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Old College


A masterpiece by Robert Adam and William Playfair, perhaps the University's most important ensemble of buildings (Image via Boon Low)

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The University of Edinburgh’s Old College is one of the city’s most important public buildings, and its dome is a prominent part of the city skyline. However the location has an interesting history that pre-dates the building we see today.

The site where Old College now stands was known as the Kirk O’Fields in the 16th century, and became notorious as the scene of a dramatic murder early in February 1567. Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was lodging in the house for the night. Darnley had made many enemies among Scottish nobles, who took this opportunity to exact revenge. At around 2 in the morning, barrels of gunpowder placed under Darnley’s room exploded, reducing much of the house to rubble. The bodies of Darnley and his servant were later found in a nearby orchard. Somehow they had escaped the house, but exactly how they were murdered remains a mystery.

The University of Edinburgh was established on the site in 1583, but two hundred years later its original buildings were demolished. However, during a major re-landscaping of the quadrangle in 2010, archaeologists found the remains of the old library complete with scientific equipment. The fragments of thermometers, test tubes, storage jars and chemicals found may have once belonged to Joseph Black, one of the leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Among his many achievements, Black discovered carbon dioxide gas, and was made Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University in 1766.

The Old College we see today is the work of two of the most important Scottish architects, Robert Adam and William Playfair. The carved stone panel high up above the main entrance commemorates its first designer ‘Architecto Roberto Adam’. Construction started in 1789, but worked halted only four years later as funds ran out, leaving only the main entrance finished. Between 1819 and 1827 the rest of the building was completed by William Playfair, and it was his plan to create the impressive open quadrangle you see today. The final part of the design was not completed until 1887, when the dome was added above the main entrance. The gilded figure on top represents youth with the torch of learning.

One of the real treasures of Old College is the Playfair Library Hall, probably Edinburgh’s finest interior. It is around 190 feet long, with a vaulted ceiling and tall classical columns forming a screen at either end. It was used as a working library from the 1820s until the 1960s, when the University’s main collection was moved to George Square. The Library is currently used to host dinners, receptions and prestigious lectures. An interior that is open to the public is the Talbot Rice Gallery, originally designed as a natural history museum. It is now the University’s public art gallery, which enables visitors to admire some of Playfair’s grand classical interiors, as well as the exhibitions on display.

The Playfair Library. Image via Edinburgh University

The University has had many famous students over the years, including Charles Darwin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. More recently Gordon Brown, Stella Rimmington and Ian Rankin have also studied there. There is an interesting connection between the modern and ancient university as part of the graduation ceremony. The University Principal touches each graduate on the head with a velvet hat, said to be made from the breeches of John Knox. In 2006 an extra scrap of cloth was sewn into the hat – an embroidered university emblem carried into space by ex-student astronaut Piers Sellers.

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