University of Edinburgh

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The University of Edinburgh
Latin: Universitas Academica Edinburgensis


Old College University of Edinburgh 01.JPG
The Old College
University of Edinburgh arms.svg
Founded: 1582
Chancellor: Anne, Princess Royal
Endowment: £317.2 million (31 July 2015)

The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582,[1] is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It was also the first founded after the Reformation, intended to create a new, Protestant institution free of the historical ties the older universities had to the banished Roman Church.

The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city of Edinburgh, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university.

The University of Edinburgh was ranked 17th and 21st in the world by the 2014–15 and 2015-16 QS rankings. It is now ranked 19th in the world according to 2016-17 QS Rankings.[2][3] It is a member of both the Russell Group, and the League of European Research Universities, a consortium of 21 research universities in Europe.[4] It has the third largest endowment of any university in the United Kingdom, after the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

The university played an important role in leading Edinburgh to its reputation as a chief intellectual centre during the Age of Enlightenment, and helped give the city the nickname of the 'Athens of the North'. Alumni of the university include some of the major figures of modern history, including physicist James Clerk Maxwell, naturalist Charles Darwin, philosopher David Hume, mathematician Thomas Bayes, surgeon Joseph Lister, signatories of the American declaration of independence James Wilson, John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and a host of famous authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.M. Barrie and Sir Walter Scott. Associated people include twenty-one Nobel Prize winners, two Pulitzer Prize winner, three Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, two currently-sitting Justices of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and several Olympic gold medallists.[5]

Edinburgh receives approximately 50,000 applications every year, making it the fourth most popular university in the United Kingdom by volume of applicants.[6] After the University of St Andrews, it is the most difficult university to gain admission into in Scotland, and 9th overall in the United Kingdom.[7]


King James's College, c. 1647


The university's Old College

The university was founded by the Edinburgh Town Council, beginning life as a college of law using part of a legacy left by a graduate of the University of St Andrews, Robert Reid, Bishop of Orkney.[8] Through efforts by the Town Council and Ministers of the City the institution broadened in scope and became formally established as a college by a Royal Charter, granted by King James VI of Scotland on 14 April 1582 after the petitioning of the Council.[1][9] Previous universities in Scotland had been established by Papal bulls, but Edinburgh was a foundation coming out of the Reformation.[10] Established as the "Tounis College", it opened its doors to students in October 1583.[1] Instruction began under the charge of another St Andrews graduate Robert Rollock.[8] It was the fourth Scottish university in a period when even England, far more populous and richer, had only two. It was renamed King James's College in 1617.

By the 18th century, the university was a leading centre of the Scottish Enlightenment.


You are now in a place where the best courses upon earth are within your reach... Such an opportunity you will never again have. I would therefore strongly press on you to fix no other limit to your stay in Edinborough than your having got thro this whole course. The omission of any one part of it will be an affliction & loss to you as long as you live. "

~ Thomas Jefferson writing to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. in 1786.[11]

Before the building of the Old College after the Napoleonic Wars, the University of Edinburgh did not have a custom-built campus and existed in a hotchpotch of buildings from its establishment. The university's first custom-built building was the Old College, now the School of Law, situated on South Bridge. The Old College was built to plans by Robert Adam and implemented by the architect William Henry Playfair. Its first forte in teaching was anatomy and the developing science of surgery, from which it expanded into many other subjects. From the basement of a nearby house ran the anatomy tunnel corridor. It went under what was then North College Street (now Chambers Street), and under the university buildings until it reached the university's anatomy lecture theatre, delivering bodies for dissection. The fame of the university in this field, and the need for fresh cadavers, let to a grim period in Edinburgh's history, that of the 'resurrection men', the bodysnatchers who dug fresh corpses form their graves to sell to the surgeons. In some cases, the bodies had never seen a grave: it was from the anatomy tunnel that the body of William Burke was taken after he had been hanged for murdering those whom he sold to the Dr Knox of the university.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Old College was becoming overcrowded and Robert Rowand Anderson was commissioned to design new Medical School premises in 1875. The medical school was more or less built to his design and was completed by the addition of the McEwan Hall in the 1880s.

The university's New College building

The building now known as New College was originally built as a Free Church college in the 1840s and has been the home of divinity at the university since the 1920s.

The university is responsible for a number of historic and modern buildings across the city, including the Scotland's oldest purpose-built concert hall, and the second oldest in use in the British Isles, St Cecilia's Concert Hall; Teviot Row House, which is the oldest purpose built student union building in the world; and the restored 17th-century Mylne's Court student residence which stands at the head of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

The Institute of Geography, once part of the Royal Infirmary

The two oldest schools – law and divinity – are both well-esteemed, with law being based in Old College and divinity in New College on the Mound.

The medical school is renowned throughout the world. It was widely considered the best medical school in the English-speaking world throughout the 18th century and first half of the 19th century.[12] (The first medical school in the United States was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1765 by Edinburgh alumni John Morgan and William Shippen). It is ranked 1st in the United Kingdom's most recent RAE.

The 'Edinburgh Seven', the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university, began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. Although they were unsuccessful in their struggle to graduate and qualify as doctors, their campaign gained national attention and won them many supporters including Charles Darwin. It put the rights of women to a university education on the national political agenda which eventually resulted in legislation to ensure women could study at University in 1877. In 2015 the Edinburgh Seven were commemorated with a plaque at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme.[13]

McEwan Hall

On 1 August 2011, the Edinburgh College of Art (founded in 1760) merged with the University of Edinburgh. As a result, Edinburgh College of Art has combined with the university’s School of Arts, Culture and Environment to form a new (enlarged) Edinburgh College of Art within the university.[14]

All teaching is now done over two semesters (rather than three terms) – bringing the timetables of different Schools into line with one another.


In 2002 the university was reorganised from its nine faculties into three "colleges". While technically not a collegiate university, it now comprises the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), Science & Engineering (SCE) and Medicine & Vet Medicine (MVM). Within these colleges are "schools" – roughly equivalent to the departments they succeeded; individual schools have a good degree of autonomy regarding their finances and internal organisation. This has brought a certain degree of uniformity (in terms of administration at least) across the university.

Colleges and schools

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Rev. Hugh Blair, the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres

The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences[15] is the largest of the three Colleges in the University of Edinburgh. It has 11 Schools, 16,300 students and 1,460 staff. An advantage of its size is the very wide range of subjects and research specialisms. There are over 300 undergraduate and 200 taught postgraduate programmes. Its research strength, as affirmed in the 2008 RAE, has attracted over 1200 researchers.[16] It includes the oldest English Literature department in Britain.[17] It was ranked 12th in the world according to the Times Higher Education 2014–15 Ranking.

  • Business School
  • Edinburgh College of Art
  • Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
  • Moray House School of Education
  • School of Divinity
  • School of Economics
  • School of Health in Social Science
  • School of History, Classics and Archaeology
  • School of Law
  • School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures
  • School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences
  • School of Social and Political Science
  • The Office of Lifelong Learning

Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

The Edinburgh Medical School's historical main building on Teviot Place

The College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine has a long history as one of the best medical institutions in the world.[18] In the last research assessment exercise, it was rated 1st in the United Kingdom for medical research submitted to the Hospital-based Clinical Subjects Panel. All of the work was rated at International level and 40% at the highest, "world-leading" level.[19] The medical school is ranked 1st in Scotland and 3rd in the UK by The Times Good University Guide 2013, The Complete University Guide 2013 and The Guardian University Guide 2013.[20][21][22]

Graduates of the University of Edinburgh Medical School have gone on to found five out of the seven Ivy League medical schools, become US Senators, become Prime Minister of Canada, invent the hypodermic syringe, cure scurvy, discover carbon dioxide and isolate nitrogen, develop IV therapy, invent the decompression chamber, develop the oophorectomy, and discover the SARS virus. Faculty of the University of Edinburgh Medical School have introduced antiseptic to sterilize surgical instruments, discovered chloroform anesthesia, discovered oxytocin, developed the Hepatitis B vaccine, co-founded Biogen, pioneered treatment for tuberculosis, discovered apoptosis and tyramine among others.

The eight original faculties formed four Faculty Groups in August 1992. Medicine and Veterinary Medicine became one of these, and in September 2002, became the smallest of three Colleges in the University.

  • University of Edinburgh Medical School
  • Royal School of Veterinary Studies
  • School of Biomedical Sciences
  • School of Clinical Sciences and Community Health

Science and Engineering

Informatics Forum, University of Edinburgh

In the sixteenth century, what we now call 'science' was known as natural philosophy, and taught at Edinburgh by that name. The seventeenth century saw the institution of the University Chairs of Mathematics and Botany, followed the next century by Chairs of Natural History, Astronomy, Chemistry and Agriculture. During the eighteenth century, the University was a key contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment and it educated many of the most notable scientists of the time. It was Edinburgh's professors who took a leading part in the formation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. In 1785, Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry and discoverer of carbon dioxide, founded the world's first Chemical Society.[23] The nineteenth century was a time of huge advances in scientific thinking and technological development. The first named degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Science were instituted in 1864, and a separate 'Faculty of Science' was created in 1893 after three centuries of scientific advances at Edinburgh.[23] The Regius Chair in Engineering was established in 1868, and the Regius Chair in Geology in 1871. In 1991 the Faculty of Science was renamed the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and in 2002 it became the College of Science and Engineering.

  • School of Biological Sciences
  • School of Chemistry
  • School of Engineering
  • School of GeoSciences
  • School of Informatics
  • School of Mathematics
  • School of Physics and Astronomy


Playfair Library
The Edinburgh College of Art

As its topics of study have grown and diversified the university has expanded its campuses such that it now has six main sites:[24]

Central Area

The Central Area includes George Square, the Informatics Forum, The Dugald Stewart Building, Old College, New College, McEwan Hall, St Cecilia's Hall, Teviot Row House, the old Medical School buildings in Teviot Place, and surrounding streets in Edinburgh's Southside. It is the oldest region, occupied primarily by the College of Humanities and Social Science, and the Schools of Computing & Informatics and the School of Law, as well as the main university library. The Appleton Tower is also used for teaching first year undergraduates in science and engineering. Meanwhile, Teviot Place continues to house pre-clinical medical courses and biomedical sciences despite relocation of the Medical School to Little France. Nearby are the main Edinburgh University Students' Association buildings of Potterrow, Teviot and Pleasance. Old residents of George Square include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Some of these buildings are used to host events during the Edinburgh International Festival every summer.

The main library (Edinburgh University Library) is also located at George Square. New College, overlooks Princes Street and only a short walk from Waverley Rail Station and other Edinburgh landmarks. The building is on the Mound, which houses the School of Divinity – parts of which are also used by the Church of Scotland.

King's Buildings

The King's Buildings are located further south of the city. Most of the Science and Engineering College's research and teaching activities take place at the King's Buildings, which occupy a 35 hectare site. It includes C. H. Waddington Building (the Centre for Systems Biology at Edinburgh), James Clerk Maxwell Building (the administrative and teaching centre of the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Mathematics), The Royal Observatory, William Rankine Building (School of Engineering’s Institute for Infrastructure and Environment) and other schools' buildings. There were three libraries at KB: Darwin Library, James Clerk Maxwell Library and Robertson Engineering and Science Library. A new library called The Noreen and Kenneth Murray Library opened for the 2012/13 session as a replacement for the previous three libraries. It also houses National e-Science Centre (NeSC), Scottish Microelectronics Centre (SMC), Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), and the Scottish Institute for Enterprise.

Pollock Halls

St Leonard's Hall, Pollock Halls of Residence

Pollock Halls, adjoining Holyrood Park to the east, provides accommodation (mainly half board) for a minority of students in their first year. Two of the older houses in Pollock Halls were demolished in 2002 and a new building (Chancellor's Court) has been built in their place, leaving a total of ten buildings. Self-catered flats elsewhere account for the majority of university-provided accommodation. The area also includes a £9 million redeveloped John McIntyre Conference Centre, which is the University's premier conference space.

Little France

Little France, the Chancellor's Building, was opened on 12 August 2002 by The Duke of Edinburgh and houses the £40 million Medical School at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. It was a joint project between private finance, the local authorities and the University to create a large modern hospital, veterinary clinic and research institute. It has two large lecture theatres and a medical library. It is connected to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh by a series of corridors. Queen's Medical Research Institute was opened in 2005, and provides facilities for research into the understanding of common diseases.

Easter Bush

The Easter Bush campus houses the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, The Roslin Institute, Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education and The Veterinary Oncology and Imaging Centre. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, founded in 1823 by William Dick, is a world leader in veterinary education, research and practice. The new £42 million, three-storey, 11,500 square metre building opened in 2011. The Roslin Institute is an animal sciences research institute which is sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.[25]

The Institute won international fame in 1996, when Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell and their colleagues created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, at the institute. A year later Polly and Molly were cloned, both sheep contained a human gene.

Moray House

Moray House main quadrangle

Moray House School of Education, just off the Royal Mile, used to be the Moray House Institute for Education until this merged with the University in August 1998. The University has since extended Moray House's Holyrood site to include a redeveloped and extended major building housing Sports Science, Physical Education and Leisure Management facilities adjacent to its own Sports Institute in the Pleasance.

Modern architecture at the University of Edinburgh
The Roslin Institute  
The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies  
Evolution House, Edinburgh College of Art  

The Geneva Bonnet

At graduation ceremonies, the Vice-Chancellor caps graduates with the Geneva Bonnet, a hat which legend says was originally made from cloth taken from the breeches of John Knox or George Buchanan. The hat was last restored in 2000, on which occasion a note from 1849 was discovered in the fabric.[26][27] In 2006, a University emblem taken into space by Piers Sellers was incorporated into the Geneva Bonnet.[28]

Student life

The University's Teviot Row House student union building
The student-run Bedlam Theatre, home to the Edinburgh University Theatre Company.
The Pleasance student union, home to numerous societies.

Students' association

The Edinburgh University Students' Association consists of the unions and the Student Representative Council. The union buildings include Teviot Row House, Potterrow, Kings Buildings House, the Pleasance, and shops, cafés and refectories across the various campuses. Teviot Row House is claimed to be the oldest purpose-built student union building in the world.[29] The Association represents students to the university and the outside world and is responsible for over 250 student societies at the University.

Performing arts

The city of Edinburgh is an important cultural hub for comedy, amateur and fringe theatre throughout the UK. Amateur dramatic societies at the University benefit from this, and especially from being based in the home of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.[30]

Edinburgh University Theatre Company, founded in 1896 as the Edinburgh University Drama Society, is known for running Bedlam Theatre, the oldest student-run theatre in Britain. Bedlam Theatre is an award-winning Edinburgh Fringe venue.[31] The company also fund and run acclaimed[32] student improvised comedy troupe The Improverts during term time and fringe.[33] Alumni include Ian Charleson, Michael Boyd, Kevin McKidd, and Greg Wise.

The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group are an opera/musical theatre company founded by students in 1961 to promote and perform the comic operettas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan,[34] collectively known as Savoy Operas after the theatre in which they were originally staged.

The Edinburgh University Footlights are a musical theatre company founded in 1989 and produce two large scale shows a year.

Theatre Parodok, founded in 2014, is a student theatre company that aims to produce shows that are "experimental without being exclusive". They produce a large show each semester and one for the festival.[35][36]


  • The Student is a weekly Scottish newspaper produced by students at the University of Edinburgh. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest student newspaper in the United Kingdom.
  • The Journal was an independent publication, established in 2007 by three students at the University of Edinburgh, and was also distributed to the four other higher education institutions in the city – Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Napier University, Queen Margaret University and the Edinburgh College of Art. It was the largest such publication in Scotland, with a print run of 14,000 copies and was produced by students from across the city. It folded, however, in 2015.[37]
  • Fresh Air is an alternative music student radio station, one of the oldest surviving student radio stations in the UK. It was founded in October 1992.
  • Edinburgh University Student Television (EUTV) was founded in September 2015; the newest addition to the student media scene at the university, producing a regular magazine styled programme, documentaries and other special events.[38]


Edinburgh University's student sport consists of 67 clubs from the traditional rugby, football, rowing and judo to the more unconventional, such as korfball and gliding. Over 67 sports clubs are run by the Edinburgh University Sports Union. The Scottish Varsity, also known as the "world's oldest varsity match", is played annually against the University of St Andrews.[39]

During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Peking, the University of Edinburgh alumni and students secured four medals – three gold and a silver. The three gold medals were won by the cyclist Chris Hoy and the silver was won by Katherine Grainger in rowing.

In the 2012 Summer Olympics Edinburgh University Alumni topped the UK University Medals table with three gold medals, two for the cyclist Sir Chris Hoy and one from rower Katherine Grainger.[40]


The Edinburgh University Library pre-dates the university by three years. Founded in 1580 through the donation of a large collection by Clement Littill, its collection has grown to become the largest university library north of Cambridge, with over 2.5 million volumes.[41] These are housed in the main University Library building in George Square – one of the largest academic library buildings in Europe, designed by Basil Spence

The library system also includes an extensive number of faculty and collegiate libraries.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about University of Edinburgh)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Charters of the University
  2. "QS World University Rankings". Top Universities. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  3. "QS World University Rankings". QS. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  4. "Home – LERU : League of European Research Universities". LERU. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  5. "University of Edinburgh Alumni". University of Edinburgh. 28 September 2010. Archived from the original on 6 January 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2012. 
  6. The Times Good University Guide 2015: Most Applications - The Good University Guide] (paywall)
  7. "The 10 hardest universities to get into – University of Edinburgh". The Telegraph. 9 May 2016. Retrieved 23 May 2016. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 A Short History of the University of Edinburgh: 1556–1889. Horn, D. B.. 1967. 
  9. Grant, Alexander (1884). The Story of the University of Edinburgh. London. 
  10. "The Origin Of Universities". Archived from the original on 20 February 2009. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  11. "The Letters of Thomas Jefferson 1743–1826". Retrieved 15 August 2013. 
  12. Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2008). The Language of Mineralogy: John Walker, Chemistry and the Edinburgh Medical School, 1750–1800. London: Ashgate. 
  13. George Mair. "Tribute paid to first UK women to go to university - Edinburgh Evening News". Retrieved 2015-09-14. 
  14. "Introduction | ECA Merger | Edinburgh College of Art". Archived from the original on 2 September 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
  15. "College renamed to reflect growth in arts | The University of Edinburgh". Retrieved 2016-10-21. 
  16. "About the College". Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  17. "About the Anniversary | 250th Anniversary of English Literature | English Literature". 18 October 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  18. "College Overview". Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  19. "College Today". Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  20. "Medicine University Rankings". Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  21. "University guide 2013: league table for medicine". The Guardian (London). 22 May 2012. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  22. "Medicine – Top UK University Subject Tables and Rankings 2013". Complete University Guide. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 "About the College". Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  24. "The campuses of the University of Edinburgh". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  25. "The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) – Home Page". Retrieved 26 July 2011. 
  26. "Omniana". University of Edinburgh. Archived from the original on 16 August 2005. Retrieved 14 January 2007. 
  27. "Graduation cap (Object Details)". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 14 January 2007. 
  28. Luscombe, Richard (25 June 2006). "One small step for John Knox, one giant leap for university". Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh). Retrieved 14 January 2007. 
  29. The Students' Association -
  30. "Edinburgh festival news and reviews". The Guardian (London). 10 February 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  31. "Fringe 2013 – Bedlam Theatre, Venue 49". Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  32. |title=The Improverts – Edinburgh Fringe 2010 – British Comedy Guide -
  33. "Improverts | Edinburgh Festival Fringe". Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  34. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group
  35. Theatre Paradok - Edinburgh University Students' Association
  36. Theatre Paradok
  39. "World's oldest varsity match returns to Scotland". Herald Scotland. 19 May 2015. 
  40. "Edinburgh tops university medals table". The Daily Telegraph (London). 12 August 2012. Retrieved 16 August 2013. 
  41. "Edinburgh University Library". Britain in Print. Retrieved 20 July 2014.