The present St John's Land was erected sometime between 1766-68 by John, the second Earl of Hopetoun, (1704 to 1781).
It was part of his scheme which included the development of tenements along the eastern side of what is now St John Street. This was a prestigious development unusual in Edinburgh at that time consisting as it did of three or four storey tenements each with its own front door. Access to St John's Street from the Canongate was through a wide pend (1768).
Despite the public stairs, the lack of piped water or any kind of modern sanitation it is probable that the Earl of Hopetoun himself had an apartment up one of St John's Land's pairs of stairs. Smollet tells us that the richer folk usually had their homes on the fourth floor of such buildings.
If the Earl of Hopetoun had had a crystal ball in 1776 he might never have built St John's Land, for at the very time that he did so the City of Edinburgh was making plans to extend across the Nor Loch. The plans bore fruit and, as the spirit of the Enlightenment took hold, the nobility and large sections of the middle classes deserted the Old Town and the ancient Burgh of the Canongate for the cleaner air, architectural grandeur and improved toilet facilities of the New Town. Thereafter the story of the St John's Land, and indeed of the whole of the Canongate district, was one of later industrialisation, increasing poverty and neglect.
This decline continued for over a century and was not halted until after the second world war. In the period from 1956 to 1958 an award winning scheme by the architect Robert Hurd revived Bible Land, Morocco Land and Shoemakers Land on the north side of the Canongate.
By the early 1950s Moray House, through the National Committee for the Training of Teachers (NCTT), owned St John's Land and the tenements along the east side of St John Street. Through the redevelopment of these sites the College was able made its own contribution to the Canongate renewal programme.
The St John's Land project involved the redevelopment of the buildings at 176 - 184 Canongate and No. 1 St John's Street. The architect for the project was W G Dey. Typical of restoration work at this time no attempt was made to preserve the Georgian interiors. Instead the entire building was gutted and only the existing facades and the south west turret stair were retained. The cost of the works was estimated at £41,000.
On 24th May 1956 the building was formally opened by Mr Walter Elliot, the Lord High Commissioner for Scotland. Earl Atlee, the Prime Minister of the post-war Labour government of 1945 to 1951, was also present. The then College Director of Studies, Dr W B Inglis, gave the votes of thanks.
The restored building contained studios for the teaching of Speech and Drama, staff studies and seminar rooms and a large proscenium theatre. For many years thereafter St John's Land housed in addition to Drama, the Scottish Centre for Education Overseas (SCEO) and, later, the Department for Social Science and Social Work. The Scottish Association for the Deaf used the basement as a resource and specialist equipment area. The Moray House Theatre was licensed for "public performances of plays and entertainment" and could seat an audience of up to 256.
Following the merger with the University the interior of the building was refurbished in 1998-99. The architects were Lewis and Hickey DJP. Facilties were created for the Department of Education & Society, including the Centre for Educational Sociology. These works involved the loss of the Moray House Theatre. The last student performance in the theatre, before it was cleared away, was Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. This has the valedictory line "And now our Revels all are ended."
Material compiled and edited in 2002 by Hugh Perfect and David Starsmeare.