History of High School Yards

The fascinating and sometimes gruesome history of ECCI's new building at High School Yards includes tales of Medieval Knights and Burke and Hare, a place where Mary Queen of Scots and Sir Walter Scott share the billing with tales of murder, mystery and…the invention of the blackboard.

It started life as Blackfriars Monastery in the 13th century, turning up the murdered body of Mary Queen of Scots' husband in its ruins 300 hundred years later.

As the 18th century 'Royal High School', while Burke and Hare went about their sordid business in the adjacent Surgeon's Square, it boasted Sir Walter Scott and the inventor of the blackboard James Pillans as its most famous pupils - the former reportedly leaving his mark in the stone entrance archway (pictured).

After the 'Old High School' closed in 1829 it became a surgical hospital and later it returned to its roots as a seat of learning as the University of Edinburgh moved through its corridors in various guises with the Science & Engineering, Geography, Dental school and in latter years Archaeology departments all calling it home.

Early Days

High School Yards has always been a significant architectural site and has gone through many incarnations since its beginnings as the site of Blackfriars Monastery founded in 1230 by King Alexander II. The recent discovery of the remains of the old Monestery building and adjacent graveyard underneath what was previously a car park, mean that a much fuller picture of the early architectural and archeological history of the site is beginning to emerge.

The Old High School

The original monastery and church were destroyed in 1558 by a mob made up of followers of John Knox's reformation, after which the magistrates of the city persuaded Mary Queen of Scots to assign what had been church lands to the city and a School was built on the site to replace the educational function of the monastery (ironically the murdered body of Mary Queen of Scot's husband, Lord Darnley, was found in 1567 on the site).

The original High School was built in 1578, at the substantial cost of £250. By 1774, this old building was incapable of accommodating the increased number of pupils and was demolished to make way for a larger school building, which is today referred to as the "Old High School".

From schoolboys to surgeons 

The building currently being refurbished by ECCI was built by Alexander Laing in 1777 as the Old High School of Edinburgh at the cost of £4000. In the 1700s the Royal High School was regarded as the city’s best educational establishment. Pupils who studied in this building included some of the city’s leading figures of the age, such as author Sir Walter Scott, politician Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville and lawyer and conservationist Henry Cockburn.

Many of these pupils were taught by Alexander Adam, a classical scholar and educational reformer. Adam was a popular teacher, and around 1805 fourteen former pupils commissioned the artist Raeburn to paint his portrait, which now hangs in the National Gallery. Another member of staff was James Pillans, rector of the school until 1820. He is credited with inventing the blackboard, using it with coloured chalks in his geography classes.

In 1832 the building became a surgical hospital, where the University of Edinburgh held its anatomy classes. Surgeon James Syme and antiseptic pioneer Joseph Lister were in charge of wards in this building, while Professors in the University.

In his memoirs, Henry Cockburn reminisced about his time as pupil at the Royal High School:

“Having never been at a public school before, and this one being notorious for its severity and riotousness, I approached its walls with trembling, and felt dizzy when I sat down amidst above 100 new faces.”

The general tone of the school was vulgar and harsh. Among the boys coarseness of language and manners was the only fashion….No lady could be seen within its walls. Nothing evidently civilised was safe. Two of the masters, in particular, were so savage that any master doing now what they did every hour would certainly be transported.”

University of Edinburgh

By the latter stages of the 19th Century, the old hospitals were reaching the end of their useful life and throughout the 20th century the University acquired the Old High School building to house a number of different disciplines, including Engineering and Science, Geography and the Dental School, and the University Territorial Army Battalion, later the Officers Training Corps, was also based in High School Yards in the 1950’s.

The administrative offices and departments of the Dental School occupied the building until their closure in 1994 and many of the remaining original internal features, including the last traces of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, were removed or covered up during this period. The Department of Archaeology took occupation of the building in 1995 and in 2011, clearing and demolition work began on what will become the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

Surrounding Architecture & History

The Buildings around Surgeon's Square (Social Sciences)

Surgeon's Square is located behind the Old High School Building and the New Surgical Hospital. Although much modified from the elegance depicted here (this etching was published in 1829), it is none-the-less a very pleasant area of Edinburgh. However, this elegance hides a dark secret.

Several of the houses around the square were used for privately-run anatomy classes, including those given by the infamous Dr. Robert Knox. Dr. Knox needed human bodies to act as the subjects of his classes, however these were difficult to obtain and thus Knox turned to the grave-robbers (known as resurrectionists) Burke and Hare. Such was the demand that Burke and Hare eventually turned to murder to satisfy the need. Dr. Knox's house, together with its neighbour were demolished to make way for the New Surgical Hospital.
Today Surgeon's Square includes a number of buildings which house parts of the Social Science Faculty of the University of Edinburgh.

In 1697, the surgeons of Edinburgh moved from their former meeting place in Dickson's Close to conduct their business in what we now refer to as Old Surgeon's Hall. This building, on the south side of Surgeon's Square, remained the home of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh until 1832, when they moved to new and more prestigious premises in Nicolson Street, which they still occupy today. It was in this year that the Old High School was converted into a Surgical Hospital and therefore Surgeon's Hall became a Fever Hospital also attached to the Royal Infirmary.

More recently Old Surgeon's Hall building was occupied with the University Departments of Oral Medicine and Oral Pathology and Conservative Dentistry. Following the closure of the Dental School, in 1995, the building became the home of the Faculty of Social Sciences Graduate School. The demolition of a 1970s "temporary" building behind in 2008 has revealed the rear of Old Surgeon's Hall.

Chisholm House

Chisholm House was built in 1764, and is typical of the surgeon's houses which would once have occupied rather more of the Square. Following a complete refurbishment in 1995, is now the location for the Institute of Governance and the Science Studies Unit. Previously the building was part of the Universities' Geography Department, and indeed is named after George Chisholm, the first lecturer in Geography at Edinburgh.

An orange lime-wash was applied to the building following an external restoration in 2008.

Within the Old Infirmary, the kitchen, dining room, treasurer's office, laboratory and 'house for resident officers' are all indicated on the map. Across the road three churches adjoin a Brewery, perhaps typifying what Edinburgh people were all about?

Other notable features include the tram tracks which can be seen running down the centre of the South Bridge, the street which forms the left edge of the map. The Operating Theatre on the east side of the Surgical Hospital (Old High School building) is clearly marked. Chisholm House is designated a "Burn Hospital", with the building running south from that into the Surgeon's Hall, designated the "Fever Hospital".

The Flodden Wall

The Flodden Wall is the name given to the defensive wall which was built to surround the City of Edinburgh in 1513. This was the second defensive wall built in Edinburgh's history, but the Flodden Wall took a much more extensive tract of land within the City limits, including the Blackfriars Monastery. The pictures above show the Flodden Wall as it is today, running down Drummond Street (where is it breached by the emplacement of the Old Infirmary Gates discussed above) and turning down into The Pleasance.

It was in 1513 that the Scots waged a disastrous attack on the English at Flodden Field. James IV led the attack as a ridiculous chivalrous gesture following an appeal from the French Queen. He was killed in the action, along with 10,000 other Scots, including most of the governing Lords. The 16 month old James V became King and the country was run by inexperienced leaders, leading to the relatively prosperous era of James IV being replaced by an age of decadence, turmoil and corruption.

Thus the Flodden Wall was built to defend Edinburgh from English attacks. A remarkable extent survives to this day surrounding the Drummond Street / High School Yards complex on two sides. The adjacent photograph was taken in the latter part of the 19th Century, and shows the wall as it changes direction to run up Drummond Street, having come up the side of the Pleasance. It is almost unchanged to this day - indeed the building on the far right has been removed to better expose the wall in the Pleasance.

The extent of the Flodden Wall can be seen from this map produced in 1697. The 15th Century High School Building is also depicted, however Surgeon's Hall, built in the year the map was drawn, is not shown.

Towards the Cowgate

The Cowgate is the road which runs parallel to Infirmary Street, just to the North. It was named after the Gate in the Flodden Wall which it led from. High School Wynd leads from Infirmary Street to the Cowgate and in this pair of photographs from 1867 (first looking north, second looking south) illustrates some of the mediaeval tenemental properties which characterised Edinburgh's Old Town until relatively recent years.
The gates of High School Yards at the top of High School Wynd can just be seen on the right-hand photograph.

© Bruce M. Gittings (Geography) and Ian W. Morrison (Archaeology), 1995.

Some photographs and Maps come from the Journals of the Old Edinburgh Club and the University of Edinburgh.

Look out for

  • The main entrance with a classical styled portico with Roman ‘Doric’ columns.

  • The graffiti left by generations of schoolboys around the main doorway - including that of a mysterious 'W.S.'

Special Report - A Knight's Tale - March 13 2013

Not a place shy of making history, High School Yards was once more in the public eye on Wednesday when news of the ECCI Knight hit the wires. 

The discovery of the skeleton and grave of a Medieval Knight underneath a former car park at the building site went public and no fewer than 20 journalists and photographers rushed down to ECCI's building site to get the scoop.

Representatives from the BBC, STV, The Times, The Scotsman, The Daily Record and a number of news agencies all jostled for the best picture and the perfect quote to set off their coverage.

The story was featured on the national and local broadcast news, national newspapers and international publications as far and wide as China and the USA. It was the most read on the BBC's news site with over 3.5k page views and was liked or shared on facebook and twitter over three thousand times from the pages of Huffington Post and Time Magazine.

Enquiries continue to come in from the New York Times, CBC News (Canada) & CNN...


The University of Edinburgh's video unit were on hand to capture the action:

Related Links

As the story broke: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/news/ECCI-Knight

Our new building: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/our-new-building.html

History of High School Yards: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/History.html


The University of Edinburgh Heritage Trail - download booklet

Our new building: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/our-new-building.html

What makes it innovative: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/What-makes-it-innovative.html

What makes it green: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/What-makes-it-green.html 

History: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/History.html

Photography project:http://www.edinburghcentre.org/Photography-project.html

Learning & teaching: http://www.edinburghcentre.org/Learning-and-Teaching.html