History of the Old Edinburgh Club


The Old Edinburgh Club was officially launched in the City Chambers on 29 January 1908, with the former Prime Minister, the Earl of Rosebery, agreeing to become its first Honorary President.

The January event had followed discussions in the previous months led by William J Hay (1863-1955), a bookseller, publisher and amateur historian. Hay had been custodian of John Knox’s House since 1903, and his idea for a club to “gather and preserve Edinburgh lore” seems to have had its impetus in an ongoing argument over whether Knox had ever lived in the famous High Street building that bears his name. The main preliminary meeting of the proposed Club met within the house in December 1907.

Early in the proceedings the Old Edinburgh Club was chosen in preference to the Auld Reekie Club or Reekiana, the latter being opposed by Lord Rosebery.

The first AGM

The first AGM for the Club was held exactly a year after the inauguration on 29 January 1909, with Rosebery presiding. There were already 179 members – with a limit of 300 met later that year – the majority local to the city and its suburbs. Members included Harry Cockburn, the grandson of Lord Cockburn, and a good smattering of the Edinburgh professional classes, including almost 50 lawyers.

Others were employed in various branches of finance, religion, medicine and the book trade. Just 18 of the first 300 members were women. For the first decade of the Club, associate memberships were possible, with one of the earliest being Professor Patrick Geddes.

The first President was Professor John Chiene, an eminent surgeon. Vice-Presidents included the Lord Provost, Professor Peter Hume Brown, who held the first chair in Scottish History at Edinburgh University, and the Lord Lyon, James Balfour Paul.

The first trustees included Hay, architects Hippolyte Blanc, Thomas Ross and the civil engineer and Jacobite historian Walter Biggar Blaikie. Academia was represented by Professor Gerald Baldwin Brown, the first holder of a University chair in Fine Art and the author of an early study on the care of ancient monuments along with the Headmaster of George Heriot’s and Donaldson’s schools. The bookseller Adam Smail, who had played a role in the Club’s foundation, acted as Hay’s first secretary.

The First AGM OEC

Documenting the city’s history

The objectives of the Club were set out in the first constitution:

“The collection and authentication of oral and written statements or documentary evidence relating to Edinburgh; the gathering of existing traditions, legends and historical data; and the selecting and printing of material desirable for future reference”.

At the time a great deal of information on the city and its history remained unpublished or inaccessible within archives, including the records of trade and Guild bodies and the minutes and records of the Town Council.

An early aim of the Club was to collect and make known accurate information on the city within an annual publication, and the first of these, the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, was issued to members in March 1909.

The first book contained articles including a Provisional list of Old Houses remaining in the High Street and Canongate of Edinburgh by Bruce J Home, another early trustee. This paper reflected the widespread concern over the loss of historic buildings in the Old Town, either through demolition for sanitary-based improvement, or the recent expansion of the railway. It began with the sentence: 

“That it may be safely affirmed that since 1860 two-thirds of the ancient buildings in the Old Town of Edinburgh have been demolished.” 

This, Rosebery noted, was the “the most sinister and most dismal in the whole book.” Rosebery also noted that Edinburgh’s “face is its fortune” and tasked the Club with protecting remaining antiquity against utility. The paper led to a firm response from the Lord Provost William S Brown, himself a proponent of new workers housing which had required selective redevelopment within the Old Town.

BOEC Volume 1 1908

Within six months of the Club’s inauguration it had held its first Council meeting and inspected original documents – including a notebook made with William Burke’s skin – held a general meeting and illustrated talk and organised a joint walk, or ramble, with the Edinburgh Photographic Society around the city walls.

Over time the Club has collected, collated and published a wealth of source material and new information on the city, transmitting this to its members in the city and further afield.

The Club’s 1908 mission statement remains valid today, although the Club’s output through a series of annual lectures, guided walks, social media postings and, more recently, virtual talks, goes well beyond the scope of the printed page.

Steven Robb, OEC Vice-President

Old town map Edinburgh

Further reading

The Formation of the Old Edinburgh Club and its first 300 members by Alan McKinney and Bob Morris, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, New Series, Volume 11 (2015).

Rosebery and the birth of the Old Edinburgh Club by Owen Dudley Edwards, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, New Series, Volume 7 (2008).