In October 1894, Herbert Grierson delivered his inaugural lecture as the first holder of the Regius Chalmers Chair of English Literature at the University of Aberdeen. Before this, literature had been taught as part of the Rhetoric courses within the Philosophy Department. Professor Grierson, later Sir Herbert, was one of the most distinguished scholars of his day, writing on seventeenth-century literature, editing the poetry of John Donne, and editing Walter Scott's letters. He held the chair until 1915.

Since then the Regius chair has been held by A.A. Jack (1915-38), a Romantic specialist; Geoffrey Bickersteth (1938-54), remembered for his work on early Italian literature; G.I. Duthie (1955-67), a leading Shakespearean scholar; Andrew Rutherford (1968-84), noted for his work on Byron and Kipling; R.P. Draper (1987-94), whose publications range from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence and contemporary poetry; and G.S. Rousseau (1994-98), distinguished for his work on literature and the sciences; and Peter Davidson, now Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Centre for Early Modern Studies.

The department has also been closely linked with some of Scotland’s most distinguished creative writers. Its alumni include Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Nan Shepherd and Ali Smith. The writers William McIlvanney, Bernard Maclaverty and Alan Spence have all served the department as writers in residence. The University of Aberdeen awarded an honorary degree to Thomas Hardy in 1905. The Department of English continues to celebrate creative writing through its association with the university’s annual WORD festival.