The Select Society, established in 1754 as The St. Giles Society but soon renamed, was an intellectual society in 18th century Edinburgh. It initially had fifteen members who included David Hume and Adam Smith.

By the end of its first year, The Select Society had eighty three members. Some years later, some of the members established The Poker Club.

Their mission was articulated in The Scots Magazine in 1755:

The intention of these gentlemen was, by practice to improve themselves in reasoning and eloquence, and by the freedom of debate, to discover the most effectual methods of promoting the good of the country.”

A member would pose a question for debate during the following meeting. Meetings were held on Wednesday nights from 6 PM to 9 PM.

To become a member, one needed to be recommended in writing by two current members. If more than one name was up for consideration, members voted and the majority name made it to the following meeting at which a vote of three-fourths was needed to confirm the membership.

In 1755 the Select Society founded a subsidiary body: the Edinburgh Society for Encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, and Agriculture in Scotland.


The Select - A Brief History

Fifteen Scotsmen sat down in Edinburgh one evening in 1754 to draw up the articles of the St Giles Society, which shortly became the Select. Within a year its membership had grown to 83, of whom 50 were to have their lives recorded in the Dictionary of National Biography. This was no mere University debating society; as one of its members recorded, This Society had no affinity to the clubs that are composed principally of raw half-thinking lads”.

The latter half of the 18th century was a time of intellectual fervour in Edinburgh. Self-improvement was the order of the day, and clubs and societies sprang up to cater to the diverse interests and passions of Scotland’s emerging professional and literary classes. Improvement by association with others was, as one author recorded, the watchword of the Enlightenment”; men and women gathered to debate and discuss the arts, the natural sciences, industry, agriculture and sport - for the general cultivation of the mind by canvassing ideas on all the miscellaneous subjects of a liberal education”.

Who were the members of the Select? Allan Ramsay the portraitist was the founder, and he gathered around him all the talents; Adam Smith, David Hume, the Adam brothers, James and John, George Drummond, the New Town founding Lord Provost of Edinburgh, a clutch of lawyers including a future Lord Chancellor and Lord Justice General, Adam Ferguson and William Robertson. Writing to Ramsay, David Hume observed of their creation that has grown to be a national concern…all the world are ambitious of a place amongst us…in short the House of Commons is less the object of general curiosity at London than the Select Society at Edinburgh”.

What was the purpose of the Select? It was simply the pursuit of philosophical enquiry and the improvement of the members in the art of speaking”. In the latter occupation the society’s regular debates were such that the most splendid talents that have ever adorned this country were roused to their exertions, by the liberal and ennobling discussions of literature and philosophy”.


January 1, 2020