EDINBURGH, UK — Edinburgh University’s Old College is one of Scotland’s best-known buildings. Located in the city center, its imposing cupola and neo-classical quadrangle have provided the setting for numerous films, novels and plays.
But the building also harbors a secret: For almost 200 years, a clandestine, all-male society with connections that run across the upper echelons of Scottish society has held regular meetings in its rooms.
Founded in 1764, the Speculative Society — known to its select members as “the Spec” — holds private black tie soirees where wine is quaffed in candlelit rooms specially designed by the Scottish engineer William Playfair, after whom Old College’s famous library is named.
The room in which they meet contains the death mask of Sir Walter Scott and the flag wrapped around Robert Louis Stevenson’s body after he died.
Although the Spec has been meeting in Old College since 1819, there was scant public debate about the society until a recent investigation by The Student, Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, found the university was paying property tax on the society’s rooms in the same building as the law school.
That despite the official claim the society has “absolutely no links” to the law school. “The rooms which are used by the Speculative Society do not belong to the law school nor do they belong to the university,” says the school’s head Lesley McAra.
The Spec’s activities can appear arcane. Meeting “sessions” occur between the third Wednesdays of October and March and are traditionally advertised in an Edinburgh newspaper a week before their start.
The society maintains its all-male membership even though no formal rule bans women from joining.
Members are selected by invitation and required to sign an attendance roll using quill pens. Each “Speculator” is assigned a four-digit membership number.
“Ordinary residing members” are restricted to 30 and must attend every meeting for three years in black tie to avoid being fined. Members are also required to pay an “annual quota” of 7 pounds in pre-decimal sterling, money that predates the currency’s standardization in the 1970s.
During the meetings, members submit and critique essays on various topics, which between 1955 and 1972 included: “Has female emancipation gone too far?” and “Do the Wogs [sic] begin at Calais?” referring to the French port where most Britons crossing the channel arrive on mainland Europe.
The society’s members include several prominent figures in Scottish — and British — public life including the queen’s husband (the Duke of Edinburgh), former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home and businessman Sir Angus Grossart.
Although Spec supporters insist it’s nothing more than a debating society, critics say claims that many leading members of the Scottish judiciary are Spec members raise serious questions about the society’s influence in public life.
Whatever the case, the society’s relationship with Edinburgh University will come under increased scrutiny. The university has already said it will launch a review.
“The university is strongly committed to equality of opportunity for all its staff and students and is intent on promoting a positive culture for all members of the institution,” a university spokesperson said. “Our policies and procedures are regularly reviewed and the university intends to initiate a review of its historic relationship with the Speculative Society.”
The current controversy isn’t the first of its kind.
In 1867, Spec members were locked out of their rooms allegedly for failing to pay for their use until they agreed to fully abide by the university’s rules.
For many students, however, the university hasn’t done enough to address concerns raised by the presence of a secret all-male society on campus since the school signed a dignity and respect policy committing it to ending “discrimination” on university grounds in 2001.
“The university just seems to want to sweep it under the carpet, to keep these doors shut, just to save them from embarrassment,” Alex Shaw, who conducted the investigation for The Student, told GlobalPost. “But it’s an issue of what’s right for society, whether a public institution should be either implicitly or explicitly funding an all-male society comprised of several high-ranking members of the great and the good of Edinburgh.”
“If you are a university and you know that this group is meeting up, drinking wine in candlelit rooms, it should worry you,” he added.
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The debate about sexism has also risen elsewhere recently.
Last year, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond prompted a furious debate when he said that one of the country’s most exclusive golf courses should not have been allowed to host the Open Golf Championship without overturning a ban on female members.
He said the men-only membership of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which runs the Muirfield golf course, sent out the message that women are “second-class citizens.”
Back at Edinburgh University, Chloe Oakshett, a graduate law student points out that 35 years have passed since the society debated “Has Female Emancipation Gone Too Far?”
“They have not used the time wisely,” she said.