Laying of Foundation Stone of Old College, 1789

From Our History
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In 1768, William Robertson (1721-1793), then Principal of Edinburgh University, launched a campaign to construct new college promises with his Memorial Relating to Edinburgh University in 1768. He noted that while, academically Edinburgh University could match any in Europe, its buildings were notoriously cramped and neglected. He proposed an entirely new building with 'a Public Hall, a Library, a Musaeum and convenient Teaching Rooms for the several Professors', which would cost £15,000 and be funded by public subscription.

The subscription was launched and failed, but the future of the University site soon became a burning issue, when, in 1772 North Bridge was opened linking the Old and New Town of Edinburgh, and plans were being elaborated to extend the development southwards through the existing college campus. Robertson was again in the vanguard of efforts to construct a new college building, advocating a plan drawn up by Robert Adam (1728-1792), the leading neo-classical architect and Robertson's cousin. The new college was to comprise two courtyards, four storeys high, with a magnificent facade and colonnaded entrance on South Bridge.

Robertson again hoped to raise funds by subscription from the nobility, gentry, professions, and royal burghs, along with contributions from the Town Council and Government. The foundation stone was laid on 16 November 1789 by Lord Napier, Master Mason of Scotland, in a ceremony attended by over 30,000 people. William Robertson delivered a speech referring to the University as 'a national institution' and appealing to the patriotic sentiments of potential subscribers.

The initial response was positive with the north-west corner of the building complete by 1793 and £30,000 raised by 1797. Following the deaths of Adam and Robertson in 1792 and 1793, however, the plan went awry. The Town Council need to raise at least the same amount of money again, and were forced to turn to the Government. The outbreak of war with France, however, meant the the Government's financial priorities lay elsewhere. Building work came to a halt in 1794 with less than a quarter of the building complete, and was only resumed with the return of peace in 1815.


  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
  • Nicholas Phillipson, 'The Making of an Enlightened University', in Robert D. Anderson, Michael Lynch, and Nicholas Phillipson, The University of Edinburgh: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), pp. 51-102.