Moving with the times for 500 years


The history of the Society of Writers to HM Signet goes back over 500 years. It may be supposed the Society is the oldest extant professional body in the world. Originally officers charged with responsibility for documents passing under the Signet, the seal of the Kings and Queens of Scotland, Writers to the Signet evolved into lawyers and, in 1532, were recognised as the original solicitors for litigation in the Supreme Courts as members of the College of Justice established by King James V.


The Society is a corporation under Scottish common law, the earliest form of incorporated body. This means it has legal personality separate from its members who are transitory custodians in the transmission of functions and assets between successive generations. Legal authority makes clear that public benefit is intrinsic to such entities. This benefit has evolved over time. At its core has always been public access to qualified legal practitioners. From earliest times, the Society has recognised its public responsibility: “This is a duty they owe not to themselves alone, but to the Public”(1792). Over the course of the centuries, the Society has given financial and practical support to a host of charitable and public causes, from national defence to civic improvement, from education to medicine, from welfare to recreation. Some functions remain the same, others have evolved. Today, for example, not only do the Society’s office bearers continue to serve as charity trustees ex officio, but the Society provides an administration service for charities. What remains constant is the Society’s ethos as a not-for-profit organisation and custodian of national heritage.

‘One of the great constituent bodies’

Described in 1890 as “a society long and intimately connected with the procedure of the crown and the courts of law, and not a little concerned with the development of wealth and of liberal education in the country”, the WS Society has long been at the heart of Scottish national life. New Enlightenment aspires to echo the ideals expressed by the Society during the epoch of the Scottish Enlightenment in conceiving the Signet Library as an inspiring, uplifting space for reading and discussing law, ideas, literature and learning. Today’s Society and its functions honour the prominent role of our predecessors as lawyers, leaders, exemplars and citizens in public life, and as advisers and friends to some of our greatest literary and cultural figures.