Edinburgh’s Castles of Education

by Keith Savage · 2 comments

George Heriot's School in Edinburgh's Old Town

Even the schools in Edinburgh are something to gape and wonder at. That was the thought flitting through my mind as I stood in the courtyard of George Heriot’s School on the southern edge of Edinburgh’s Old Town. It’s a rare view, being inside the school. Much like other castles of education in Edinburgh, George Heriot’s School isn’t open to visitors, which I think is a pretty smart policy (minors and all). So how did I sneak past the guards and clamber over the Flodden Wall without being noticed?

No, it wasn’t my years training as a ninja in Iga province. I was the guest of Willie Wallace, a George Heriot’s alum which granted him the powers of re-entry to the school. With guests. On no less than every one of my trips to Scotland, I’ve rented my car through Willie’s business, Celtic Legend, so last time I was in Edinburgh we decided to grab a pint (or two…). Realizing that I love all things Scottish and that I’m interested in going off the typical tourist path, Willie offered to show me around Edinburgh’s hidden-in-plain-sight bastions of education, which, incidentally, also happen to be architectural masterpieces. I love Scottish hospitality.

We stopped first at George Heriot’s School. George Heriot was the royal goldsmith in the early 17th-century, and upon his death he left the modern equivalent of tens of millions of pounds to found a children’s hospital (another name for a charitable school). By 1659 the “school” was complete – in truth it looks like a magnificent Renaissance castle with its turreted quadrangle positioned on a wide grassy hill overlooking the Grassmarket. There are one-of-a-kind views of Edinburgh Castle from George Heriot’s grounds, not to mention great perspective of George Heriot’s School from Edinburgh Castle’s battlements.

George Heriot’s School was the first major structure built outside the old city walls of Edinburgh, and part of the old Flodden Wall still runs between the school and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Today more than 1,600 kids go to school at George Heriot’s, arranged into houses that immediately made me think of Hogwarts. Is it coincidence that J.K. Rowling wrote her stories less than a mile from here?

George Heriot’s School is a heady place where the past seems to waft from the sandstone walls. I can only imagine how cool it would have been to attend primary school in such a place; growing up, my schools were mostly aging cement boxes from the 60s. By the look of it, William Wallace (many famous Scots by this name), the architect of the school, spared not one of George Heriot’s pounds.

After our extensive tour of George Heriot’s School, we hopped back in Willie’s car and drove to the all-boys Stewart’s Melville College on the north side of Edinburgh. As we were not alumni of the school, our interaction was limited to a breathtaking view. Willie’s backstory illuminated how the college was actually two different schools – Daniel Stewart’s College and Melville College – until their merge in 1972. Both were built in the mid-19th century upon the generosity of wealthy patrons, much like George Heriot, and while I’m no savant of architecture the spires and towers bear some resemblance to George Heriot’s Renaissance style. To be clear, these are not public schools; these are private schools with large tuition bills.

Last stop on our tour of Edinburgh’s castles of education was just a couple of blocks over at Fettes College. If that name is familiar to you it might be because Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, went to school here. Fettes College grew out of a donation from former Lord Provost of Edinburgh Sir William Fettes’s desire to commemorate his deceased son. David Bryce served as architect for this palace, blending elements of Loire château with 19th-century Scottish Baronial. Or so I’m told. Interestingly, Fettes College follows the English education system. It made me wonder if its students were largely of English extraction, but there was no chance we were getting inside to ask that question.

The look inside George Heriot’s School was a rare treat, but all these schools are worth a trek around Edinburgh for the visual delight as well as the chance to see parts of the city you might otherwise skip. It’s hard to fathom the generosity of these schools’ patrons, and to imagine what life must be like for the students attending these schools. Willie recounted some tales to me and it sounded like some urban fantasy. I think I’ll go watch Dead Poets Society again.

KenNo Gravatar April 4, 2012 at 7:49 PM

Really interesting. I think the terminology must differ from ours since the colleges seem to be populated by small children. I’d like to be able to spend enough time in Scotland to get outside the tourist hospitality (as great as that is) and get to know some of the Scottish people. It sounds like you’ve been able to do that to some extent.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 4, 2012 at 9:01 PM

I’ve been lucky to make friends with many Scots and to have been welcomed in by their hospitality. Showing genuine interest in people and their culture goes a long way.

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