Unravelling Riddle's Court
Recently I had the pleasure of joining a 'hard hat' tour of one of the city's historic works in progress, a renovation and restoration of Riddle's Court on the Lawnmarket.
The project is being undertaken by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (here's my previous blog about the Glasite Meeting House), a charitable body dedicated to protecting, preserving and providing access to some of the country's historic structures.
The development of Riddle's Court has been a long term project, and will be run by SHBT as the Patrick Geddes Centre, an educational resource centre for heritage and history groups in the city.
This tour was the final opportunity for visitors to explore this site before the building work is completed, and it was genuinely thrilling to be exploring such an historic building, in the company of Sarah Gear, the lead architect who has been responsible for designing and integrating the development around the core historic building.
Patrick Geddes had been a conservator and educator who had previously undertaken his own preservation and development of Riddle's Court, in the nineteenth century. He had transformed what by then were dilapidated structures into functional spaces for student accommodation, so the tradition of maintenance of these buildings in adherence with Geddesian philosophy is in itself honouring a part of Edinburgh's history.
Riddle's Court was previously a 16th-century mansion house complex near the top of the Royal Mile, occupied by high-status residents who benefited from being close to the castle for access to the monarch, King James VI. Indeed, this future king James I of England held a grand banquet in Riddle's Court in 1598, and one of the most exciting moments on the tour of the buildings was to be standing in the small antechamber where is it thought King James would have dined during that event.
A large number of decorated ceiling beams are some of the most historically interesting features of the site, with some of the decoration only discovered during the current renovation process. Adaptations had to be made to some of the plans for the internal structures of the building to avoid damaging these newly discovered features.
Another discovery during the works was an enormous stove area hidden behind masonry on the ground floor, where the banquet served to King James VI and his guests may have been cooked and prepared. Once the renovation of Riddle's Court is coplete, this area will be in the public toilets area of the building, so visitors will be able to explore this unusual feature for themselves!
As well as its royal history, the building has associations with other historical figures, including the philosopher David Hume, who lived on the site in the 1750s.
One particular privilege was being among the last members of the public to walk along the original line of Riddle's Close itself, the narrow lane along and around which the collection of buildings was developed. Once the renovation is finished, the steps of the original close won't be accessible to walk down, but will be preserved under glass for visitors to see.
This will be a feature of the finished building, with many original aspects of Riddle's Court remaining visible behind glass panels and sections, reflecting the integrity of the original structures and preserving them for observation and study by those who will be using and visiting the complex in the 21st century, over four hundred years after the original buildings were constructed.
Take one of my private Edinburgh walking tours to learn more about this historic site.
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