Secret men-only society ordered to let women in

The Speculative Society has operated within the grand surroundings of Edinburgh University's Old College for almost 250 years. Picture: Greg Macvean
The Speculative Society has operated within the grand surroundings of Edinburgh University's Old College for almost 250 years. Picture: Greg Macvean
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It’s one of Scotland’s last bastions of male privilege – but now the Capital’s most mysterious society is being forced to admit women members and throw open its doors to the public.

The secretive all-male Speculative Society, or “Spec”, has operated within the grand surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Old College for almost 250 years, boasting Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott amongst its alumni.

But a university review has given the society six months to overhaul its traditions – with members fearing they risk being booted from the premises if they refuse to comply.

The report – carried out by vice-principal Professor Mary Bownes – also insisted any future deal allowing the society to remain on campus be made clear and open.

Her review was launched after the society came under fire in March for refusing to admit women.

Concerns were also raised over the club’s relationship with the university – which owns the society’s base – after it emerged it was occupying the premises rent-free.

And in September, the News revealed a £35 million revamp of the Old College would leave the society’s historic rooms untouched.

The Speculative Society is one of the last men-only clubs in Scotland, following the decision in September of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to admit women and girls.

But despite never having had a female member, the society has no official rules banning women from joining.

Journalist and honorary member of the society Allan Massie said it was “about time” the club introduced female members.

And long-time member and Midlothian East councillor Peter de Vink slammed the club’s all-male policy – insisting the society would be “destroyed” and thrown out of its rooms if it did not adapt.

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, Professor 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.”

ONE OF OLDEST CLUBS IN THE WORLD

The shadowy, all-male Speculative Society formed in 1764 and is believed to be one of the oldest debating clubs in the world.

Its membership list has included some of the best-known names in Scottish history – including Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Today, its ranks are thought to be littered with lawyers and intellectual big-hitters from across the Capital.

The elusive club operates within three historic rooms – designed by renowned architect William Henry Playfair in 1824 – in the majestic Old College, but the elite club is not officially associated with the university.

Its secretive, candle-lit meetings are held infrquently, with entry by invitation only – but members insist the society’s sole purpose is to advance public speaking and literary composition.