History of the Rector

Historic Background

Until the mid-19th Century, the Rector had to be a minister of the Church of Scotland. Then, claiming that this was incompatible with their oath to elect a rector ‘of great worth and fame’, the students sought to break the mould by electing Sir Walter Scott in 1825 – an election which was immediately declared null and void.

One of the first rectors to be elected after the 1858 Act was John StuartMill, who helped himself to a concept of rector as ‘honorary president’ (more the intended style of the Chancellor’s post), made one speech and then disappeared for all of his three year term. For the rest of the 19th Century, many of the rectors were senior politicians from conservative and liberal parties. Then there followed a succession of great public figures, including wealthy benefactors such as the Marquess of Bute and Andrew Carnegie; statesmen like Lord Avebury and the Earl of Rosebery; Field Marshall Haig during the First World War; writers such as J M Barrie and Rudyard Kipling in the 1920s; and Jan Christiaan Smuts and Marchese Marconi in the 1930s. These men increasingly adopted the style of J S Mill, appearing once only in their term as rector.




The day before the Installation is filled with student-led celebrations under the title of ‘The Drag’. The rector is ‘delivered’ into town by a novel form of transport, and is then drawn in an ancient carriage, pulled by university Blues, to a series of 12-15 hostelries where student groups, clubs and societies are deployed to introduce themselves and their activities, buy him/her a drink, and offer a relevant gift as a memento of the occasion.

The Drag ends with a reception at the Student Union Building, followed by a night-time torchlight procession from St Salvator’s Quad to the end of the pier, and indefinite further revelling in the town’s bars.

Source: ‘The University Rector’. Introduction to the Role of University Rector in Scotland first issued by the Scottish Rectors’ Group.