Society of Barbers of Edinburgh Archive

Scope and Content

The Society of Barbers archive (1722-1922) comprises:

SB 1: Laws and Acts of Dean of Guilds and Town Council of Edinburgh (1722-1846); SB 2: Minutes (1722-1922); SB 3: Accounts and financial papers (1727-1922); SB 4: Indentures (1805-33); SB 5: Admissions (1735-84); SB 6: Correspondence (1758-1859); SB 7: Litigation (1722-1829); SB 8: Petitions to the Society (1827-28); Petitions for charity to the Society and Trades Maiden Hospital (1763-1922); SB 9: Searches for incumbrances (1780-1859); SB 10: Inventories of Writs (1728-1851); SB 11: Title deeds (1721-1853); SB 12: Business papers (1730-c.1922); SB 13: Miscellaneous (c.1722, 1830).

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1505 the surgeons and barbers of Edinburgh jointly appealed to the Edinburgh Town Council for incorporation. This was granted on July 1st 1505 and the Seal of Cause subsequently ratified by King James IV in October 1506. Despite having practised the craft of surgery for centuries, from this date barbers were expected to pass examinations in anatomy and surgery if they were to continue undertaking their craft in Edinburgh and its suburbs of Canongate, Leith and Portsburgh. With the dual examination, barbers could become dually-qualified practitioners in the trades of surgery and barbery, and also members of the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh.

Over the course of the seventeenth century splits formed between the ‘simple barbers’, ‘barber-chirurgians’ and ‘chirurgians’. Despite a long association, the barbers would feel increasingly marginalised, with their privileges and scope of their work curtailed by the surgeons, including office-bearing in the Incorporation and their barbering restricted to the suburbs. The surgeons would formally strengthen their position in 1694 when the terms of the Seal of Cause were redefined. This new ratification, being confirmed in Parliament in 1695, gave the surgeons “full power over all persons exercising surgery, pharmacy or barbery within the bounds of the city of Edinburgh”. Moreover, whereas the barbers had previously held the same rights of surgeons, they were now ignored completely in favour of the apothecaries, thereby creating the ‘surgeon-apothecary’. As such, the barbers had neither any say in the administration of the Incorporation, nor were they entitled to benefit from the fees they contributed as members. Resentments caused by such loss of control through unequal division of governing power climaxed in 1722, when the Barbers formally separated from the Incorporation by decreet of the Court of Session. The same year saw the formation of the Society of Barbers of Edinburgh (sometimes known as the Corporation of Barbers). The Society of Barbers ceased its operations in 1922.

Access Information

This collection is open. Access is by appointment only. Contact

Acquisition Information

The Society of Barbers was ultimately wound up in 1922 and its papers came to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in that year.

Other Finding Aids

Finding aid also available on Archive catalogue

Archivist's Note

The arrangement of the archive and creation of this catalogue was made possible through a Wellcome Trust Research Resources in Medical History Programme grant.


No further accruals expected.

Related Material

For extensive archive material relating to the pre 1722 activities, practices and relationships between the surgeons, barbers, barber-surgeons, apothecaries and surgeon-apothecaries, please see the main Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh institutional archive (catalogue ref: RCSEd) on our website. Please see Archive catalogue (

Geographical Names