Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
A Famous and Flourishing SocietyThe History of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 1505-2005$

Helen Dingwall

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780748615674

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748615674.001.0001

Show Summary Details

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

(p.267) 7 The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society
A Famous and Flourishing Society

Helen M. Dingwall

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

During its lifetime the College has occupied a number of rented and purpose-built premises. It was important to have a specific location for meetings, not least for the visual symbolism that this would convey, both to members of the College itself and to the community in general. This sort of symbolism is important nowadays, but in earlier times was even more so. This chapter assesses the various buildings inhabited by the College over the years, their symbolism, and their adaptation to changing circumstances.

Keywords:   College of Surgeons, buildings, symbolism

It was a matter of congratulation that they now possessed a meeting place worthy of their status as members of a literal and scientific body.1

During its lifetime the College has occupied a number of rented and purpose-built premises. It was important to have a specific location for meetings, not least for the visual symbolism which this would convey, both to members of the College itself and to the community in general. This sort of symbolism is important nowadays, but in earlier times was even more so. This chapter will assess the various buildings inhabited by the College over the years, their symbolism and adaptation to changing circumstances.

Humble beginnings – Dickson's Close and Kirkheugh

The early-modern period was visual, in all aspects. Symbolism was not confined to the portrayal of kings in Roman uniforms, or the extension of royal palaces in the classical style; it was there in all aspects of life, in an age when communication was difficult and the written word was available only to a minority of the population. Buildings were the outward symbols of their inhabitants and their status within society, but there were other pressures. Incorporations gathered corporate possessions; they needed storage space and a convenient meeting house, for practical as well as symbolic purposes. The surgeons and barbers were no different. They met initially in the house of the current deacon, or occasionally in the ‘ile’ of St Giles, perhaps the same ‘ile’ that housed the Incorporation's altar dedicated to St Mungo.

This peripatetic life continued until 1647 when, during the turbulent period of the Civil War, ‘three rowmes of ane tenement’ in Dickson's Close were rented by the Incorporation at a cost of £40 per annum. Expenses for this move included £36 for ‘half a dozen of chares’ and 6s ‘for carrying the skeleton to the Convening House’.2 The first meeting was held there in August 1647. Early in 1650 the Incorporation moved to new accommodation in a tenement belonging to Robert Hardie at the ‘foot (p.268)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.1 Extract from Gordon of Rothiemay's map of Edinburgh (1647), showing Curryhill House (bottom right) and Dickson's Close (no. 47). (National Library of Scotland.)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.2 Sketch of Dickson's Close (Drummond, 1879).

of the Kirkheugh'. This proved not to be a wise move. The rooms were apparently unsuitable and the surgeons tried to give up the lease after a few months, but the landlord refused to allow the Incorporation to remove its goods from the building. There were also problems with looting by occupying Cromwellian troops, and on 4 March 1651 a representative of the Incorporation was sent to the Kirkheugh to ‘see what of the Calling's goods being in the Convening House … were extant, to the fore, unplundered or away taken by the English soldiers’. The situation seems eventually to have been resolved, and the Incorporation paid only £20 of the £41 due for rent, but for the next few years it was forced to use cramped accommodation comprising ‘two front rooms in John Scott's house’ and a ‘chamber’ owned by Thomas Kincaid, both masters of the Incorporation. Thus for the first 150 years of

(p.270) its existence, the Incorporation lacked a stable physical environment. It would seem to be the case that for any institution to develop strong internal structures and functions, a permanent location is important, not just as a public statement, but also as a means of allowing its corporate functions to develop. Uncertainty of location was, for the Incorporation, a growing burden by the middle of the seventeenth century.

First signs of permanence – Curryhill House

Always mindful of its quest for academic status, which in itself would require something more visually significant than the front room of one of its members, the Incorporation was quick to grasp the opportunity which came in 1656 to acquire ‘a suitable site in a desirable neighbourhood’. This was Curryhill House, which cost the Incorporation 3,000 merks.3 Situated at the south-east corner of the Flodden Wall, Curryhill House ‘lay between the yard of umquhile Andrew Henrysoun upon the west, the town wall of the burgh … upon the east and south, the auld dyke and fosse of the said yard and Kirkyard of the brethren of the Blackfriars of the burgh of Edinburgh … with full entry through the High School yards as the same was possessed by Mr Samuel Jonstoun’.4 It comprised a ‘large half-quadrangular four-storeyed house with dormer windows, a circular turnpike stair with a conical roof on its north front and surrounded by a spacious garden’. This was much more appropriate to the needs of a ‘famous and flourishing society’.5 This land had in the past belonged to the Black Friars, and subsequently became the home of two brothers, both Court of Session judges, who each adopted the judicial title Lord Curriehill. This was not a purpose-built home, but was much better than the cramped, temporary accommodation to which the surgeons had become accustomed, and considerable outlays on renovations were necessary. In the short term, new walls were built, a garden laid out at a cost of £200 Scots, and in 1664 a gardener was employed to ‘furnish the yaird with all kind of medicinall herbes and flowers that can be had anyqr’.6

At that time the Incorporation did not have many – or any – of the trappings of the learned society; all that would come with the next building. Curryhill House was a more impressive edifice, though, reflecting something of the status to which the Incorporation had risen within the hierarchy of the burgh trades. Various alterations were made to the structure but by the late 1660s it was considered inadequate and dangerous, and the boxmaster was instructed to ‘take down the house qr it is faultie and lyke to fall and to take off the sclaits for preservation’. In 1669 plans were drawn up for a new building, to which most of the masters pledged donations.7 Though apparently reasonably solvent financially at this point, as witnessed by records of moneylending transactions, the costs of renovating Curryhill House and the expensive disputes with the physicians and others meant that these plans had to be shelved. It seems also that there were two buildings on the site – Curryhill House itself and a house which had been built by the Town Council, originally meant for the use of the Professor of Divinity. The records note (p.271)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.3 Line drawing of Old Surgeons' Hall. After Sandby.

that the ‘Convening House’ had been lent to the Presbyterian congregations of the Tron and College Kirk parishes, while the Incorporation continued to meet in the ‘ordinary house’. This latter was renovated in 1704 to accommodate the Incorporation's Officer, following the construction of the new hall. In any event, the building was clearly becoming increasingly unsound and inappropriate for its purposes.

‘Old’ Surgeons' Hall

The next major move – as would be the one following that – was forced on the Incorporation by external influences as well as the desire to acquire more suitable premises. As discussed in Chapter 3, in the early 1690s a member of the Incorporation, Alexander Monteith, had petitioned the Town Council to grant him bodies for dissection. Whether for altruistic intentions or merely to prevent one of their number from branching out on his own, the Incorporation swifly petitioned the Town Council on its own account with a similar request, which was granted on condition that a new hall was built, containing an anatomical theatre, by Michaelmas 1697. This was early notice but the Incorporation took little action for two years and indeed ordered a new roof for its current house in 1694. By 1696, though, it was clear that some action would have to be taken, and on 2 June the masters ‘unanimously agreed for the building of the house’. A committee was appointed to consider the available options, and eventually the decision was made to construct a hall de novo on the site of Curryhill House. It was designed by architect James Smith, who submitted an estimate for building and finishing, apart from glasswork, of £500 sterling. The foundation stone was laid in August 1696, and a guinea placed under it by the Deacon – ‘conform to the ordinary custom used in such (p.272) cases’. Despite minor problems with the need to insert extra windows and a note that the ‘chimely in the laboratorie was too little’,8 by the following year it was at least partly ready for use, as Monteith was able to rent part of the basement as a chemical laboratory at £10 per annum, the laboratory also to be available for the use of entrant apothecaries undergoing trials.

The Hall has been described as ‘originally a two-storey and nine-bay piendroofed block with semi-octagonal towers at the ends’.9 It was noted by Maitland in his history of Edinburgh to be ‘a beautiful building, wherein is a collection of natural Rarities, and a Bagnio’.10 As well as the best decoration that could be afforded, with quantities of Dutch marble and French glass, a chimney piece and door surrounds were carved by ‘a stranger (possibly a French Huguenot) now upon the place who was very skillfull and could work very well in carving of timber’.11 The interior of the Hall was embellished with a series of portraits of the masters of the Incorporation, executed by Sir John Medina and his apprentice William Aikman. These lozenge-shaped paintings, some forty in number, provide a unique visual catalogue of the masters around the turn of the eighteenth century.12 Very much in line with the aesthetic aspirations of learned societies, the importance of these images is confirmed by a minute of 1720 which states that five recalcitrant surgeons who had not yet had produced a portrait must do so immediately, on pain of losing the right to book apprentices. The College archives also contain the bill from Andro Sim of Calton for hanging the paintings, the cost being £1 18s 6d, deemed by Sim to be ‘a guid bargain at six pence per piece’.13 By December 1697 the finishing touches were being made to the Hall. It was reported that the building committee would ‘commune with Tradesmen for lyning and perfecting the great hall’, and that the boxmaster was ordered to pay the relevant tradesmen for ‘work not contained in the contract and all other things as he shall think requisit’.14 A Turkish bath, or bagnio, was built on the site and was intended to bring in money as well as follow trends in medical treatment (see Chapter 3). The bagnio was not a commercial success, though, and by 1740 the enterprise was discontinued. In this and in many other aspects of the College activities, the masters pursued what they perceived to be appropriate goals within the social, political, economic and cultural context of the time. They appeared, or claimed, to be self-motivated and of course they were, but these motivations were also shaped and influenced by the discourse and attitudes of the time.

The Hall was a considerable drain on the Incorporation's finances, and large sums were again borrowed from La Perle. Ongoing financial difficulties meant that the Incorporation was forced to consider selling or renting out various parts of the building at intervals. The problems had increased substantially with the separation from the barbers in 1722. The barbers had enjoyed little or no influence in the affairs of the Incorporation, but their quarterly dues and entrance fees had been a welcome source of income. In February 1728 the minutes record that:

It was moved by the Treasurer that since the Callings affairs were in such a situation as required the most frugal economy it would be considered how (p.273) far it might tend to their interest to sett [rent out] the wester pavilion and accommodate the officer within the under roumes of the Hall. Which motion having been accordingly considered by the Calling, they approved thereof and ordered to make such Reparations as might sufficiently accommodate the Officer in the under roumes of the Hall.15

Various parts of the building were rented out and the surgeons had to make do without the full use of their purpose-built accommodation. The following year, matters had not improved, as it was now decided to try to sell the bath house and other buildings in order to cope with mounting debts. The minutes record in the evocative language of the day that:

The Calling for certain weighty reasons agreed that their large house yeards and two pavilions should be exposed to sale the second week of July next … And remitted to the Deacon and his Councill to draw ane advertisement and cause insert the same in the Edinburgh newspapers for that purpose. And impowered the same Committee together with the Committee appointed for falling upon ways and means to extinguish the Callings Debts to condescend upon the place Day and hour of Sale.16

No suitable purchaser was found, however, and a similar attempt to sell the entire building in 1733 was equally unsuccessful. On that occasion the building was advertised as ‘the large beautifull and well aird house commonly called the Surgeons Hall with the Bagnio two pavilions and Gardens all well enclosed with home dykes and hedges having a water pype led with several other conveniences’.17 It was reported that officials of the Incorporation had attended the sale, but that unfortunately no offers had been received for any part of the buildings.

It was decided eventually that the main hall should be retained in the possession and occupation of the surgeons and that other parts of the building should be rented out as residential accommodation. It was perhaps fortunate that no buyer came forward to purchase the whole building, as this would have robbed the Incorporation of one of the most important outward manifestations of the learned society. In the event, sections of the building were inhabited variously by the Rector of the High School, who rented the east pavilion for five years at £100 Scots per annum; by Mr William McDougall, merchant, who occupied the east gable at £18 sterling; and in 1740 the west gable was leased by Lord Elchies, Senator of the College of Justice, for twelve years at £27 sterling yearly rental.18 Lord Elchies was not the most careful of tenants, though, as it was noted in 1745 that ‘the servants of the Honorable Lord Elchies had broken and spoilt most of their Chaires, and used them even in the kitchen … upon the bottoms whereof the impression of pots and pans was visible’.19

The next remedial attempt came in the early 1760s, when it was considered to be of potential benefit if at least parts of the properties were sold outright and the areas of unbuilt ground feued off. This would have the advantage of bringing in an (p.274) annual income in the form of feu duty, which would not be liable to depletion on account of expenditure for building repairs. Figures from a summary of finances relating to properties between 1722 and 1760 had shown that out of a total income from rental of £2,043, some £897 had been spent on repairs, leaving a net income of £1,146.

The areas of ground to the east and west of the Hall were set to roup ‘during the running of an half-hour glass’ on 9 May 1764, when the north-east area was feued to an architect, William Mylne, who proceeded to construct two houses on the vacant ground. Efforts to dispose of land in this way continued, and by 1786, when most of the area surrounding the Hall had indeed been disposed of, the houses built on the land came to be known as Surgeons' Square, ‘the cradle of modern surgery in Edinburgh’.20 The properties were certainly occupied by a number of high-profile surgical individuals, including John Thomson, John Bell and Robert Knox, and it seems a little ironic that the Incorporation's severe financial difficulties helped to achieve this concentration of surgeons and their houses in the immediate area of the Hall, thus reinforcing the importance of surgeons and surgery in the town.

Though it has been considered that no anatomical teaching took place in the Old Hall after Monro primus moved to the sanctuary of the University in 1726, it appears that at least one lecturer, John Aitken, did carry out teaching there, as did John Bell.21 Following the removal of the College to its new premises in 1832, the Hall was pressed into service as a temporary cholera hospital during the outbreak that year. Following this, the old anatomy theatre was used for teaching by Robert Knox, and in June 1833 the building was sold to the managers of the RIE.

The Playfair Building

By the 1820s the College Fellows had begun to reconsider their physical surroundings yet again. Various parts of the Hall had been let out at different stages in order to try to revive the College's flagging finances, though by 1745 there had apparently been enough spare cash to expend on fire insurance, the policy to be issued by the Edinburgh Friendly Insurance.22 By the early nineteenth century, though, the building was becoming increasingly uninhabitable. There were also considerations of prestige and the growing desire of the College, however poverty-stricken it might be, to acquire a building suitable for its status as an eminent scientific society and in tune with the buildings and intellectual intent of classical Edinburgh and the ambience of New Town elegance, in contrast to the unsavoury state of the Old Town.23 In February 1822 the College set up a fourteen-man committee to investigate the possibilities of rebuilding on the present site, adapting an existing building elsewhere or commissioning an entirely new, purpose-built hall.24 Only two weeks later the committee reported that it had consulted William Playfair about the possibility of acquiring and renovating Minto House.25 Playfair had advised against developing the College's existing building in High School Yards, but had indicated that the ground would be suitable on which to build de (p.275)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.4 Photograph of the Playfair Building, c. 1920s.

novo. By April that year the Fellows resolved to commission Playfair to furnish designs for a new building on the current site, with or without an integral classroom, and also to look at possible alternative sites on Calton Hill and in the New Town. Playfair was one of the foremost architects of his time, and prior to his engagement by the College he had designed Dollar Academy (1819), the Edinburgh City Observatory on Calton Hill (1819), several of the streets and crescents of the New Town, and the Royal Scottish Academy (1822) (following the successful completion of the College, Playfair went on to design Donaldson's Hospital for the Deaf (1842), the National Gallery of Scotland (1850) and even his own funeral monument). The College had therefore chosen an architect with considerable pedigree, whose elegant buildings were in exactly the sort of style and configuration which would enhance the status of the College when it was housed in a similar building.

As well as the visual symbolism of possessing such an impressive building, the College had been forced to consider its accommodation as part of the terms of its acquisition of the Barclay museum collection (see Chapter 5), a condition of which was the construction or provision of suitable accommodation. The College acquired a house in Surgeons' Square in 1818 for this purpose, but there were delays in fitting it up appropriately. Overtures were made to politicians and government to try to gain financial support (the RCSI had been successful in this area). David Hay wrote to Lord Melville in 1825 to solicit his patronage for a petition to the Treasury, (p.276) ‘the object we humbly contend to be one of great national importance’, the not too subtle point being made that ‘the late Viscount Melville, who was Honorary Fellow of the College, attended his patronage to us on various important occasions’. The petition to the Treasury claimed that ‘without the aid of His Majesty's government they will be unable to place their Museum in a situation where it can be accessible or of much utility’.26 The petition was not successful.

Discussions continued and various proposals were considered, including extension of the existing building, purchase of the Old High School building, and Minto House (now the Royal Museum of Scotland), until in 1828 the option of developing the site of the Royal Academy for Teaching Exercise (a riding school) arose. Playfair reported on this site, and in February 1829 the College received his rough plans, followed in April of that year by more detailed designs at an initial costing of £11,500.27 The project went ahead, and the minutes reveal that the Fellows were concerned by now with detail and matters of decoration, and, of course, cost. The main contract, with Messrs Young and Trench, was signed on 23 November 1829.

The foundation stone was laid on 3 March 1830 by the President, William Wood, and The Scotsman reported the occasion in detail:

On Saturday the foundation stone of the new building for the Royal College of Surgeons, was laid by the President in presence of many of the members of that body, in the ground lately occupied by the Royal Menage, Nicolson Street. The bottles deposited in the stone, contained copies of the Royal Charter of Foundation, the Deed of Gift of the Barclayan Museum and a copy of each of the newspapers published in Edinburgh, etc. These documents were prepared for preservation by Mr Dunn, philosophical instrument maker. The building is to be executed from a plan by Mr Playfair; and, when completed, we have no doubt, it will add to that Architect's well earned and deservedly high reputation. The elevation to the street will present a portico, upwards of forty feet in breadth and fifty feet in height, composed of six Grecian Ionic columns. The length of the building, from west to east, will be 190 feet. As far as can be judged from the plans, this building will combine elegance of design with ample accommodation for the Royal College, and prove another classic decoration to our northern metropolis. The estimated expense of the edifice is about £10,000, and has been contracted for by Messrs Young and Trench, who built St Stephen's Church.

A container was placed under the foundation stone with:

  • • Copy of charters, royal grants and Acts

  • • Present Laws of the College

  • • Printed regulations for examination candidates

  • • Copy of Trust Deed of the Barclay Museum

  • • Copy of Settlement by Barclay Trustees

  • • Copy extract matriculation of College Arms

  • (p.277)
    The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

    Fig. 7.5 Playfair's plan for the ground floor of Surgeons' Hall.

  • • Copies of Licentiate and Fellow's Diplomas

  • • Impressions in wax of the College seals

  • • Museum admission tickets

  • • Edinburgh Almanack

  • • Latest printed statement of funds

  • • Copies of all Edinburgh newspapers

In October 1830 there was anxious debate about whether fir should be used instead of oak for the museum floors. Playfair had preferred oak for this purpose but he had been asked to cut costs wherever possible. (It was agreed, though, to (p.278) spend an extra £200 on ornamentation of the ionic portico to make it appear more Corinthian. The outward face of the College and its impact were still thought worthy of the best.) By this time also, though, costs were mounting, and a further £3,000 had to be found. It was agreed to borrow this sum from the Widows' Fund and Auxiliary Widows' Fund. During the period of building, the Incorporation met in the premises of the Royal Medical Society (which had in its early days rented accommodation from the College).

The building has been described as a ‘pure Greek revivalist temple to medicine’28 and as a ‘T-plan Ionic temple’, containing a ‘round two-storey coffer-domed vestibule’.29 The College held its first meeting in the new Hall on 16 May 1832, at which it was stated that ‘it was highly creditable to them to have applied so large a portion of their funds to the establishment of a museum, by which the acquisition of professional knowledge would be greatly facilitated’. The total cost of the project thus far was noted as £12,043 6s, but shortly thereafter had risen to £13,257 18s 7d.

The Hall was opened formally on 7 July 1832, in the presence of dignitaries including representatives of the RCPEd and the Medical Departments of the Army, Navy and East India Company. The occasion was reported in The Scotsman a few days later, it being noted that ‘all who have seen this edifice pronounce it to be one of the greatest ornaments of our city, and a most successful effort of the skill of its accomplished architect’.30 In a display of comradeship from its sister College, the Vice-President of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr Davison, ‘proposed the prosperity’ of the College ‘in a speech of the most eloquent and classical description, which called for the repeated plaudits of his auditors.’

It was not just the external appearance of the building which was planned in great detail. Playfair also designed the interior as well as the furniture and fittings for the College, in order that the scheme should be coherent as a whole and not just provide an outer shell. He designed furniture for all the ground floor rooms, including the Hall of Meeting, Library and students' room. Particularly elegant chairs were designed for the use of the office-bearers of the College.31

The Fellows' wish to have a building which reflected their status was very much in line with the public face of exclusivity which they had been developing since 1505, though they may not have been able – or thought it necessary – to articulate the concept. The late eighteenth century had seen the increasingly public facets of science and other knowledge, and, perhaps paradoxically, the freedoms brought about by the Enlightenment generated their own constraints, controls and the need to offer some public visual evidence of the growing intellect, professionalism and knowledge of the College and its Fellows.

In a highly detailed study of the architectural transformation of Edinburgh in the nineteenth century, focusing mainly on the financial aspects, Richard Rodger states that ‘a critical mass of professional expertise was concentrated in Edinburgh as a direct result of the guarantees enshrined in the Act of Union’.32 The College may not have been involved in the legal or religious professions, but nevertheless it was part of this ‘critical mass’ and this must be seen as a factor in its desire to (p.279) acquire a building with the right kind of visual symbolism. Gone were any hints at the Scottish baronial style as in the 1697 building – this was full-blown Greek revival and purposely so.33

This was not the end of the matter by any means. Regular modifications and repairs had to be made to the building and innovations adopted, including electric light and telephones. In 1863 it was decided to install gas lighting in the Museum, and on 7 February 1895 the Secretary wrote to the Town Council seeking permission to install electric lighting in the College.

By the turn of the twentieth century the Playfair Building was proving yet again to be increasingly inadequate and too inflexible to cater for the needs of a burgeoning organisation, particularly the Museum. The 400th anniversary celebrations had demonstrated the inadequacy of the building, not least its lack of adequate toilet facilities. Proposals for alterations were discussed at a College meeting on 16 July 1907 and a committee formed to consider the matter and draw up plans with the architect, Balfour Paul. Despite some opposition – including the suggestion that the Barclay collection should be disposed of (not the last time the Museum would be under threat) – agreement was eventually reached, and substantial internal rearrangements were completed by 1909. These included the reconstruction of the upper floors of two houses in 9 Hill Square adjacent to the new museum hall, which had been constructed from the upper floors of 7 Hill Square. The BMJ reported that:

The Council room, which occupied the greater part of the ground storey, has been vacated as such, divided into two, one part being added to the library, and the other part forming a reception room. The western portion of the old museum devoted to the Barclay collection, has been converted into the new Council Room. To provide for the Barclay collection certain tenement houses have been converted into additional museum spaces. The design of the original museum has been followed in the arrangement of the galleries, but glass shelves have been introduced so as to give good light. The flooring of the galleries has been formed of glass with the same object.34

To maintain the historical lineage of the buildings, the lintel which had been preserved from the door of Old Surgeons' Hall was incorporated into the door of the then Journal Office in 1957, having been returned to the College by Sir William Turner, College President, in 1883 and stored in the College since that time.

More Recent Building Projects

Throughout most of the more recent period the College has pursued a policy of acquiring, where possible, most of the property in and around Hill Square, in order to provide accommodation for an increasing range of College activities and their administration. Council was frequently concerned with the juggling of various bits of accommodation in order to make more efficient use of the space and to cope with (p.280)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.6 Door lintel from Old Surgeons' Hall, which was returned to the College in 1883 and incorporated into the present building in 1957.

new demands, such as a photographic office. In 1961 the glass front doors and new Council Room were completed, and at the meeting of the College Council on 17 October 1962, alterations to the Library and kitchens, dampness in a house in Hill Square owned by the College, heating, ventilation and minor adjustments to the Museum were discussed, together with the proposed redecoration of the Hall, the appearance of the Museum staircase and ‘essential’ repairs to properties in Hill Square.

It was decided in the late 1970s, during the presidency of John Gillingham, to go ahead with work to convert the adjacent St Michael's church into a symposium hall, given the relatively healthy financial position of the College at that time as a result of good investments and fruitful appeals. This church had been built by Thomas Hamilton in 1847 as Roxburgh Free Church and from 1887 it became St Michael's Episcopal church. The internal space was not ideal for its purpose, but by judicious planning and careful conservation the church was indeed converted.35 The financing of this project was assisted by a donation of £10,000 from Marks and Spencer, in the light of the name of the church, and, rather more substantially, by the gift of £350,000 from the Saudi Arabian royal house, specifically for this aspect of the College's redevelopment programme. The King Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz Symposium Hall, designed by James Parr and Partners, was handed over to the College formally on 5 October 1982. On 28 June 1983 the Patron visited the College and unveiled a plaque commemorating the successful completion of the Symposium Hall and the Postgraduate Residence.

The conversion of the church was only part of an ambitious scheme, which (p.281)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.7 Opening ceremony for the Symposium Hall, 1982. Among the Fellows present are A. I. S. Macpherson, Sir James Fraser, A. J. Duff, F. J. Gillingham and T. J. McNair.

included the construction of residencies for postgraduate students. The initial plan had been to convert St Michael's church for this purpose, but this proved not to be feasible and attention was turned to properties in Hill Street. A public appeal raised some £925,000 and tenement houses were donated by the town council, but this was not without controversy as Robin Cook, then an Edinburgh MP, opposed the plans, claiming that the housing should have been refurbished by the council and let out to tenants.36 Six months later, though, The Scotsman felt able to state that: ‘students at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh will be able to live in a row of Georgian houses, attend lectures in a tiered symposium hall modelled on the great hall of Padua, and stroll to classes across an elegant new Surgeons’ Square'.37 In 1987 the redundant Salvation Army Hall was purchased, and eventually demolished to allow landscaping of the College grounds.

In addition to the work on the Symposium Hall, conversion work took place in Hill Square, funded by a generous donation from the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust, to set up a museum of the history of surgery and of the College (see Chapter 6), and a continuous process of adaptation and acquisition of premises around the Square has been undertaken, in order develop and maximise the efficient use of the campus. By 1992 the Playfair Building had undergone a full restoration, with the original type of gas lamps and iron railings refitted. Ever interested, the local press took the view that ‘a grand old lady has emerged as a stunning beauty after (p.282)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.8 The College gardens, Hinc Sanitas statue and part of the Playfair Building.

a lengthy facelift’.38 The ceremony to mark the close of the restoration programme took place on 24 September 1992. In 1994 the distinctive statue by Dennis Mitchell, entitled Hinc Sanitas, was placed in the College gardens.

Building for the Future – Dreams and Realities

In the lead-up to the celebrations of the College quincentenary, Council has been considering how best to improve the practical facilities in the College and to develop more and better means of delivering the surgical training courses which have become one of its pivotal activities. A new Careers Centre has recently been (p.283) established in the Adamson Building – enabled by a generous bequest from Mrs Patricia Adamson, in memory of her late husband, Bill Adamson, a Fellow of the College – in nearby premises acquired from the BMA, and ambitious plans were drawn up to construct ‘New Surgeons’ Hall'. The intention was to provide a ‘versatile, multipurpose facility’, containing a large surgical skills training laboratory with the relevant preparation and storerooms, together with classrooms and study areas for students. The major problem with this, as with all other such ambitious plans nowadays, is, of course, finance. It had been estimated that the total cost of building and furnishing New Surgeons' Hall would be some £15,000,000 and an appeal was launched for this purpose with the hope of receiving substantial donations from ‘individual, Trust and corporate philanthropists’.

The plans for New Surgeons' Hall were drawn up for a number of reasons, some of which are absolutely the same as they have always been, but others having more to do with surgical life and organisation in a very different atmosphere. There are three main aspects to this. Firstly, the elegant Playfair Building is just that – elegant but no longer suitable for the work of a modern organisation. Secondly, the College has perceived its major function in the future to lie in the area of education, and the present facilities for training are increasingly inadequate. Thirdly, and not the least important, if the ambitious new building could be built, it would be doubly symbolic – of the long and mostly distinguished history of the Incorporation and College, and of the anticipated direction of its future life and activities. The building was designed to be modern, functional and adaptable, but also to sit harmoniously with the adjacent Playfair Building, which is set to become the focus of the heritage aspects of the College. It is important, not just from the point of view of present and future historians, that the old be retained, cherished and preserved, but also from the much longer-term perspective of the College, however long its future existence as an independent surgical body may be.

Unfortunately, though, the most altruistic and far-sighted plans depend on money. In the nineteenth century, the College had to borrow from the Widows' Fund to make up the shortfall in the cost of the Playfair Building, but it has proved to be impossible to acquire the funding to build New Surgeons' Hall at present. All is not lost, though, as the College has been able to acquire the adjacent Forbes Laboratory. Though externally perhaps a little utilitarian in aspect, this is a building with a history and with connections to the College. It was owned by the College until it was sold off in the 1980s. It had been renovated in 1904 to accommodate the Incorporation's Officer, and prior to that it had, among other things, acted as a base for the first Scottish Antarctica Expedition led by William Speirs Bruce in 1902, and also housed the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory. The building is deceptively large and internally flexible enough to be adapted to meet at least some of the needs of a modern surgical training laboratory. There are also plans to continue campus development with the redevelopment of the postgraduate residence to form 10 Hill Place which, in combination with the enlarged and greatly modified Symposium Hall, will offer a commercial hotel opportunity as well as providing facilities for College events and needs.39


The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.9 The Forbes Laboratory, which is to be extensively modified to provide new training facilities.

Medical coporations elsewhere led similar peripatetic lives in the early periods of their existence. The FPSG, founded in 1599, met in a variety of locations including the Deacon's house, the church, the Regality Hall or Crafts' Hospital.40 Coincidentally, it was in 1697 that the FPSG took the first steps towards acquiring purpose-built accommodation. It moved through premises in Trongate and St Enoch Square, to the present building in St Vincent Street, acquired in 1862.41 The RCSEng and RCSI are housed in similarly impressive buildings. The Irish College managed to attract a grant of £6,000 from the government towards the building of a new hall in 1805 and, like most such buildings, was modified over the years according to circumstance.42 After sojourns in Fountain Close and George Street, the RCPEd moved to its new hall in George Street, still in the fashionable New Town, in 1846. Designed by Thomas Hamilton in the classical style, it has been described as ‘spectacular’ in effect, ‘although it is perhaps not unfair to say that it is more Victorian than Roman’.43 The home of the RCSEng, constructed with government support to a design by George Dance from 1805, and rebuilt by Charles Barry (who also built the Houses of Parliament) in the 1830s, suffered severe damage during the Second World War, although the classical portico from Dance's 1813 building was preserved.44

The importance of buildings to institutions of this sort has not, perhaps, been a major consideration for historians, but the combination of symbolic wish and practical necessity has ensured that many institutions have been housed in very (p.285)

The College buildings – symbols of a Famous and Flourishing Society

Fig. 7.10 Architectural drawing of proposed alterations to the Forbes Laboratory.

visible and architecturally significant buildings. Most of the medical corporations are currently housed in elegant buildings, though economic pressures and the needs of modern medical education may mean that this situation cannot continue indefinitely. Historic buildings certainly lend gravitas to institutions, but they are generally inflexible and difficult to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Incorporation made use of a series of buildings, increasing in opulence with each one, but each one appropriate to the particular circumstances of the time. The minutes do not contain any directly articulated awareness of the wider symbolism of their homes, but this is implicit in their actions throughout and in all of their buildings. Just as the coat of arms, matriculated in 1672, was important, and equally so the ornate badge worn by the Officer from 1697 and later the academic gowns worn by the Fellows, so the importance of physical place, or genius loci, was clearly acknowledged.



(1.) John Gairdner, President, 16 May 1832.

(2.) Creswell, Royal College of Surgeons, p. 46.

(3.) Ibid. pp. 48–50.

(4.) Ibid., p. 48. It seems that part of the site was acquired as a result of a bequest to the Town Council of 26,000 merks by Mr Bartholomew Somervell, of which 6,000 merks were to be used for building a house bearing his name and arms. This house was to be for the (p.286) use of the Professor of Divinity, but appears to have been acquired by the Incorporation along with the original Curryhill house.

(5.) See Dingwall, Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries, pp. 58–9; Grant, J., Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh (London 1884), i, p. 382; ii, p. 241.

(6.) College Minutes, 5 August 1664.

(7.) Ibid., 18 May 1669. Each master present agreed to donate or lend £100 towards the costs of this enterprise.

(8.) Ibid., 2 October 1696.

(9.) Gifford, J., McWilliam, C. and Walker, D. (eds), The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh (London, 1984), p. 186.

(10.) Maitland, The History of Edinburgh, p. 182.

(11.) College Minutes, 16 April 1697.

(12.) Details of the individual Medina portraits in Masson, Portraits.

(13.) Creswell, Royal College of Surgeons, p. 94.

(14.) College Minutes, 17 December 1697. A recent Edinburgh University undergraduate essay has covered the building of the Old Hall in considerable detail. Williams, M., ‘A Report on the History of Old Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh' (unpublished MA essay, 2004).

(15.) College Minutes, 22 February 1728.

(16.) Ibid., 27 March 1729.

(17.) Ibid., 15 November 1733.

(18.) See the detailed account in Creswell, Royal College of Surgeons, pp. 55–62.

(19.) College Minutes, 27 July 1745.

(20.) Creswell, Royal College of Surgeons, p. 59.

(21.) Kaufman, Medical Teaching in Edinburgh, pp. 19–20. This book includes several chapters covering the occupants of Surgeons' Square.

(22.) College Minutes, 15 May 1745. This was a period when the concept of insurance against misfortune was becoming more common, a particular misfortune being fire.

(23.) For a full account of the development of the New Town, see Youngson, A., The Making of Classical Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1967).

(24.) College Minutes, 2 February 1822.

(25.) Kaufman, Medical Teaching in Edinburgh, pp. 3, 125.

(26.) NAS, GD51/5/708/1, Letter from David Hay to Lord Melville, 31 January 1825; GD51/5/708/2, Petition to Treasury.

(27.) College Minutes, 2 February and 7 April 1829. Further discussions are noted in October, and within a few months discussion took place as to the items to be placed in a box under the foundation stone of the new hall.

(28.) McKean, C., Edinburgh. An Illustrated Architectural Guide (Edinburgh, 1992), p. 74. The Museum is described as containing ‘awesome exhibits’.

(29.) Gifford et al., Edinburgh, p. 244. This also describes the Balfour Paul reconstruction which took place in 1908–9.

(30.) The Scotsman, 14 July 1832.

(31.) See Masson, A College Miscellany, for illustrations of these and other Playfair artefacts.

(32.) Rodger, R., The Transformation of Edinburgh. Land, Property and Trust in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2001), p. 13. See also Allen, N. (ed.), Scottish Pioneers of the Greek Revival (Edinburgh, 1984).

(33.) For a discussion of Greek revival, see Mordaunt Crook, J., The Greek Revival. Neo-Classical Attitudes in British Architecture 1760–1870 (London, 1995).

(34.) BMJ, 9 October 1909, p. 1094. On 20 December 1909 the same source reported on the occasion when Lord Rosebery, descendant of Gilbert Primrose, gave a speech at a College dinner.

(35.) Maloco, A. and Dear, D., ‘Symposium Hall for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’, Edinburgh Architectural Association Review, 12 (1984), pp. 105–15 discusses the conversion from the architectural point of view. The architects were James Parr and Partners.

(p.287) (36.) Edinburgh Evening News, 5 April 1979.

(37.) The Scotsman, 7 December 1979.

(38.) Edinburgh Evening News, 28 August 1992.

(39.) Foster, J., ‘The Forbes Laboratory’, Annual Report 2002–2003 (Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 2003), p. 37.

(40.) Geyer-Kordesch and Macdonald, Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, p. 88.

(41.) Hull and Geyer-Kordesch, The Shaping of the Medical Profession, pp. xxi–xxx, describes the various domiciles of the RCPSG.

(42.) Widdess, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, p. 60.

(43.) Youngson, Making of Classical Edinburgh, p. 280.

(44.) Blandy and Lumley, The Royal College of Surgeons of England, pp. 19, 25, 71–2. The College made a donation towards the post-1945 restoration project.