Ernest Wedderburn

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Sir Ernest Wedderburn
Deputy Keeper of Her Majesty's Signet
In office
Chairman of the General Council of Solicitors in Scotland
In office
Personal details
Born Ernest Maclagan Wedderburn
3 February 1884
Died 3 June 1958(1958-06-03) (aged 74)
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Mary
Relations Joseph Wedderburn (brother)
Residence Succoth Gardens, Edinburgh
Alma mater University of Edinburgh (M.A. LL.B.)
Profession Solicitor
Awards OBE
Military service
Service/branch Ordnance Committee
Rank Assistant Director of Experiments

Sir Ernest Maclagan Wedderburn OBE DL LL.D. DSc FRSE WS (1884 – 3 June 1958) was an Edinburgh lawyer, and a significant figure both in the civic life of the city and in the Scottish legal establishment. He held the posts of Professor of Conveyancing in the University of Edinburgh (1922–35), Deputy Keeper of the Signet (1935–54), and Chairman of the General Council of Solicitors (1936–49), the forerunner to the Law Society of Scotland. He was also an enthusiastic amateur scientist, and Treasurer of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1937–47).

Early life[edit]

Wedderburn was born in Angus in 1884, the son of Alexander Stormonth Maclagan Wedderburn, M.D., of Pearsie.[1] He was one of fourteen children, and the younger brother of Joseph Wedderburn,[2] who would become Professor of Mathematics at Princeton and conceive the Wedderburn–Etherington number and Artin–Wedderburn theorem. He was also distantly related through his father to eighteenth century Lord of Session Peter Wedderburn, Lord Chesterhall, and to the latter's son, Lord Chancellor Alexander Wedderburn, 1st Earl of Rosslyn.[3]

On 5 April 1911, he married Mary, daughter of Rev Thomas Smith Goldie, Minister of Granton.[4] During the Great War, whilst in the employ of the Ordnance Committee, his family's aptitude towards mathematics came to the fore as he found a new system for calculating the allowance to be made for ballistic winds in long-range artillery shooting, which had been widely adopted by the end of the War. He was appointed Assistant Director of Experiments at the Ministry of Defence's site at Shoeburyness, Essex, was mentioned twice in despatches and awarded an OBE.[1] Their son, Ernest Alexander Maclagan Wedderburn, a Major in the Royal Scots, was killed on Christmas Eve 1944, and is buried in the Ancona War Cemetery, Italy.[5]


Wedderburn entered the University of Edinburgh, graduating M.A. (1904) LL.B. (1907), having in 1906 commenced an apprenticeship in the offices of Gillespie and Paterson WS[1] (now Gillespie Macandrew).[6] Upon completing his apprenticeship, he was admitted as a Writer to the Signet, enabling him to practise as a solicitor, and joined the firm of Carment, Wedderburn and Watson. The Wedderburn of the firm's name was Joseph Robert Maclagan Wedderburn (1850–1936), Ernest's paternal uncle, who in 1922 would lead the merger with Guild and Shepherd which would form Shepherd and Wedderburn, now one of Scotland's largest firms.

Ernest practised with the firm until that merger in 1922, when he took up the post of Professor of Conveyancing in the Faculty of Law of the University of Edinburgh, in succession to Professor Mounsey.[1][7] During this time he pioneered the employment of small tutorial-sized classes in his teaching, a practice which continued until instruction in drafting was removed from undergraduate studies to the Diploma in Legal Practice in 1981.[7] He demitted the Chair in 1935, and was succeeded by Harry H. Monteath. In 1938, the University awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Upon his retirement from the Edinburgh Chair in 1935, Wedderburn became Deputy Keeper of the Signet, the most senior member of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty's Signet. In civil actions in the Court of Session, a pursuer is required to have his writ stamped with the Signet to give him authority from the Crown to serve the writ on the defender. That conferral, called "passing the Signet," was until 1976 carried out by the Signet Office, the administration of which was one of the Society's responsibilities. The office of Keeper of the Signet is held by the Lord Clerk Register (the oldest surviving of the Great Officers of State, which at the time was held by Walter Erskine, 12th Earl of Mar) but is a purely ceremonial one, the Deputy Keeper instead being the most senior membership representative in the Society's administration.

A year later he took up the post of Chairman of the General Council of Solicitors in Scotland. This body had been established a few years before by the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1933 as the first national body for the solicitors' profession, with responsibilities for the education and training of solicitors and for enforcing standards of conduct, and its membership drawn from representatives of local faculties. Admission to practice was still controlled by these local bodies, such as the Society of Advocates in Aberdeen, Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow, and in Wedderburn's case the WS Society. The Act had also established the Independent Discipline Committee, before which cases by the General Council against mischievous solicitors were to be brought.

Wedderburn was knighted in July 1942.[8] A 1946 photographic portrait of him by the Bassano studio, taken in his capacity as Chairman of the General Council, is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London.[9]

Accounts of the General Council's efficacy are unfavourable, mostly citing lack of funds,[10] and it was replaced in 1949 by a new body, the Law Society of Scotland. This body assumed the responsibility of registering all solicitors and taking cases before the new Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal, as well as charging registration fees to prevent some of the issues faced by its predecessor. Wedderburn served as Chairman of the Law Society in its first year, resigning in 1950.


Although a lawyer by trade, Wedderburn had a keen interest in science. During the Great War he found a new system for calculating the allowance to be made for ballistic winds in long-range artillery shooting, which had been widely adopted by the end of the War. Whilst a student he had worked in the University's vacations with Sir John Murray on the Scottish Lake Survey, and continued this enthusiasm later in life, following George Chrystal's work on seiches on the Scottish lochs.[11] He was elected an Ordinary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 21 January 1907; his brother, Joseph, had been one of the youngest Fellows ever elected, at age 21.[2] He was an active member of the Society, proposing many notable scientists for membership and serving as Treasurer for ten years, from 1937 to 1947.[11] He was also closely involved with the Scottish Meteorological Society, and published an article on its history in the November 1955 edition of journal Weather.

Retirement and death[edit]

Wedderburn had remained Deputy Keeper of the Signet throughout his tenure as Chairman of the General Council, but retired from this post as well in 1954. He died on 3 June 1958 at his home in Succoth Gardens, in Edinburgh's West End.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Obituary of Sir Ernest Wedderburn". The Herald (Glasgow). 4 June 1958. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Obituary of Joseph Wedderburn". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  3. ^ "Alexander Wedderburn". Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "Scottish Ministers, Granton". Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  5. ^ "Wedderburns who gave their lives in two world wars". Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  6. ^ "History of the firm". Gillespie Macandrew. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "History of the Faculty of Law". University of Edinburgh School of Law. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  8. ^ The London Gazette: no. 35632. pp. 3101–3102. 14 July 1942. Retrieved 6 January 2016.
  9. ^ "Portrait record, Sir Ernest Wedderburn". National Portrait Gallery, London. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  10. ^ "Thomson Review:Rights of Audience in the Supreme Courts". Scottish Government. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  11. ^ a b "Royal Society of Edinburgh". Retrieved 23 August 2012. 

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