the Sunday Times of 23 February 2003 that they were considering changing the rules to allow women to join. LINK

I made another challenge to the Spec in October 2013 when I lodged another public petition similar to my previous one calling from decision makers to be compelled to declare membership of organisations such the Freemasons or the Speculative Society. LINK

I abandoned my petition in early 2014 when the Public Petitions Committee refused to discuss my evidence from the Norwegian government about their laws which require all judges to declare membership of the freemasons. [See Public Petitions Committee official report]

Within the last few weeks the spectre of a challenge to the Senatus of the University of Edinburgh by the Edinburgh University Students Union has surfaced, though it has been thwarted when a move to adopt a motion of zero tolerance to all organisations that have a ban on gender was ditched.

The following story, published in the Edinburgh Evening News, May 17 1980, LINK gives a historic perspective on the Spec as seen by a young student, John Gibson Lockhart – later to be Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law – on being invited to join.

Despite Lockhart’s scathing criticism of the Spec as related in the EEN article he completed his three sessions and was granted extraordinary privileges on 8 April, 1783.

John Gibson Lockhart, was, like many of his Spec peers, also initiated in The Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No 2, on 26 Jan 1826.

So how do you find the Spec?

ARE THEY KNAVES OR FOOLS, CUNNING CONSPIRATORS OR BUMBLING BUFFOONS?

If you find that they fall into the latter category then God help us they are running our justice system, businesses and banks.

Me? I rather have my doubts and that is why I wanted the parliament to have a serious and forensic examination of such organisations, but they didn’t show much appetite for that prospect.

UPDATE 5th November 2016. Scottish Daily Mail reveals that Princess Anne is to become an honorary Extraordinary member just like her dad!

Since the above article was published in the Scottish Daily Mail there has been no news of Anne’s entry into the sodality. Surely she hasn’t been black-balled by the boys?