History of the Society

Parliament Hall in the early 1800s - Sir Walter Scott is pictured in the group of advocates on the left
Stained glass window in Parliament House depicting court of King Charles I of Scotland
Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session, 1737-1747
Stair Society volumes in the Signet Library

The Stair Society was inaugurated in 1934, the idea having been mooted some years previously.

At a time when there were hardly any academic legal historians in the Scottish universities, the principal motivators for its formation were senior members of the practicing profession and the judiciary, including notably Lord Macmillan, Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, the first Lord Clyde, Lord President of the Court of Session, W G (later Lord) Normand, the Lord Advocate, and T M (later Lord) Cooper, shortly to succeed as Lord Advocate and to become Lord President in 1947.

Formal 'Proposals' were drawn up, widely circulated and enthusiastically endorsed. The Society was launched at a meeting held in the SSC Library on 17 November 1934. The initial membership was 682, including 52 institutions, 359 solicitors, 91 advocates and 33 academics. The annual subscription was set at one guinea (£1.05).

The Society’s first volume, The Sources and Literature of Scots Law, was prepared and published to wide acclaim within a year, a herculean task led by the first Literary Director, Hector (later Sheriff) McKechnie, and the first Chairman of Council, the Glasgow solicitor David Baird Smith. It contains 38 essays, in four sections, written by a total of 28 contributors, each a specialist in his field. A steady flow of volumes followed, with inevitable wartime interruptions.

Early works included Hope’s Major Practicks in two volumes edited by Lord Clyde and, in 1939, the first of six volumes of the lectures of Baron Hume, who was Professor of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh from 1786 to 1822, never previously published. This massive project was undertaken by Campbell Paton, a lecturer at Glasgow, and later Edinburgh, University and was completed with the publication of the last volume in 1958. Paton edited additional material by Hume which was not published as part of the series and was only recently rediscovered. It is being published initially in electronic format on the Society’s website.

Another major project in the Society’s early years was the preparation and publication, also  in 1958, of An Introduction to Scottish Legal History. This was the brainchild of Lord Cooper, who first suggested it in 1950, taking a keen interest in its preparation until shortly before his death in 1955. The work runs to 450 pages and contains 34 chapters, written by a total of 21 different authors, two having been written by Cooper himself.

In all, the Society has published over 60 volumes. These vary widely in length and subject matter, from medieval Latin texts to light-hearted reminiscences in some of the Miscellany volumes, each contributing in its own way to a considerable body of historical literature. Perhaps of particular interest are some of the introductions to historical texts, which are themselves works of great scholarly interest The series as a whole more than justifies the aspirations of the Society’s founders, as expressed in the Proposals of 1934, which stated:

It would be difficult to imagine a more attractive field of study than that which the history of the law of Scotland offers.  Not only is the legal system of Scotland perhaps its most distinctive national heritage, but it is also of unique interest among the legal systems of the world in that it affords the only instance of the combination in theory and practice of the Civil Law and the Common Law, the two great rivals for supremacy in the legal world.  On the one hand it has drawn its inspiration largely from the law of Rome, yet unlike the continental nations under the Civil Law it has no code; on the other hand, while it shares the respect for precedents distinctive of the Common Law, it has also been systematised in the works of authoritative institutional writers.  As a practical compromise between code law and case law it is a characteristic product of the Scottish genius.

Annual lecture

Another feature of the Society’s activities is the annual lecture, which is delivered at the Society’s AGM. The first such lecture was delivered in 1946 by Professor Archie Campbell, the then newly appointed Professor of Public Law in the University of Edinburgh, on the subject of jurisprudence and its relevance to the law of Scotland. Then at the 1965 AGM Professor Jack Halliday, Professor of Conveyancing in the University of Glasgow, gave a lecture entitled A Lawyer Looks at Stair. An AGM lecture has been given every year since then and a full list of lectures, with citations where published is available on this website. The lecturers have included many prominent legal historians from the United States, Europe, Scotland and elsewhere in the British Isles

Further information

A more detailed history of the early and middle years of the Society, covering the years 1934 to 1967 and written by our Secretary and Treasurer, Tom Drysdale, is published in two parts in the Society's volumes 52 (Miscellany V) and 54 (Miscellany VI). PDF versions of both parts are available in our Resources section.