Secret Edinburgh Society told to admit women

One of the university rooms for which the club pays no rent. Picture: SWNS
One of the university rooms for which the club pays no rent. Picture: SWNS
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FOR 250 years, secret meetings of the all-male Speculative Society have been held by candlelight in grand rooms of the Old College at Edinburgh University. But now the “Spec” has been ordered to admit women as members and open its doors to the public – or face eviction.

The debating and literary society, whose members have included Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, has been given six months by Edinburgh University to revamp traditions.

A review of the club was launched last March after the society was criticised for failing to admit women. The review, carried out by vice-principal Professor Mary Bownes, also insisted any future deal allowing the society to remain on the campus be made public.

Concerns were raised over the club’s relationship with the university after it emerged it was occupying college premises rent-free. It was also revealed that a £35 million revamp of the Old College would not include the society’s historic rooms.

The Speculative Society is now one of the last men-only clubs in Scotland, after the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s decision in September to admit females. Yet despite never having had a female member, the society has no official rules banning women from joining.

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Yesterday The Scotsman columnist, journalist and author Allan Massie, who is an honorary member of the society, said it was “about time” the club introduced female members.

Founded in 1764, the Speculative Society is one of the oldest debating clubs in the world. Current members are thought to include prominent members of the city’s legal establishment.

Meetings take place in three rooms, designed by the noted architect William Henry Playfair in 1824, in the Old College by candlelight. The secretive club holds meetings infrequently, with entry by invitation only. Despite the clandestine nature of the Speculative Society, members claim their sole purpose is to support public speaking and literary composition.

Peter de Vink, Midlothian East councillor and a member of the society, said the club would be “destroyed” if it refused to move with the times.

He said: “If they think in this day and age you can avoid having lady members, they can’t be of this world. They are really woefully short of members, and if they brought in female members it would boost the membership. The society is 250 years old and it’s going to be destroyed by a handful of people if they’re not careful. As I understand it, it’s only a handful of very outspoken people who are stopping the inevitable.

“It’s a famous, famous society with a long history. It’s got a fantastic membership, and to let that all get smashed is so irresponsible. It’s just such a shame that an organisation like the Spec can’t see that it’s got to change. It absolutely takes my breath away.”

A university spokesman said: “The university is committed to the ethos of equality and diversity on its campus. In light of this, Prof Bownes was asked to carry out a review of the historic links between the university and the Speculative Society, which occupies rooms in Old College.

“Her report, which has been agreed by senior management, proposes that the Speculative Society is given six months to show that it is changing to comply with this ethos by admitting female members along with males. The report also recommends that the society agrees to make the historic rooms more accessible to the public.”

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