£35m plan builds around university secret society

Rooms of the Spec  in the Old College. Picture: TSPL
Rooms of the Spec in the Old College. Picture: TSPL
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For centuries the ­Speculative Society at the University of Edinburgh has operated in the shadows of the majestic Old College building – an alcove of mystery in a busy campus thronged with aspiring lawyers and magistrates.

Now the 18th-century landmark faces a £35 million revamp that will touch every corner of the Old College – every corner, that is, but one.

Two tiny rooms nestled beside the grand entrance will be frozen in time while all around is development and transformation.

The Speculative Society, or ‘Spec’, has been the preserve of the Capital’s great and good – including Sir Walter Scott and former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home – since it was founded in 1764.

Entry is by invitation only, and most controversially, the club is only open to men.

In March, it was revealed that the Spec paid no tax or rates to the university in exchange for accommodation and it pledged to “review its relationship” with the shadowy club.

But plans to refurbish the Old College now confirm the bizarre and enduring alliance they share – with architectural drawings for the Spec rooms marked “Outwith the ­University of Edinburgh”.

Writer and journalist Allan Massie, who describes ­himself as an “honorary member” of the Spec, said the club’s domain has remained constant since the days when Robert Louis Stevenson was a member.

He said: “I would imagine the Speculative Society would be quite happy that the rooms will remain untouched, because it’s been that way for a very long time.

“It’s entirely inconspicuous. In fact, I would imagine that most people who frequent Old College don’t even know they exist.

“I’m all in favour of the old, established things ­remaining.

“Having a society that has existed for such a long time and has had distinguished members in the past is almost one of these agreeable anomalies, I would have thought.”

Marco Biagi MSP, who ­represents Edinburgh Central, said the university “should think carefully” about its ­relationship with the Spec.

“If they are refurbishing the whole of Old College except the rooms held by the society, it does show the influence and exceptionalism of the society,” he said.

The refurbishment of Old College will see the interior of the northern half of the historic building entirely remodelled.

All four floors will be refitted, including the creation of a new spiral staircase and elevator shaft to improve accessibility.

The centrepiece of redevelopment plans is a state-of-the-art law library spanning the length of the quadrangle’s west side. If approved, work would begin in 2015 and is expected to last five years. Staff and students displaced by the works would be accommodated in nearby university buildings.

A University of Edinburgh spokesman said: “The proposed £35m redevelopment will create a world-class space that will help to enhance the Law School’s international reputation for excellence.

“The refurbishment will retain and restore many of the original features of Old College and create new spaces for teaching, learning and research.”

He added the university’s review of its relationship with the Spec is “ongoing”.

Story of the society

Founded in 1764, the Speculative Society has served as a venue for debate and discussion among Edinburgh’s upper crust ever since, with members including Sir Walter Scott, William Playfair and Francis Jeffrey.

The club predates Old College itself, and its rooms were specially designed by architect Robert Adam. In 2003, a legal challenge was brought in the High Court because a defendant felt his case had been presided over by the club’s members.

It has more recently drawn criticism for its men-only membership policy. Questions have also been posed of its close relationship to Edinburgh University, where it enjoys free accomodation.