Edinburgh has long embraced its status as a university town, and like similar perceptions of cities like Oxford and Cambridge in England, and St Andrews elsewhere in Scotland, it is often thought of as one of the classical hubs of learning for students in the UK.
Around 12% of Edinburgh's population is made up of students, and in recent years the city has attracted increasing numbers of students coming from overseas to study here.
Today there are four universities in the city, each with their own character, history and traditions. Here's your brief introduction to these four great centres of learning.
THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
The oldest, largest and best-known of the universities is the one which takes its name from the city itself. Established in 1582, the University of Edinburgh is one of the oldest universities in the world - although it's only the fourth oldest in Scotland, with St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen having established their universities earlier (in 1410, 1451, and 1495 respectively).
Today the University of Edinburgh isn't purely campus based, but occupies a series of collections of buildings around the city, with five major campus areas and numerous other small buildings and offices around the Old Town.
The Old College is the grandest of their structures, designed by the architects Robert Adam (who gave the New Town its distinctive style in the eighteenth century) and William Playfair. Today the building houses the law school, but previously was used for medical teaching, and would have been where students such as Charles Darwin and Arthur Conan Doyle attended classes.
Other collections of offices and teaching spaces include King's Buildings, from the 1920s, New College from the 1840s (housing the school of divinity), and Moray House, the university's teaching school.
One of the busiest university areas is around Bristo Square and George Square, where the university has some of its social spaces - Potterrow and Teviot - as well as a new infomatics building, the David Hume tower, the university's main library, and the McEwan Hall, their grand graduation venue. During the spring months in particular this area is busy with students, and in the summer becomes home to a number of festival venues.
Edinburgh didn't acquire any new universities between the sixteenth century and 1966, when the former School of Arts of Edinburgh (dating back to the 1820s) was designated its new status as a university, and a new name.
Heriot-Watt references two major figures of Edinburgh's history. George Heriot was a jeweller and a goldsmith in the sixteenth century, and James Watt was an engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine brought about the Industrial Revolution.
As a technical institute in the nineteenth century, early iterations of Heriot-Watt combined practical studies of mathematics and engineering to give working men in Edinburgh a practical education. The institution also began admitting women as students in the 1860s, twenty years before it became enshrined in law for Scottish universities to allow women to study.
Today Heriot-Watt has a campus to the west of Edinburgh city centre, as well as a campus in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, and (since 2005) campuses in Dubai, Malaysia and the Orkney islands. A significant part of the courses taught at Heriot-Watt remain based in technology, including chemical engineering, renewable technologies, structural engineering, computing, physics, mathematics, finance, and textile design.
Heriot-Watt was named the Sunday Times International University of the Year in 2018, and frequently scores highly in national and international rankings for its academic teaching.
Another Edinburgh figure gives his name to Edinburgh's third university. The mathematician John Napier was born at his family's estate property at Merchiston near Bruntsfield in 1550. He is best known as the discoverer of lotharithms, and for creating an early computational device known as 'Napier's Bones' which allowed for quick calculation of large numbers. On his death his was buried at St Cuthbert's church in Edinburgh's West End.
The surviving portion of Merchiston Castle, in which Napier was born, now forms the heart of the main campus of the university named for him.
Napier University evolved from a technical college established in the 1960s, and finally was granted university status in 1992. Today they have three campuses within Edinburgh, including the former military psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart.
Courses available at Napier include health and social care, biomechanics, business, computing and engineering, and the university has around 20,000 students, including those on overseas placements and exchange programmes.
QUEEN MARGARET UNIVERSITY
The newest of Edinburgh's universities acquired its status in 2007, having previously been a college and university college. Queen Margaret University is named for Queen Margaret of Scotland, who was also a saint (not just figuratively but actually!). She has long held an association with education in Scotland, featuring in the emblem placed on schools across Edinburgh from the nineteenth century onwards.
The university was originally set up as a cooking and domestic science academy in 1875. As a women-only establishment - founded by two women, Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright - its purpose was twofold: to improve the education and working status of women, and to improve the diets of poor and working class families in Edinburgh.
Over time the university incorporated other organisations and schools, including the Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama, the Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, and the Edinburgh Foot Clinic and School of Chiropody.
Having previously occupied premises in Edinburgh and at Clermiston, in 2010 the university moved to a brand new campus location at Musselburgh, to the east of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh's academic history and figures associated with its universities on my private city walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!