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High jinks and a cat called Marmalade

Once notorious for the battle in the quad, Edinburgh’s rectorial elections have introduced a raft of notable faces to the University. As we prepare for the next elections in February, we would like to hear your memories of this uniquely Scottish tradition.

Muriel Gray

The role of Rector as an elected position serving on the University Court came into being as part of the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1858.

A prized position

The University Rector is a role that has been held by prime ministers (6 in total), Nobel Prize winners, writers, soldiers and scientists, as well as a professional footballer and a rock musician.

Memorable names such as David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Magnus Magnusson, James Robertson Justice, Donnie Munro, Muriel Gray and Gordon Brown have all served as Rector and an equally impressive roll call of individuals have competed in the elections.

High jinks

As notable as these individuals are, the most notable aspect of the rectoral elections was often the rowdy and boisterous behaviour that accompanied the inaugural address.

The whooping and yelling which proceeded from the usual decorous building [the university] might have been heard from Prince’s Street to Newington.

Arthur Conan Doyle from "The Firm of Girdleston"Cited in Donald Wintersgill (2005) The Rectors of the University of Edinburgh 1859-2000, Dunedin Academic Press, p 216
Rectoral election

The lively atmosphere was sometimes extended to the official Chairing (installation) event, whether it was students joining the Rector on stage in fancy dress or covering the new Rector in toilet tissue.

Fast rectorial facts

  • The Rector is elected every three years by staff and students of the University.
  • The first and only woman to be elected as Rector to date was Muriel Gray in 1988.
  • Jonathan Wills was the first student to win the rectorship.
  • In 1994 a three legged tabby cat called Marmalade was put forward as a candidate but disqualified because the paw print signature was deemed indistinct.
  • David Lloyd George was serving as Prime Minister when elected in 1920.

Back to business

In recent years elections have taken a more business-like approach. In 1994 junior hospital doctor, Malcolm Macleod was elected despite running against several celebrity candidates including the comedian Tony Slattery, and the actor Brian Cox.

Macleod's campaign reflected a harking back to an earlier era, when the capacity of the candidate to undertake representational work on behalf of the university community featured prominently.

Douglas Alexander, Rector’s AssessorCited in Wintersgill (2005) p210

Your memories

We would love to hear your memories of past rectorial elections including any photographs. Please send your recollections to us using the contact details below.

Development and Alumni

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