Teviot Row House

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Teviot Row House, home of Edinburgh University Union, was opened on 19 October 1889. It is the oldest purpose built student union building in the world.


Following its formation in 1884, the Students' Representative Council set as its first priority the opening of a University Union, to provide recreational and social facilities for students and staff. It launched a campaign of public fundraising with letters sent to prominent figures in Edinburgh and public subscription lists opened. £5000 was raised in this manner, and further contributions were received from the Senatus Academicus (£500) and Town Council (£100). In November 1886, a Fancy Fair at Waverley Market brought in a further £10,000. Funds were now sufficient to engage an architect Sydney Mitchell (1856-1930) and to begin construction on a site adjoining the newly opened Medical School.


Teviot Row House (in a distinctive fifteenth-century palace-block style) was very much designed on the lines of a Victorian gentleman's club. It initially included a restaurant, library (with books donated by academics and former students), a gymnasium (converted into a billiards room in 1894), and a debating hall, which would become both a meeting place for many university societies and a venue for dances and other social events. Membership was male only, and by subscription, and at first only a small minority of students joined. Unsurprisingly, given the proximity of the Union buildng to their classrooms, these were preponderantly medical students.

Early Years and First Extension

1896 saw the introduction of Thursday afternoon concerts in the Debating Hall, to which Union members were encouraged to bring female guests. These were to prove a most useful source of funding for maintenance of the building and repairs. In the same year, Teviot Row was connected to the telephone exchange and a barber's shop was opened which remained in operation until 1970. In 1900, Friday night dances or 'Cinderellas' were introduced for the first time and became a permanent ritual of student life.

The introduction of in-house catering in 1897-98 led to a great increase in use of the Union building. While bringing in welcome income, this proved a great strain on the existing premises. By 1902, the Debating Room and East Reading Room had been pressed into service as adjuncts to the Dining Hall, leaving precious little seating accommodation elsewhere in the building. A new campaign was launched to fund an extension. Again subscriptions were collected from students, staff, and from prominent Edinburgh figures and businesses. A sum of £20,000 was raised, permitting the Union to re-employ Sydney Mitchell. In 1902, two extra floors were added on top of the service block to the east of building. These contained a Committee Room and one further new room for building management. By 1903, a new billiard hall had been completed, and the size of dining accommodation doubled. A further extension was funded in 1905 by borrowing funds on security of the existing building and by doubling both the annual Union subscription fee and the Life Membership fee. This permitted an expansion of the library, the creation of new reading room space, and the fitting of electric lights throughout the building. The complete extension was officially opened on 19 October 1906.

Between the Wars

By the 1920s, the Student Union building was the vital centre of all university social activities. Besides debates and dances, it hosted club meetings, evening entertainments, and tournaments in billiards, chess, golf, bridge, and whist. Union members made of use of the building to entertain guests, use the library or reading rooms, and enjoy bar and dining facilities. The 1930s saw the installation of a gramophone and Milk Bar.

Post-War Boom

The post-war years saw a huge increase in student numbers. By the 1950s, the Friday night dance, now known as the 'Union Palais' was among the most popular entertainments in the city, attracting crowds of over 1400 (and requiring significant strengthening of the Debating Hall floor by the middle of the decade!). A television set was installed in 1953, and in the same year a union shop opened, selling tobacco, stationery, and newspapers. At the same time, the Union building was increasingly used for hosting conferences, congresses, and formal dinners. Its popularity, however, was again placing excessive demands on the available space. In 1955-56, the West Reading Room was transformed into a supplementary dining room but there was still insufficient seating and catering accommodation.

Second Extension

The provision of a much needed extension necessitated the transfer of ownership of the Teviot Row building to the University itself, as the University Grants Committee would not permit funds that it supplied to be used for improving a building that the University did not own. The transfer took place in 1961 after eight arduous years of negotiation between the Union's Committee of Management and the University Court. The sticking point had been the Court's plan for a Composite Matriculation Fee which would entitle all male matriculated students to membership of the Union. According to this plan, the University would give funds to the Union to replace the previous subscriptions. The Union had argued, however, that a subscription fee was necessary to remain the club-like nature of the organization and, more pressingly, because the Union building could not cater for the full male student population. A compromise was finally reached whereby he subscription fee was replaced by a £1 deposit (returnable on graduation) to be paid by all matriculated students wishing to join the Union.

A major extension project was completed late in 1963, involving the following modifications:

  • Basement - new joiner's shop, increased storage facilities, and conversion of Billiard Room into extension of Smoke Room
  • Ground Floor - renovation and redesign of Entrance Hall, new Billiard Room, and new office
  • First Floor - annexe to Snack Bar with balcony, reversion of West Reading Room to use as Reading Room
  • Top Storey - Debating Hall adapted for use as Dining Hall, with kitchens extended into Sun Lounge

Further modifications were required in 1964 when new regulations necessitated the installation of fire exits and fire doors.

From Union to EUSA

The late 1960s saw the installation of coffee and milk machines and the first soft drink vending machine in Scotland (1967). Further signs of the times were the conversion of the Old Billiard Room into an amusements arcade and the installation of a contraceptive machine. Nonetheless the late 1960s were a period of crisis for the Union building. The popularity of the 'Union Palais' plummeted with weekly attendances of only 300 by 1968. A policy of booking 'big name' bands for performances in the Debating Hall led to significant losses. The Union's prices for food and drink were now matched by a growing number of establishments in the vicinity of the University. The Union was also under attack from both the Students' Representative Council and the University Court for its male only policy. It became increasingly clear that it would not receive funding for much-needed refurbishments to the Teviot Row building unless it addressed its membership policies. There were also fears that the new Student Centre at Potterrow was intended as a rival or replacement for the Union building.

On 5 January 1971, that Union finally voted to admit female students as members (for which a 75% vote was required). Another momentous step occurred on 21 April 1972 when the Union voted to make all matriculated students automatic members of the Union. The University now provided funds for refurbishments, including the opening of two new bars in the basement, the Park Room and the Sportsman's Bar. These two votes also paved the way for the creation of the Edinburgh University Students' Association through the merger of the SRC, University Union, and Chambers Street Union (formerly Edinburgh University Women's Union). The Union retained its own distinct identity within EUSA and now assumed responsibility for three buildings: Teviot Row House, Chambers Street House, and the new Student Centre House at Potterrow.


Following a fund-raising campaign, a complete refurbishment of Teviot Row House was carried out by Gordon Duncan Somerville, Architects, in 1979-1980. This involved the rebuilding and renovation of the kitchens, stores, servery, and food preparation room. Major restoration work was conducted on the Debating Hall, Dining Room, Middle Reading Room, and other public areas of the building.

Over the next two decades, a major source of income for Teviot Row House stemmed from its use as the Edinburgh Folk Festival Club (1979-1999) and Edinburgh Festival Fringe Club (1981-2004). As the Fringe Club, it provided nightly showcases of Fringe talent and opportunities for performers to publicize their shows.

See Also


  • Iain Catto (ed.), 'No spirits and precious few women': Edinburgh University Union 1889-1989 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Union and Iain Catto, 1989)