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Edinburgh's First Police Force

19th Jul 2019
Edinburgh's First Police Force

Have you ever stood at St.Giles’ Cathedral, on ceremonial Sundays, and wondered who all these immaculately dressed individuals, carrying batons and escorting dignitaries, might be? Then you have watched representatives of The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh carrying out their duties which extend back to the year of their foundation in 1611. In many ways they can be seen as Edinburgh’s first police force. Back then, with James VI firmly ensconced in London as simultaneously James I of England. Edinburgh was still a pretty rough place on many occasions and keeping order on the streets was far from successful or straightforward. The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh therefore emerged in an effort to police the city after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. As a legacy of this past, current Society members still hold large wooden batons, small silver batons and a whistle to summon assistance, although these instruments are never called upon to be actually used in this day and age.

In 1810, in order to distinguish the Society from the new police force, the Society was asked to use the title “High Constables of the City of Edinburgh” and it continues to this day, over four centuries later. Unsurprisingly, the Society’s activities nowadays are mainly of a ceremonial and social nature and this is evidenced by the taking part in regular ceremonial Church services held throughout the year at St. Giles and, from time to time, other events elsewhere too. It has occasionally included attendance on HM The Queen and regularly involves escort duty attendance at the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo. A particular longstanding responsibility has been to escort (previously protect) the Lord Provost him or herself, as well as other members of the City Council. To ensure Society members are up to this task, they are regularly drilled in the presence of, and inspected by, the Lord Provost or his or her representative on two occasions each year.

The idea caught on, as sister Societies of High Constables were formed at Holyrood, Leith and Perth and these also continue to this day.

The Edinburgh Society is made up of 23 Wards (corresponding to Edinburgh electoral districts) each made up of 12 members and headed up by a Ward Captain, thereby giving rise to a theoretical maximum of 276 members in total. Membership is drawn from all ranks of Edinburgh professional and business life, amongst other backgrounds, and since 1998 has included Lady Members. The Society’s Office bearers are headed up by an elected Moderator and, as well as including traditional posts as a Secretary and a Treasurer, also include the more traditionally and quaintly named Custodier and Surgeon. There is also a separate charity constituted under the name of the The Charitable Trust of the Society of High Constables of Edinburgh.

Today the Society attend on the Lord Provost and the Councillors of the City on an average of fourteen occasions each year. Many of these duties involve leading parades from the City Chambers to St. Giles. Participating Members dress for the occasion in traditional morning dress and Office Bearers carry silver batons. Non-participating Members may also attend wearing traditional black business dress and bowler hats.

The Society also enjoys an active social life. This culminates with the Society Annual Dinner being held during the first week in December each year with the Lord Provost, of course, in attendance, as well as a number of esteemed guests and speakers. A number of Sports Clubs exist ranging from shooting to the more traditional bowls and curling. Each local Ward also arranges its own internal social events.

Four hundred years after its foundation, The Society of High Constables of Edinburgh proudly continues to contribute to the fabric and tradition of its home city.

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