Moray House School of Education and Sport

Old Maray House: History

Old Moray House is the oldest building in the University of Edinburgh and is one of the few remaining original aristocratic buildings in the Canongate, Edinburgh.


Old Moray House stands on the south side of the Canongate, part of the Royal Mile connecting Edinburgh Castle in the west to Holyrood Palace in the east.

Mary, Countess of Home's House

(Old) Moray House was built around 1618 by Mary, Countess of Home. It was built at a time when there was greater political stability in Scotland and England and when the Canongate was becoming a desirable district for the town houses of the Scottish aristocracy. It was designed to provide an elegant mansion for members of her family.

The house, two stories high, was built of light grey freestone. Contemporary documents record that her house was referred to as the 'great ludging' and has been described as 'the handsomest house in Edinburgh'. The north side has a gable, large windows with strapwork and a Balcony. The coats of arms (the lions of Home and Dudley impaled on a lozenge) are displayed on this side of the building. Her linked initials, M and H, may be seen above the centre window on the south gable.

Writing of the Countess in 1882 W Kennedy said:

" This lady belonged to the English house of Dudley and brought to the erection of the house a taste for architecture and gardening very different from that prevailing."

A full description of the architectural design of Old Moray House can be found in the 'Architecture' section.

The House of Moray Connection

On the death of Mary, Countess Dowager of Home in 1645 the house passed to her daughters, Margaret and Anne. By a family arrangement the house later became Margaret's. 200 years of association between the house and the Moray family began when Margaret's husband became the 4th Earl of Moray.

Records detail the many connections of the Moray House with historical events in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The British Linen Company

In 1752 the Court of the British Linen Company recommended that the Directors seek a suitable building for the expanding work of the Company. Negotiations were undertaken with the Earl of Moray about the possibility of using Moray House as a warehouse. In 1752 a Tack was entered into for his Lordship's lodging in the Canongate for twenty five years to commence at Whitsunday. The house became a counting house, banking establishment and a linen warehouse. Rooms were altered to meet the requirements of traders, and for storing flax and other materials.

In 1755 the New House, or south wing, was built. Private tenants occupied the top floor, Lord Kames being the first.

It was from this period that the building became known as the British Linen Hall.

In 1791 the Company moved to other premises, except for some staff who remained in the Linen Hall until 1801.

The Cowan Family

In 1793/4 Charles Cowan leased the 'British Linen Court, Canongate', as a tea and paper warehouse. They had two sons, Duncan and Alexander, and a daughter, Margaret. After Charles's, then his wife's death, his sons managed the family businesses including those based in the Linen Hall.

A print of a painting by Kenneth McLeary dated 1839 shows the Cowan family in the garden of Moray House. They lived in considerable prosperity and had done much to maintain the house and its famous garden. The Thomas Shepherd prints of 1829 also show the improvements the family made to the house and the garden.

The family used the Cromwell Room (south facing) as a drawing room, and the Balcony Room as a music room. A door in the north east corner led to the Cowan's study.

The railings were put up around the Balcony in 1842 to avoid risk of an accident when Queen Victoria drove up the Canongate on her way to the castle. It is possible that the Balcony originally had a stone balustrade.

In May 1845 Alexander Cowan gave up the family's lease.

The Free Church of Scotland Normal and Sessional School

In July 1845 the sale of Moray House was authorised by a private Act of Parliament in favour of the North British Railway Company. This sale by Francis, 10th Earl of Moray, broke the entail and two hundred years of connection with the Moray family. The purchase price was £2,500.

In October 1846 Dr Candlish on behalf of the Free Church of Scotland purchased the premises for the sum of £2,500 plus fees (£2,862 in total). James Moncrieff, Advocate, and other Trustees of the Free Church, arranged the purchase. The various buildings were planned to house the Free Church's Normal and Sessional School.

Extensive alterations were made during 1848/9, including changes to floor levels. In the Regent's House all partitions on the first and second floors were removed and windows altered. Two new windows on each floor were added. The first floor was lowered which led to the disappearance of the pend underneath. In the New House the second floor became a large classroom. The cost of all these works amounted to nearly £6,000.

An additional building, the New Hall, was added to the north east side of the upper garden in 1856.

This School at Moray House was opened on 13 September 1848. Bruce - Home's bird's eye view of 1856 (larger) shows the appearance of the house and grounds following these major changes.

Much could be written of life in the Sessional School and in the Demonstration School that succeeded it. Many of the Headmasters' log books still exist in the Moray House Archive.

The 20th Century Refurbishment

With the expansion of Moray House as a teacher training institution, and the closure of the secondary and primary departments of the Demonstration School, the opportunity arose to refurbish Old Moray House.

Recent photograph of Old Moray House

During 1970-1972 the building underwent a major renovation with its interior once again being partly reconstructed. The iron and glass canopy or lantern over the original court was removed, roofed over and the area below opened up as the main staircase.

It was at this time that the western entrance was closed and a new main door formed out of a south facing window beneath the Cromwell Room. The cellar, a relic of the original ground floor, was largely filled in. The original turnpike stair door has been buried by the raising of the level of the courtyard. Comparing street level now with that in the 1829 Shepherd print shows how this has also risen significantly over the past 150 years. It is likely that the current entrance hall was the original kitchen and this might explain the two metre thickness of the eastern wall. During the 1971 renovation a large fireplace arch was exposed in the stonework of this east wall.

Sir Alec Douglas Home, Foreign Secretary, formally re-opened Old Moray House on 16 June 1972, as Moray House's Music Department. Three large music studios were created as well as a number of practice rooms and a recording studio. The Balcony Room and the Cromwell Room had been carefully restored and found to be particularly suited to acoustic instruments such as the cello and guitar playing and singing.

Old Moray House now houses the Moray House School of Education's main academic offices.


Material compiled and edited in 2002/03 by Hugh Perfect (Dupute Head of Moray House School of Education /Honorary Archivist of Moray House Archive) and David Starsmeare (Senior Lecturer at Moray House School of Education)