Edinburgh's architecturally magnificent and much-admired historic school buildings, often set in opulent grounds, have come to symbolize the city's ongoing dichotomy between ‘normal’ state schools and ‘elite’ private schools. These schools are conspicuously sited in the most culturally prestigious locations in Edinburgh — the New Town, Old Town and Victorian bourgeois suburbs — and their architecture powerfully underpins their ideologies of longevity and tradition. The solidity of the built ‘heritage’ of these schools, however, obscures a story of great educational complexity and change. Many of the historic buildings are no longer used by the present school institutions; some now have alternative uses. Others have changed fundamentally their social and educational status (several, ironically, were originally built by wealthy donors as charitable orphanages for the ‘deserving poor’ and later converted to fee-paying day schools for the middle classes).
The complex history of these schools cannot be understood adequately without reference to the early history of their buildings. This article is intended as an initial exploration of these complexities. It focuses on two key Edinburgh case studies: the Edinburgh Academy (‘the Academy’), built to William Burn's design of 1823 and opened in 1824 (Fig. 1); and the Royal High School of Edinburgh (the ‘Royal High’), built to Thomas Hamilton's design of 1825 and opened in 1829 (Fig. 2). It examines the educational origins, brief, architectural design, and early use of these surviving purpose-built schools and, in particular, the associated negotiations and debate of 1822–23 that occurred at a municipal level, which links their controversial pre-histories.