Edinburgh High Constables

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History of The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh

17th Century Edinburgh

By 1600 Edinburgh probably had a population of about 15,000. Today that seems very small but towns were tiny in those days. By the standards of the time Edinburgh was a large town. As it grew a suburb was built around Canongate. In the late 16th century an English writer described Edinburgh: “From the Kings Palace in the east the city rises higher and higher to the west and consists mainly of one broad and very fair street. The rest of the side streets and alleys are poorly built and inhabited by very poor people. And its length from east to west is about a mile while the width of the city from north to south is narrow and cannot be half a mile”. Nevertheless, Edinburgh was the recognised capital of Scotland and as such was the home of the Scottish Parliament.

Foundation of the Society

Although both Scotland and England already had Lord High Constables and Constables of castles, the lower level English Constables of hundreds, villages and townships were unknown in Scotland.

It is therefore no great surprise that as a result of the union of Crowns the King’s Privy Council of Scotland took an active interest in the civil order of Edinburgh. After an initial command in 1608 failed to quell further street tumults in 1611 they “command the magistrates of Edinburgh to appoint some persons to guard their streets and to commit to ward all person found on the streets after the said hour (ten hours bell). If in the taking of them any inconvenient sal happen it is declared that the same shall not be imputed as a crime to the captors but as good and acceptable service”…

There then followed several Edinburgh Town Council meetings on the 28th August, 4th September and 6th September respectively as a result of which an unspecified number of Constables were “elected”. Half were merchants and half were craftsmen and they were expected to enforce 16 regulations relating to such matters as “apprehending suspected persons, apprehend those wearing pistols or dagges, break up affrays at any time of day or night, check bounds and apprehend vagabonds, sturdy beggars or egyptianes”.

Various Duties

Edinburgh council records indicate that the constables were closely involved with municipal activities during the 17th century and their duties at that time included collecting levies from citizens to assist them to keep the streets clean, and to engage paid soldiers to form the Town Guard. The Orders and Injunctions were amended from time to time and in 1700 following a request from the constables the council agreed that short batons for their pockets should be provided as long as the constables paid for the batons from their fines. The procedure at that time of fining members for non attendance without a valid excuse and of inspecting the batons at the election of new constables continues today.

There are minutes in existence which show that amongst the duties carried out by members of the Society there were the periodical examination of weights and measures. A direction to carry out this particular duty came before a meeting of the constables in 1811. The then Moderator was quite clearly a cautious man. It was resolved that the constables would apply for the assistance of the military “to enable them to do this business completely as it was evident for want of such assistance the former attempt to check weights failed”.

Support was provided in the form of fifteen men from the Ross-shire militia then in Edinburgh. Thus reinforced, the constables made what today might be termed a dawn raid on the markets, shops and other retail establishments within the burgh. The caution of the Moderator was justified as the constables apparently did meet some resistance. One report describes an ill natured encounter with Mrs Black the tobacconist “who gave us all the trouble she could”. Another report states that the farmers were “extremely insolent”. It is not clear whether batons had to be drawn.


First reference to the office of Moderator was in 1689. The first recorded serving Moderator was David Grant in 1707.

High Constables of Edinburgh

Enactment of the Edinburgh Police Act in 1805 resulted in very material changes to the duties required of the Edinburgh constables. This Act introduced a uniform system of police throughout the whole city. Inevitably, concerns arose about the relative duties and powers between the constables and the new police force, and following a petition from the Society the council said that although they wished to retain the valuable support of the Society, "it was impossible to expect that gentlemen occupying the first stations and most respectable and laborious professional employments in the city, should discharge the duties of watching over the peace of the metropolis". The council pointed out that legally the constables would be subservient to the Chief Magistrate of Police, but they hoped that there would be no conflict between the two forces during emergencies and that they would endeavour to ensure that the police magistrate and his officers would treat every member of the Society with proper respect. In 1810, in order to distinguish the Society from the new police force, the Society requested and received permission to use the title "High Constables of the City of Edinburgh".

Changing Role of the Society

The role of the Society of High Constables gradually changed and the attendance on the council on ceremonial occasions became more pronounced. In addition to the long standing tradition of attending the magistrates and council on the King's birthday there are records of the High Constables being on parade at the laying of the foundation stones of the Regent Bridge and of the new jail in 1815, at the royal visit of King George IV in 1822 and at the laying of the foundation stone for George IV Bridge in 1827 as well as many other civic outings. The High Constables also attended executions, fires and riots. The last mention on an execution at which the High Constables were on duty was the execution of John Dempsey in the High Street in 1820 although in 1828 they were on duty all night at the trials of Burke and Hare. Riots and fires seemed to make up the largest part of the non-ceremonial duties. On the 12th January 1838 the High Constables were called to restore order following the snowball “riots” involving students at Old College. The large wrought iron gates at the entrance to Old College Quad are still referred today as the “Snowball Gates”. The last mention in Marwick of an attendance at a fire was in 1872 when the High Constables were asked to preserve order at a fire at West Pier.

Society Regalia

The 19th century saw a large increase in the insignia of the Society. The most significant items are the Moderator's gold medal and chain which were presented by the Society in January 1863, and the large silver mounted batons for the use of Office Bearers. That said, the Vice Moderator’s gold medal dates from 1855 and is thought to be more valuable. The silver batons have been inscribed with the names of all office bearers since about 1820. The oldest artefact is the Treasurer's brass money box which was made in 1698 and is inscribed with the names and occupations of the constables who contributed to its cost; among other inscriptions is a reference to the part played by Edinburgh High Constables during the visit of Queen Victoria to the city on 1st September 1842. The oldest large silver batons are as follows:

Ex Moderator              1820

Treasurer                    1828

Secretary                    1828

Custodier                    1828

Surgeon                      1831

Vice Moderator           1859

Moderator                   1865

Lady Members

The constitution of the Society was modified in 1997 when the members agreed by a two thirds majority to permit women to become members. This was done at the request of the City of Edinburgh Council. The first lady member was elected in October of the following year.


Today the Society attend on the Lord Provost and Councillors of the City on an average of fourteen occasions a year. Many of the duties involve leading parades from the City Chambers to St Giles. Silver Batons are used by the Office Bearers for these parades.

On 9th October 2004 the Society provided an escort for Her Majesty The Queen on her arrival at the City Chambers for the parade down the High Street at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building. Office Bearers stood guard at either side of the Royal dais at the City Chambers during the parade.


In 2011 the Society celebrated 400 years of serving the City of Edinburgh. To mark this special occasion Letters Patent were granted by the Lord Lyon King of Arms which formally authorised the use of the Society’s badges. A copy of the Letters Patent can be found in the Website Gallery. HRH The Princess Royal received the Letters Patent from the Lord Lyon at a reception held for the Society at the Palace of Holyrood House.



A chronological perspective


1411        University of St. Andrews founded.

1451        University of Glasgow founded.

1494        University of Aberdeen founded.

1505        The incorporation of the Barber-Surgeons of Edinburgh with the granting of its Seal of Cause by the Town Council of Edinburgh.

1532        Faculty of Advocates formed on the setting up of the College of Justice.

1582        University of Edinburgh founded.

1600        Scotland adopts Gregorian Calendar.

1603        James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England bringing about the Union of the Crowns.

1611        Year commences on a Saturday under Gregorian Calendar.

1611        King James Bible published for first time in May

1611        First High Constables of Edinburgh appointed by the Magistrates of the City of Edinburgh at a meeting of the Council – 6th September 1611.

1681        The Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh was founded.

1682        The National Library of Scotland was founded.

1695        Bank of Scotland founded.

1707        Act of Union is passed; Scotland formally united with England to form Great Britain. In so doing, the Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence.

1744        The world's first Golf Club, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, was founded.

1860        Scotland hosted the first Open Golf Championship.

1870        The first Rugby International was played between Scotland and England.

1872        The Scottish Football Association and Rangers Football Club were founded.

1888        Celtic Football Club was founded.

1890        Forth Rail Bridge opened

1964        Forth Road Bridge opened by Her Majesty The Queen.

1990        Scotland defeated England to win the Rugby "Grand Slam".

1996        The "Stone of Destiny" is returned from London to Edinburgh Castle.

1997        The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh resolves in general meeting to permit women to become members.

1999        A Scottish Parliament is re-instated after 292 years

2004        The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh provided an escort for Her Majesty The Queen at the City Chambers during the parade down the High Street for the formal opening of the new Parliament Building in October of that year.

2011        Year commences on a Saturday under Gregorian Calendar, the first time it has done so during a Society Centenary year since 1611. Quatercentenary celebrations commence with the Moderator’s Reception held in the Playfair Library on 4th February.


Leonard Wallace

Honorary Historian