High School Yards

The History of High School Yards

Note: Hosting for these web pages is kindly provided courtesy of Dr. Mark W Holley of Northwestern Michigan College who studied a PhD in Underwater Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Archaeology in the late 1990s. The Department of Archaeology was located in the Old High School at High School Yards at this time.

This updated presentation gives an insight into the history of the South-Eastern part of the old walled City of Edinburgh, known today as the High School Yards and Surgeon’s Square. This includes the buildings now occupied by the Institute of GeographyECCI and the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh.

These are maps showing the High School Yards, lying between Drummond Street and Infirmary Street, produced in the middle of the 19th Century. A number of buildings are shown on this map which are described below. Of these only the Old Royal Infirmary cannot be seen today, having been demolished in the latter part of the last century. (1884)

High School Yards was originally the site of Blackfriars Monastery, which was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II. No traces remain today. The monastery and church were destroyed in 1558 by a mob, who were followers of John Knox’s reformation. All that remained were the ruins (although the stone was quickly reused for other buildings), the cemetery and the Dominican Gardens, in which the murdered body of Mary Queen of Scot’s husband, Lord Darnley, was found in 1567.

In 1566, the magistrates of the city persuaded Mary to assign what had been church lands to the city. It was resolved to build a School on the site to replace the educational function of the monastery. The original High School (pictured left) 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“.


See also The Gazetteer for Scotland

Above is how the building might have looked in 1777 and below how it looks in 2019

Copyright Google maps 2019

The Building now occupied by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation was built by Alexander Laing in 1777, as the High School of Edinburgh, at the cost of £4000. Its pupils included Sir Walter Scott (his initials can be seen today amongst the 18th century graffiti on the wall by the entrance to the building). Further, it was in this building that James Pillans invented the blackboard and coloured chalks. These he used in his geography classes, described in his book “Physical and Classical Geography” published in 1854.

By 1820, two problems had become apparent. Again the accommodation had become inadequate and, with an expanding New Town, there was an obvious need for a school closer to that area.

Thus, in 1829 a new Royal High School was opened perched on the side of Calton Hill (the building remains today) and the old school was closed. In 1832 the building re-opened as a Surgical Hospital, in which the University of Edinburgh held its Anatomy classes. Joseph Lister was in charge of a ward in this building, while Professor in the University between 1869 and 1877.


The Surgical Hospital was an extension of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which had become short of space. The Royal Infirmary was an imposing building which had been built in the adjacent Infirmary Street by William Adam in 1738. This was one of the first infirmaries in the world, founded by Alexander Monro. Thus, with the additional building dealing with surgery, the older building was able to concentrate on medical cases. The Infirmary was further extended with the building of the New Surgical Hospital (opened in 1852) which is described below.

In 2019 the view looks like this

Copyright Google maps 2019

Copyright Ian W Morrison 2019

Although no trace of the Old Infirmary itself remains, the ornamental gates and Adam’s splendid carved stone gateposts (top) were saved and are now preserved at the entrance to the University Geography building in the adjacent Drummond Street. The Old High School building is pictured (below) as it was left after the surgical hospital had moved.

Looking down Infirmary Street in 2019

Copyright Google maps 2019

By the latter stages of the 19th Century, the old hospitals were reaching the end of their useful life, and a new Royal Infirmary in Lauriston Place was designed by David Bryce. This was opened in 1879, and the most of the functions of the old hospitals together with the focus of medical education transferred to this new site. Although the Surgical Hospitals were used for some years as the City Hospital for Infectious Diseases, sadly the Royal Infirmary building (left picture) was demolished around 1884. Three new buildings were soon built on the site; the Infirmary Street Public Swimming Baths (now Dovecote Studios), the South Bridge School on Infirmary Street (now an educational resource centre) and the Drummond Street Infants School (now converted into residential flats), which was completed in 1905.

By 1905, the University had acquired the Old High School building to house some of its Engineering and Science departments. Significant internal modifications were undertaken and a new block built to the read. Later, between 1931 and 1984, the Old High School was home to the Department of Geography. Following the gradual transfer of the Department of Geography to the adjacent New Surgical Hospital building, a move which was completed between c.1984, the Edinburgh Dental School took up residence, following a further major internal refurbishment. The administrative offices of the Dental School and the Departments of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Prosthetic Dentistry occupied the building until their closure in 1994. 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. This was negotiated by the then University Vice Principle Professor Dennis Harding. Between 2011-13 the building was recast by Malcolm Fraser Architects to form an exceptionally energy-efficient home for the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.


See also The Gazetteer for Scotland

When the Department of Geography left the Old High School building, they moved into the linked New Surgical Hospital which faces onto Drummond Street. This building was opened in 1853 and was also a creation of David Bryce. It was designed as an extension to the existing Surgical Hospital to meet the demands of increased numbers of patients.

Following the removal of the hospitals, the building was refurbished and reopened by Andrew Carnegie, in 1906, as the Department of Natural Philosophy. Dr. Carnegie is pictured leaving the building by the Drummond Street entrance after the opening. From 1976, Natural Philosophy moved to the new James Clerk Maxwell Building on the University’s King’s Buildings Campus, becoming the separate Departments of Physics and Meteorology. Following this move, Geography progressively took over the building, which it completely occupies today.

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). Such was the demand that local entrepreneurs 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.


See also The Gazetteer for Scotland

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.

Today Surgeon’s Square includes a number of buildings which house parts of Social Science of the University of Edinburgh.

The frontage of Old Surgeon’s Hall

Copyright Ian W Morrison 2019

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.

Copyright Ian W Morrison 2019

The similar notice (below) was erected near Robertson’s Close on Infirmary Street to celebrate the house that later would become the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

Copyright Google maps 2019

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 Social Sciences Graduate School. Today it is occupied by the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The demolition of a 1970s “temporary” building behind in 2008 has revealed the rear of Old Surgeon’s Hall. This is the view of the rear of Old Surgeon’s Hall in 2019

Copyright Ian W Morrison 2019


See also The Gazetteer for Scotland

Chisholm House has changed colour in 2019 but otherwise fairly unchanged

Copyright Google Maps 2019

Copyright Ian W Morrison 2019

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 University’s 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.

This Ordnance Survey map shows the area in 1881, just before the Old Infirmary was demolished. 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”.


See also The Gazetteer for Scotland

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.

This area looks like this in 2019

Copyright Google maps 2019

It was in 1513 that the Scots waged a disastrous attack on the English at Flodden Field. King 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.



Copyright Google maps 2019

The view from the Cowgate up to High School Yards looks like this in 2019

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 (above) 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.

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.

This is how the area looks in 2019.

Copyright Google maps 2019This is a 3d image from Google Maps 2019
Copyright ECCI Edinburgh University 2019

Above you will see a very nice chart produced by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) of the History of High School Yards using the data reproduced on these webpages. You can download a Portable Document Format (PDF) version here HSY history chart – ECCI. You will need a PDF viewer to display it.The Scottish Gazetteer links are courtesy Bruce Gittings Department of Geography.

© Bruce M. Gittings (Geography) and Ian W. Morrison (Archaeology), 1995.
Minor Updates Bruce M. Gittings, 2015
Updated images by Ian W. Morrison/Google Maps 2019.
Older Photographs and Maps come from the Journals of the Old Edinburgh Club and the University of Edinburgh.