High School Yards
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 Scots husband, Lord Darnley, was found in 1567.
The Old High School Building
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 was built in 1578, at the 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". The Building now occupied by the Department of Archaeology was built by Alexander Laing in 1777, as the High School of Edinburgh, at the cost of £4000. Its pupils included Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) (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 (1778-1864) invented the blackboard and coloured chalks. These he used in his geography classes, described in his book "Physical and Classical Geography" (published 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 Old Royal Infirmary
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.
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, the Royal Infirmary building 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. Although no trace of the Old Infirmary itself remains, the ornamental gates and Adam's splendid carved stone gateposts (left) were saved and are now preserved at the entrance to the University Geography building in the adjacent Drummond Street.
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.
The New Surgical Hospital Building
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. By 1975, Natural Philosophy had moved to the new James Clerk Maxwell Building at King's Buildings Campus. Following this move, Geography progressively took over the building, which it completely occupies today.
Surgeons' Hall and Square
Surgeon's Square is located behind the Old High School Building and the New Surgical Hospital. Several of the houses around the square were used for privately-run anatomy classes, including those given by the infamous Dr. Robert Knox (1791-1962). 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.
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.
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 Goudie Chisholm (1850-1930), the first lecturer in Geography at Edinburgh.
Adapted from: Gittings, Bruce M., and Morrison, Ian W., The History of High School Yards (accessed 26 June 2014)