RLS at the Speculative Society
Opening its doors to the public
for the first time
Robert Louis Stevenson was a member of the Speculative Society, founded in 1764 and dedicated to ‘improvement in literary composition and public speaking’.
As part of 2015’s RLS Day celebrations, Saturday 14 November will be the first time that the Speculative Society opens its doors to the general public. There is no better reason than that to take a closer look at the Society and Edinburgh’s tradition of debating societies.
You can find event booking and ticket information at the bottom of this page.
Like many Edinburgh University law students through the centuries, RLS was elected to the ancient Speculative Society, known as the ‘Spec’. The Society was founded to allow its members the opportunity to improve their own composition and public speaking skills – providing ‘fair seed-time’ for the soul of the aspiring writer. RLS was in good company: the Spec counts among its former members such literary luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, John Gibson Lockhart and Hugh MacDiarmid. The Society was close to Stevenson’s heart, and it was here that he honed his skills, perfected his craft and had the space to explore his ideas.
The Spec was also on Stevenson’s mind at the time of his death. Stevenson was working on his last novel, Weir of Hermiston, when he died at the age of 44 in Samoa. Weir includes several references to the society, of which the central character Archie is president, and features a scene set at one of the society’s meetings. Archie himself shares marked similarities with the young RLS: close to his mother, rather delicate, and a student of law at Edinburgh University.
Just as in RLS’s day, members of the Speculative Society still gather regularly in their private rooms in Old College, the beautiful Neo-classical building on South Bridge designed by Robert Adam and William H. Playfair. The rooms were given to the Society in perpetuity after their previous premises were demolished at the end of the 18th century to allow the present building to be constructed on the same site.
Edinburgh: a hotbed of debate
The Spec may be one of the oldest debating Societies in the world, but when it was set up in the mid-18th century it was one of a huge number of clubs and societies which peppered Enlightenment Edinburgh. Their purposes were diverse, from encouraging political debate to forming a militia for Scotland, but the majority were men-only, members-only, and prided themselves on the high profile figures they could count among their members.
Robert Fergusson immortalised the halcyon days of club scene in his poem ‘Auld Reekie’, describing the city’s ‘mony a club, jocose and free’ and mentioning by name the Cape Club, of which he was a member along with Henry Raeburn and the notorious Deacon Brodie. Another popular and prominent club was the Select Society, later The Poker Club, founded in 1754 and attended by David Hume, Adam Ferguson and Allan Ramsay. The notorious and fashionable Macaroni Club, described by Hugh Walpole as ‘composed of all the traveled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses’, appealed to the hipsters of the day as its name derived from the slang expression for a certain type foppish gentlemen who pandered to the fashion for elaborate wigs, corsets and tight trousers.
Not so Enlightened?
Women were not usually members of these Enlightenment societies; as one of the few original societies still in existence, the Spec is unusual in now admitting women. But as early as 1865 Sarah Mair Siddons, a descendant of the actress Sarah Siddons, began to level the playing field. She founded the Edinburgh Essay Society – quickly renamed the Ladies’ Edinburgh Debating Society – at the tender age of 18, hosting their monthly meetings in the drawing room at her family’s home in the New Town.
Meeting on the first Saturday of each month until 1936, the Society debated and discussed books, ideas and political issues. Until 1880 members published their own journal, which featured fiction and opinion pieces by society members. As Queen Margaret University’s K.A Kelman notes: ‘At a time when women’s societal role was limited and access to education was based on wealth or the philanthropy of others, these women were able (through their privileged place in the middle and upper classes) to construct their own canon of improving reading and to set guidelines for the education of others.’
Opening the Doors for RLS Day 2015
Stevenson at the Speculative Society
Go behind the scenes at the Speculative Society for a rare candle-lit evening of wonder and wit in celebration of one of the Society’s most famous members, Robert Louis Stevenson.
To celebrate Robert Louis Stevenson Day 2015 the Society opens its doors to the public to host an evening of Stevensonian readings in its historic rooms, by fire and candle light. This event marks the first time that the Speculative Society has invited members of the general public to visit its historic meeting rooms.
The evening will include a reading of Stevenson’s final address to the Society, never before heard in public. This is a historic occasion and tickets are likely to be sought after.
How to get Tickets
There are only limited tickets available: please email [email protected] to book yours, specifying the name and email addresses of your guests, so that the payment, booking information and ticket can be sent directly to them. Tickets are available on a first-come first-served basis and include coffee on arrival. If you are successful in getting a ticket, you will receive an email directly from Eventbrite to enable you to pay for and print out your ticket.
The event will take place first at 5pm on Saturday 14 November and again at 8pm that evening: please let us know which time you would prefer when you fill in the above email. If you are successful in getting a ticket, please make sure you select your preferred timeslot when making your booking through Eventbrite.
Proceeds from the event will be donated to Craigmillar Literacy Trust, a charity which helps young people in Edinburgh develop a lifelong love of reading, writing and sharing stories.
Theme: Stage and Screen
Theme: Hidden RLS