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Building for a life of learning

When the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning opens in 2017 in a restored historic building, it will honour the pioneering University tutor who established Scotland’s first student residences.

Children watch time capsule

“This small charity has rescued a great building with remarkable historical associations,” announces John Campbell QC (LLB 1972), chair of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, at a ceremony to mark the “topping out” of a major restoration project.

The building in question is Riddle’s Court, one of the oldest buildings in the World Heritage Site of Edinburgh’s Old Town – and the location of one of the University’s first halls of residence.

In 2017 the building will reopen as the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning, named in honour of the pioneering town planner and University tutor who established Riddle’s Court as a radical new type of university accommodation in the late 19th century.

Rich heritage

Riddle’s Court has an exceptionally colourful history. It hosted a royal banquet in 1598, has been the home of luminaries including David Hume, and more recently was formative in the careers of Dame Maggie Smith and Stephen Fry, who both stayed at the property when cutting their teeth at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe.

In 1887 Geddes created one of the University’s first student residences at Riddle’s Court, alongside similar projects – which he referred to as “settlements”– at Milne’s Court, James Court and Mound Place.

‘Anarchist community’

Geddes, a polymath whose career spanned biology, geography and sociology, was known for his innovative thinking in urban planning.

At the time of establishing Scotland’s first student halls of residence, he said: “Each settlement is a sort of co-operative society, a kind of Anarchist community, innocent of regulations. Each member is, or should be, guided by a law within himself, not one imposed from without.”

The Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning will open in autumn 2017, providing spaces for community groups, conferences and events. It embraces Geddes’ motto, “vivendo discimus” (by living we learn), which is chiselled above the main archway leading to the building’s courtyard.

Time Capsule

To mark the “topping out” of the restoration of Riddle’s Court, a time capsule was buried within the fabric of the building, detailing objects found during the construction work, and photographs, memoirs and letters from supporters of the project and others connected to the building. It is hoped that the time capsule will remain in its new home for centuries. Children from the nearby Cowgate Under-5s Centre, who have been involved throughout the restoration, placed items in the capsule at the ceremony. Their role in the event echoed Patrick Geddes’ hospitality towards local children at Riddle’s Court in the late 19th century.

‘At risk’

Since 1947 the building has been in the care of City of Edinburgh Council. By 2011, it had fallen out of use and was placed on the Buildings at Risk Register by the Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT) stepped in to raise funds and restore the building.

Scottish Historic Buildings Trust website

Five years later, at the ceremony that coincided with Patrick Geddes’ birthday in early October, a time capsule was placed at a secret location within the fabric of the building. It contains details of curiosities found during the restoration project, and mementoes contributed by supporters and other people connected to the building.

Learning from living

At the event, donors took a tour of the building. A vibrant painted ceiling commissioned by Geddes is one of its most notable features, depicting the building’s history.  Another legacy of Geddes’ tenure is a series of small alcoves, which he created to encourage students to sit together to talk and share ideas across academic disciplines.

“Patrick Geddes was keen to get students to learn not just from the lectures, but from each other,” says  SHBT Project Officer Audrey Dakin (MA Architecture 1989, DipArch 1991, MSC Architectural Conservation 1999).  “He would have a mix of students within his halls – he tried to get medics, science students and arts students together.

“He built these little recesses, which are perfect places for discussion. He wanted students to spend time together and get into in-depth conversations.”

Mr Campbell adds that Geddes “devised ways of learning and teaching that were new in their time” and was equally imaginative in his approach to town planning. He launched a number of initiatives to improve housing and living conditions in the Old Town.

Geddes believed that in order to understand and improve a community, a person had to be part of it, and so he moved with his family to James Court, off the Lawnmarket, which at the time meant living in near-slum conditions.

International legacy

Geddes, born in Ballater, Aberdeenshire, was known internationally for his progressive approach to town planning. He lived in India during the 1920s, holding the Chair of Sociology and Civics at Bombay University, and drew up new plans for several Indian cities. He was later commissioned to design improvements to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel, and Colombo in Sri Lanka. He spent the final years of his life in Montpelier, France, where he founded the Collège des Ecossais.

He never completed a degree, although he studied botany briefly at the University of Edinburgh, and later returned to the University as an Assistant in Practical Botany.


Riddle’s Court is being restored as the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning thanks to donations from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Architectural Heritage Fund and many philanthropic trusts and individuals.

From Edinburgh to the Antarctic

Among the adventures triggered by Patrick Geddes’ approach to education – and accommodation– was the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-4.

William Speirs Bruce had been greatly impressed during one of Geddes’ summer schools in Edinburgh, and subsequently gave up his studies in London to join Edinburgh’s Medical School. While living in Riddle’s Court, he met William Gordon Burn-Murdoch, an artist and writer, and the two were to become key figures in the successful Antarctic expedition: Bruce led the expedition while Burn-Murdoch recorded the trip in his illustrated book From Edinburgh to the Antarctic.

The expedition was a triumph, and returned to Scotland safely after overwintering in the ice, bringing new zoological, meteorological and geological findings.

It was during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition that an iconic photograph, known as The Piper and the Penguin, was taken. It shows the expedition’s piper, Gilbert Kerr, braving the elements in a kilt while serenading an apparently unimpressed emperor penguin.

In Burn-Murdoch’s book about the trip, he writes at length about the departure from Riddle’s Court, giving a colourful account of both the residence’s history and life there as a student. He describes Riddle’s Court as “quite the centre of the world”.