It is 225 years since the foundation stone was laid for Old College. Architectural historian John Lowrey tells the turbulent story of the beginnings of this iconic building, and heralds a new chapter.

On 16 November 1789 the foundation stone of Old College was laid by the Grand Master Mason of Scotland, in the presence of a crowd of 30,000. This optimistic scene of academic, civic and masonic pomp and cooperation marked the start of a huge, and hugely difficult, project that had been dear to the heart of the veteran principal, William Robertson, for many years.

The disparity, as he saw it, between the fame and success of the University and the ramshackle collection of buildings that housed it was an affront and even a threat, as the University went through an unprecedented period of expansion.

In the time capsule that was immured in the foundation stone was a copy of the design by Robert Adam that would solve this problem and create the grandest and most coherent example of scholastic architecture in Britain.

Adam had been desperate to secure this commission, but there was an irony in his involvement with the University. This is the architect who had left Scotland as “a narrow place” to seek greater opportunities in London.

Adam’s architectural vision was on a monumental, even urban scale, but in London he lost out to his great rival, William Chambers, in the commission for Somerset House, the greatest public work in Britain of the time.

The rebuilding of the University of Edinburgh is Adam’s Somerset House and its significance lies in its status not only as a major piece of neoclassical architecture but also as a piece of urban design.

The context was the expansion of Edinburgh in the second half of the 18th century. This started with the construction of the North Bridge in 1765, as a prelude to James Craig’s first New Town. And in 1784, the city decided to expand in the other direction, with the construction of the South Bridge, which would cut through the eastern end of the University’s property and helped to force a decision on its rebuilding.

Adam intervened in the South Bridge project and ensured that it was aligned with the North Bridge, providing a long, axial route into the city from the south, and he produced grand, essentially Roman, tenemented architecture to line this new route. This was to be introduced at the southern end by “the New College”, later to be known as “the College” and eventually, from the early 20th century, as Old College.

Here, the impressive entrance is based on a giant Roman triumphal arch. The College, for Adam, was the start of a via triumphalis, a monumental urban ensemble that introduced the great Enlightenment city and culminated in his Register House at the north end of the route, inspired by another Roman model, the Pantheon.

Robert Adam’s plan for Old College.

Robert Adam’s plan for Old College.

Old College today.

Old College today. Photograph: Neale Smith

“The College, for Adam, was the start of a via triumphalis that introduced the Enlightenment city.”

His college design encompassed a double courtyard: a smaller one just inside the entrance, with professorial housing and a new chapel, and beyond that, in the main courtyard, the major teaching spaces, the museum, the library and a “great hall”.

This courtyard was characterised by projecting pavilions on the centres of the north and south façades and open quadrant colonnades forming part of a continuous corridor around the edge of the building.

It would have been Adam’s tour de force but it came late in his career and within three years of the foundation ceremony, he had died, with only a small amount of the building completed. By 1794 his brother and successor James and Principal William Robertson had also died.

The finances of the building fell apart from the mid-1790s when the long wars with France began. It was only after 1815, when Napoleon was defeated, that the project was restarted with an architectural competition. The winner was William Henry Playfair.

He inherited the bulk of the eastern block on South Bridge. At the opposite end, in the north-west corner, Adam’s anatomy theatre was built and it survives today as the only teaching space from the original design. In establishing these two key areas, Adam had made it unlikely that any cost cutting would reduce the college’s overall size.

However, Playfair did have to cut down the ambition of Adam’s design. Playfair retained the key idea of open quadrants and projecting pavilions, but doubled their number to four in an enlarged single court. He also took the brave decision to demolish the façade of the one pavilion that had been built, because its intricate Adam design would have been expensive to produce four times. Instead a more monumental design was used that is probably more appropriate in the larger space.

Playfair’s most obvious contribution to Old College is his stupendous upper library hall. Here, he entirely changed Adam’s design and produced a simpler and hugely impressive space that combines Roman classicism in the coffered barrel vault of the ceiling with a giant Greek Ionic order in the columns at each end, signaling the new taste in what was by now being called the “Athens of the North”.

The current investment in estate by the University, thankfully on a more secure footing than in Adam’s or Playfair’s time, includes substantial work on Old College.

In 2010/11 a major archaeological dig was carried out, to investigate the remains of the original University buildings. There were hopes of finding the remains of Kirk o’ Field, the site of Lord Darnley’s 1567 murder, in the south-west corner of the quad. It is not there, but on the east side archaeologists did find the chemical store of the famous 18th century chemistry professor Joseph Black, much to the alarm of the University’s health and safety department.

That work was the prelude to the remodeling of the quad to make it once again a place of collegiality rather than a car park.

Perhaps even more important is the work about to start on the refurbishment of the School of Law, on the north side of the quad. This includes a substantial remodelling of the library, with new octagonal book stacks, taking their cue from the old anatomy theatre at the west end of building.

The School of Law is the only academic school still based in Old College and it is in roughly the position allocated to it by Robert Adam in 1789. That presence is important and the refurbishment shows a commitment by the University to retain in Old College the teaching function for which it was originally designed.

John Lowrey is a senior lecturer in architectural history at Edinburgh School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture.


A re-creation of the historic procession of 1789 that marked the foundation of Old College took place in November.

More than 100 senior figures from the University, the Scottish Judiciary, the Faculty of Advocates and the Court of the Lord Lyon were among those in the procession. It began at Parliament Square and continued along George IV Bridge and Chambers Street, before arriving at the main entrance to Old College.

The event culminated in the unveiling of an engraved flagstone commemorating the 225th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. The forthcoming redevelopment of Edinburgh Law School was also announced, and a fundraising campaign launched. Work will begin early in 2015 and is expected to last five years.

Video: the Principal on the procession and refurbishment.

Laying the Foundation Stone, November 1789.

Laying the Foundation Stone, November 1789. Photograph: ©RCAHMS


A new app for iPad and Android tablets lets you trace the development of the Old College site from its ecclesiastical origins in the 13th century to the present day, using an interactive slider. The app “Old College: A Window on the Past” also makes use of downloadable images and your tablet’s camera to provide an augmented reality experience.

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