The Dick Vet Way - a walking tour of Edinburgh
A walking tour exploring the history of The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh city centre
The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is one of the oldest veterinary schools in the world. Founded by William Dick in 1823, the School celebrates its Bicentenary in 2023 - marking 200 years of veterinary teaching.
The route takes around two hours to complete. It is non-chronological, but follows a convenient path across town, finishing up at Summerhall, and takes in many of the city’s key veterinary sites.
For the complete Dick Vet story so far, join frequent Lothian bus services to Easter Bush to explore the site of the Home Farm, 1960s Field Station, and modern campus including the Roslin Institute.
Clyde Street, where the Dick family lived from 1815, no longer exists. It ran parallel to what is now Multrees Walk.
Take the escalator from the entrance on North St Andrew Street to view a commemorative plaque in the bus station foyer (on the left as soon as you step off the escalator).
The college developed and expanded gradually at this site, where Dick’s father had his forge. A major refurbishment provided purpose-built teaching facilities in 1833. Developments were funded by Dick himself with a grant from The Highland Society (now The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland). Dick and his sister, neither of whom married, lived in a flat above the premises and legend has it that Dick, sitting in his study, could diagnose lameness from the sound made by a horse on the street below ─ not impossible to imagine.
The College remained at Clyde Street until 1916, when teaching transferred to Summerhall.
You enter it from the street door, and are immediately struck with the delightful confusion that seems to reign within. Skeletons of all descriptions, ‘from a child’s shoe to a jack-boot’, from a horse to an ape, not ranged in ‘regular order all of a row’, but standing higgelty-piggelty, their ranks having been broken by the Professor’s table, and their heads looking in all directions, as if thrown together by chance. Over the Professor’s ‘devoted head’ is seen suspended a portion of inflated and injected intestine, with its mesenteric expansion dangling in the air, something like a lure for flies; whilst all around the room, and especially in the corners, are heaped together vast quantities of diseased bones, and other preparations, seemingly without order, and without arrangement.
From the bus station entrance on North St Andrew Street, walk up the hill into town with St Andrew Square gardens on your right. Look diagonally across St Andrew Square, and on your right you will see Rose Street running west, parallel to Princes Street. The Dick family lived at 190 Rose Street (the far west end) in 1799, the house later belonging to the College. Later, Joseph Lister, who revolutionised surgery with his antiseptic techniques, kept a horse at Robertson Stables, Rose Street, and had his vet fees waived in 1874 because of a demonstration he gave to students at the Dick Vet. The following year Lister wrote a series of articles for The Lancet on improvements in his antiseptic techniques.
Turn left and go through the gateway into the grounds of The Royal Bank of Scotland opposite St Andrew Square gardens. The equestrian statue in the gardens shows a very naturalistic pose, with the horse rubbing his face on a foreleg. Walk up the steps at the side of the bank into the quiet cobbled street of Register Place and continue along this street. Stay left at the Café Royal on to Gabriel’s Road. The Italiante building on your left is New Register House. Keep walking down Gabriel’s Road past The Guildford Arms on your right and emerge into the bustle at the east end of Princes Street directly opposite the Balmoral Hotel (formerly North British Railway Station Hotel), one of the great railway hotels.
Prior to the hotel being built, the site on North Bridge was occupied by Duncan, Flockhart & Co., the pharmacists who supplied James Young Simpson with chloroform, which he tested on himself at his home a short distance away at 52 Queen Street, Edinburgh, in 1847. Chloroform later gained popularity in veterinary medicine.
An equestrian statue of Wellington is on your left, directly in front of the Adam-designed General Register House (whose front wall had to be moved back a bit to accommodate Wellington and his horse). From 1774, excavations from the foundations of General Register House were dumped at an area now known as Greenside, opposite the recently redeveloped St James Quarter. The Dick family moved to this area from Rose Street in June 1799. Their new locality was still known as ‘Tumble Dust’ and ‘Mud Island’, referencing its origins as a tipping site. The family then moved to Clyde Street in 1815, where they remained.
Now cross Princes Street towards The Balmoral Hotel at the pedestrian crossing. Turn immediately left and use the other pedestrian crossing to cross North Bridge. Do not turn right on to North Bridge, keep walking ahead.
The handsome building on your right, called Waverleygate, is currently office space but was until 1995 the General Post Office (GPO). Prior to that it was the site of the Old Theatre Royal and included a square called, appropriately enough, Shakespeare Square. A school attended by Dick, run by a Mr Kesson, occupied a building in the now vanished Square.
Lying behind Waverleygate, in the low ground underneath North Bridge, was Paul’s Work, where Dick received elementary schooling from Rev. J. Robinson. Trinity College Church, where Dick was baptised at the age of six, was also in this long-gone district, cleared to make way for the expanding railway system.
Walk straight ahead on to Waterloo Place. At the junction on the opposite side of the road is Leith Street. Following Leith Street down the hill would take you past St James Quarter to Greenside and the former ‘Tumble Dust’ and ‘Mud Island’.
Continue along Waterloo Place for about 200 metres. The large tower you see in front of you is the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill. Look out for Howie’s Restaurant on the other side of the road, where Calton Hill lane winds up to meet Waterloo Place at the corner.
Finding that it was possible to derive as much knowledge in Edinburgh as would lay the foundation for the successful working out of the scheme which I intently cherished in my mind, I considered it was not necessary to remain longer in the English metropolis. After three months’ study there, I had the confidence to apply for a diploma, the time of residence not being then defined, and I obtained it.
Dick’s first lectures in the Calton Convening Rooms were given in 1820. Nine students attended a free series of lectures over the course of a month. There followed another series of lectures in 1821 at the School of Arts (see step 9), which was repeated in 1822. Then, on Monday 24th November 1823, Dick returned to the Calton Convening Rooms to give the first lecture under the auspices of his newly-founded veterinary school. During the first session, 25 students attended 46 lectures, supplemented by practical teaching at Dick’s father’s forge on Clyde Street. In 1829, all teaching was transferred to Clyde Street, the headquarters of the new veterinary college.
It is too well known to require illustration, that the treatment of horses and cattle under disease is lamentably defective in almost every part of Scotland. […] The Highland Society, having turned their attention to the subject, feel much satisfaction in recommending the school of veterinary surgery, established in Edinburgh during the last two years, by Mr William Dick, under their patronage and support.
St Andrew’s House, the large Art Deco-influenced building on your right, is headquarters to the Scottish government. Follow Regent Road as it sweeps round, giving fine views across the Canongate and Holyrood to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. The 19th century neoclassical building that is now visible on the other side of Regent Road is the Old Royal High School (from the 1970s it was also known as New Parliament House), which was proposed as the home for the Scottish parliament before the new parliament building was erected at Holyrood.
The Burns Monument is now visible ahead. Robert Burns, ‘the ploughman poet’, wrote extensively and compassionately about nature and animals and had practical knowledge of agriculture. Craig Sharp (1933-2018), veterinarian, founder of modern sports science, and noted Burns scholar, argued from evidence in the poems that Burns would have made an excellent veterinary surgeon. The Craig Sharp Memorial Lecture is hosted annually by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and the Robert Burns World Federation.
Enter the burial ground from Regent Road, turning right after the Burns Monument. Follow the path down and into the cemetery. New Calton, which opened in 1817, is an outstanding example of an early Victorian ‘garden cemetery’.
To find the Dick family plot, take the second path on the right from the main path and follow it for about 80 metres. The monument is a pink colour with a faded inscription.
Behind Dick’s grave is a ground plaque commemorating John McLeod ‘celebrated painter of Greyfriar’s Bobby’. We will meet Bobby at Greyfriar’s later in the tour (stop 10).
Standing at Dick’s grave, turn round and look up the hill behind you to see the Watch Tower. Watch towers are common in Edinburgh graveyards and served to protect the dead from grave robbers who sold bodies for anatomical dissection. The practice culminated in the Burke and Hare trial which rocked the city in 1828 and contributed to the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832.
A further Dick Vet connection to this burial ground involves the New Calton Watch Tower, which was home to a family of ten until 1931. One member of the large family was John McDonald, born at the tower in 1912. His daughter, Anne McDonald would grow up to be a secretary at the Dick Vet at Summerhall at the age of 16 after returning to Scotland from Australia in 1961. Anne’s father, John is commemorated by a plaque which remains on the tower wall.
I loved my job. I worked as Secretary at the veterinary clinic which was part of the School. I wrote all the reports for the three vets. Mr Walter McLennan was in charge. I organised the vets’ call out appointments to farms. I recall one, when a cow was standing in a stream giving birth, also an autopsy on a giraffe from the zoo, and various other animals. This was at the Summerhall building. I loved going through the doors of that building each morning, after catching the bus from our flat in Fettes Row. At the end of 1961, I was involved in the move out to our new premises [Field Station], ‘the Bush’ at Roslin. I saw more of the students here - it was a more open area. It was a very happy time in my life.
Follow the gravel path downhill from Dick’s grave, going past the steps and path that leads to the Watch Tower on your right. The next grassy walk on your right contains one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful gravestones, located at the second plot from the path. The gravestone is that of Andrew Skene, who became Solicitor General for Scotland in 1834. The marble monument depicts 'Wisdom consoling Misfortune', a phrase that could apply equally to veterinary medicine as it does the law.
Continue following the gravel path downhill via the steps to exit New Calton Burial Ground at the Calton Road gate. Turn left as you come out of the burial ground and walk along the pavement a short distance to the crossing point. Cross Calton Road at the crossing point, and then go through the unmarked gate and passageway on the other side of the road. This winding passageway takes you into White Horse Close.
John Dick and his wife Jean Anderson moved to White Horse Close from Aberdeenshire and lived in lodgings here for over ten years, where William was born. John worked as a farrier and smith. The White Horse was a 17th century coaching inn, one of the best in Edinburgh, from where coaches departed for London. That journey was arduous and book-ended William’s career.
Dick took ‘the lang road coach for London’ in 1817 at the start of his career, to study at the London Veterinary College, and again at the end, at the request of Highland Society, to examine cases of cattle plague when the great European pandemic hit Britain in 1865.
The journey and the stress of the work associated with cattle plague proved too much for the 73 year old, who had a weak heart. Dick died on 4th April 1866. He was laid to rest in New Calton Burial Ground, a mere 100 metres from where he was born.
Holyrood Palace is to your left and directly opposite is the Scottish Parliament. Turn right and walk up The Royal Mile through the historic Canongate district for about five minutes until you meet the figure of Robert Fergusson striding towards you at the entrance to Canongate Kirk. The brutal circumstances of the young poet’s death in 1774, after forced admission to Darien House ‘hospital’ in the Bedlam district of Edinburgh, prompted a young doctor called Andrew Duncan (1744–1828) to create better care for the treatment of psychiatric patients. Duncan founded what would become The Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where the Andrew Duncan Clinic was named in his honour.
Duncan was an early advocate for veterinary education in Edinburgh and disagreed with the University’s decision not to support a Professorship in Veterinary Anatomy, Surgery and Medicine in 1816. The Town Council had suggested the position for Dick’s supporter and mentor Dr John Barclay (see step 8). The University’s failure to support such a chair ultimately led to William Dick setting up his own school in 1823 with Barclay’s strong support and encouragement.
I dissent from the opinion given by the Senatus Academicus to the Patrons of the University because I am convinced that a Professorship in Veterinary Anatomy, Surgery and Medicine, in the hands of an able and honourable man would be no prejudice whatsoever to any Professorship already established in the University, while it would be highly advantageous to the public and creditable to the University.
Turn into Canongate Kirk, where we take a detour into the ‘pre-Dick’ history of veterinary education in Edinburgh. Bear right when facing the church doors and walk under the two trees towards an unusual animal sculpture situated just beyond the gap in the wall. The Chimaera, by English sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos (1904-2005), ‘represents the Greek symbol of Evil: a triple monster, an unholy trinity; unnatural and divided against itself. The lion expresses Force, the goat Luxury, the serpent Fraud and Falsehood. In the clutches of this beast an eagle ─ symbol of the oppressed peoples of the Church − covers its young. A boy plunges his knife into the Chimaera and kills the last illusion ─ not by might but by the Lord; not by Evil but by Faith’.1
Turn left at The Chimaera and walk down the gravel path into the graveyard. The Old Royal High School and Nelson Monument are visible on Calton Hill ahead. Continue to follow the path straight ahead, down the slope, and descend a short flight of steps. Continue beyond the steps then turn to your left.
James Clark was a highly regarded 18th century farrier who acts a pivotal figure between farriery and veterinary medicine. He studied human and comparative anatomy at the University of Edinburgh and published textbooks on equine care. He ran a livery stable in Edinburgh and proposed a veterinary school for Edinburgh that would be under his direction. He even turned down an offer to run the London Veterinary College after the untimely death of its first professor, Charles Benoit Vial de Saint Bel, in 1793. However, Clark’s school in Edinburgh did not come to fruition. In 1806 he published First Lines of Veterinary Physiology and Pathology but died in 1808 before a planned companion volume was completed.
Canongate Kirk also has the grave of outstanding surgeon Benjamin Bell (1749-1806), the ‘father of the Edinburgh school of surgery’. This was not an institution, but a system of surgery which emphasised rationalism and scientific principles. Bell’s adage in surgery was ‘save skin’, allowing for effective wound reconstruction, along the lines of Halsted’s Principles which were articulated in the late 19th century and still taught to veterinary and human surgeons today. Bell also advocated routine pain relief using opium during surgery, and had scientific interests in agriculture and farming.
Medicine is taught in Edinburgh to the greatest perfection but for a surgeon I assure you Edinburgh comes greatly short of either Paris or London.
Can you find the Adam Smith brick under your feet on the front courtyard of Canongate Kirk? The famous economist and author of Wealth of Nations is buried in the graveyard.
Exiting Canongate Kirk, you will see The Edinburgh Museum directly opposite but do not cross the road. The museum has an exhibit on Greyfriar’s Bobby which includes Bobby’s collar. The engraved collar was presented by the Lord Provost, who paid Bobby’s license fee and saved him from being destroyed. We will visit the Greyfriar’s Bobby memorial at step 10.
After turning right out of Canongate Kirk, stay on the right side of the road and head for the pedestrian crossing. Cross at the pedestrian crossing and continue up The Royal Mile for about 100m. Turn left through the arches into Chessel’s Court, one of many atmospheric ‘closes’ that branch off The Royal Mile.
James Clark operated a hotel in Chessel’s Court. It was not unusual for farriers and livery stable owners to run hotels, in much the same way that present day hotels are often sited beside transport hubs. Clark’s Hotel formed part of Chessel’s Building, which later became the Excise building and the site of Deacon Brodie’s last robbery.
Deacon Brodie was a respectable Edinburgh town councillor by day but a gambler and thief by night who kept a stash of duplicate keys under a rock on nearby Salisbury Crags. He inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. After fleeing Edinburgh, Brodie was found in Amsterdam. He was then returned to Edinburgh and hanged at Old Tolbooth on the High Street in front of a crowd of 40,000. He has pubs named after him in Edinburgh, New York (U.S.) and Ottawa (Canada).
The road becomes cobbled and then goes slightly downhill. Bear left into Gullan’s Close. Walk down the narrow passage of Gullan’s Close to meet Holyrood Road at the bottom. On your left is part of Edinburgh University’s Holyrood campus, occupying the site of ‘South Back, Canongate’ where James Clark had his extensive livery stables.
Mr Clark takes the opportunity of acknowledging the obligations he lies under to the public, for the encouragement he has met with in his Livery Stables and Repository; hopes the continuance of their favours, and begs leave to acquaint them, that for the better accommodation of Horses and Carriages he has taken a LARGE AREA of GROUND adjoining to his stable yard […] in which he has now fitted up a number of elegant Stables and Shades for Carriages. The Area of the Stable Yard consists of 212 feet in length and 70 in breadth, on which he proposes to erect a shade or ride for exercising Horses in wet weather. The Stable Yard is supplied with plenty of fine soft water. The whole, when completed, according to the plan now carrying on, will make one of the largest and most commodious Stables in this country, or perhaps in any other part of Great Britain.
Turn right out of Gullan’s Close and walk along Holyrood Road a short distance to the pedestrian crossing. Use two crossings and go over towards the pet-friendly Salvation Army Hostel for homeless people (see All4Paws in step 14) and then walk uphill on the Pleasance with the grassy bank on your right hand side. Turn at the first right onto Drummond Street and walk on the right hand side, alongside Flodden Wall.
Turn right into the Edinburgh University buildings on Drummond Street. This area was the ‘medical quarter’ of old Edinburgh. The large building straight ahead is Old Infirmary and the building to the right is Old Surgeon’s Hall. Walk down the flight of steps and slope between these two buildings, then turn right to enter High School Yards and Surgeon Square.
Dr John Barclay had a huge influence on William Dick. As a young man, Dick attended Barclay’s lectures at No. 10 Surgeon Square and was inspired. Barclay recommended The Highland Society support Dick in his endeavours to set up a veterinary school after Barclay himself was denied a University Chair of Comparative Anatomy, which included ‘Veterinary Physic and Surgery’, in 1821. Barclay’s reputation and status threatened conservative elements within the Medical School at the time, where anatomy teaching had deteriorated following the deaths of Alexander Monro (primus) and his son, Monro secundus. The grandson, Monro tertius, was an uninspiring teacher. The three Monros held the Edinburgh chair in Anatomy for 126 years in what has been described as a ‘self-perpetuating cartel’. The defensive actions of Monro tertius towards Barclay, who was renowned as a brilliant lecturer, prompted satirical comment in Kay’s Portraits, a 19th century Private Eye.
Well, well, all I can say is, that whether he be a blacksmith or a whitesmith, he’s the cleverest chap among you.
Take note of the plaques on the front of Old Surgeon’s Hall, one of which is dedicated to Elsie Inglis, doctor and suffragette, who trained at Edinburgh Medical School.
Walk out into Infirmary Street and continue up the right side of the street. Turn into the cobbled Robertson’s Close on your right (just before Café Nero on the other side of the road), and continue walking down the close.
At the bottom of Robertson’s Close, look across the Cowgate to see what is now St Cecilia’s Hall, the University’s museum of historical musical instruments and performing venue.
The School of Arts was established at Free Mason’s Hall in 1821. Dick lectured there without remuneration in 1821-22 and again in 1822-23, providing a comprehensive course of 24 lectures for farriers. The School of Arts later amalgamated with the Watt Institute to eventually become the predecessor of today’s Heriot-Watt University.
One of the Farriers who entered as a Student [to Dick’s lectures], and attended with regularity, came every night of the Lecture the distance of ten miles from the country. Mr Dick’s skill in his profession is too well known to require any notice in this place; but the Directors would not do justice to their feelings, if they did not publicly acknowledge their obligation to Mr Dick, for the liberality of his gratuitous services.
The Cowgate is also known as ‘Little Ireland’ because the area was popular with Irish immigrants in the 19th century. James Connolly, the Irish republican, socialist and trade union leader was born here in 1868. Continue walking along Cowgate on the left side of the road for about 5 minutes, passing through two tall tunnels ahead. After the second tunnel, reach the mini roundabout at Grassmarket. Grassmarket was the main site where public hangings took place in Edinburgh. The bodies of criminals were then often used for dissection by, amongst others, Robert Knox, a pupil of John Barclay. Knox succeeded Barclay upon his teacher’s death in 1826, and taught veterinary students, but his career never recovered after the West Port murders of 1828, as Knox was the main recipient of Burke and Hare’s victims. He was excluded from the medical establishment in Edinburgh and died in Hackney, London.
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef
The building on the other side of the road is Grassmarket Community Project, which provides sanctuary for people coping with complex problems such as homelessness, and for many years hosted outreach clinics for homeless people with pets, run by Dick Vet students (see All4Paws - mentioned in step 14). Just beyond GCP, turn in through the gate, climb up the steps and enter the quiet of Greyfriar’s Kirk. At the top of the steps bear left on to the gravel path and walk towards the church.
Famous Skye terrier or a Dandie Dinmont? In this tour, we assert Bobby as a Skye terrier, a breed related to the West Highland White and Cairn, but the story of Bobby is shrouded in mystery and there are indeed several different versions. He definitely was a real dog, as proven by the collar presented to him by the Lord Provost and housed in The Edinburgh Museum (step 6), exempting him from a license fee. Legend has it he faithfully guarded his master’s grave for 14 years. Thomas Walley, principal of the Dick Vet from 1874-94 determined the cause of wee Bobby’s death was cancer of the jaw. Walley helped discover the link between human and bovine tuberculosis through milk consumption, but evidently was also a competent small animal vet.
Thomas Walley’s Principalship marked a period of tranquility at the Dick Vet after some turbulent years following Dick’s death. His steady leadership resulted in student numbers increasing after a serious decline. His pronouncement on the cause of death of Greyfriar’s Bobby further secures his place in history.
You will see a good example of a mortsafe, one of many to be found in this town of grave robbers. Not only were wealthy Victorians worried about being dissected after death, they also had a fear of being buried alive. Gothic literature and sensational journalism of the period often featured people wakening up in sealed coffins. It was not mere paranoia but related to a pressing physiological and medical question about how to determine the exact point of death in humans and animals, and a Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial existed in London.
The street statue of Bobby is now visible to your left. The National Museum of Scotland is the large building directly ahead. Turn right and head up the street a short distance to the double pedestrian crossing in front of Bedlam Theatre, now owned by The University of Edinburgh. The theatre is named after the area of town known as Bedlam. This roughly triangular area between Teviot Place and Bristo Street contained Darien House, the ‘hospital’ where young poet Robert Fergusson (mentioned in step 6) was admitted with mental health problems, and subsequently died due to neglect.
Cross over to the National Museum and walking down by the museum before turning right into Chambers Street. Continue down Chambers Street to the main entrance of National Museum of Scotland.
Dolly the sheep made history when she was cloned at The Roslin Institute in 1966, and in 2008 the Institute became part of The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. A Finn Dorset sheep, Dolly was born a Scottish Blackface surrogate mother. Her birth was part of a series of experiments that modified animals to produce therapeutic proteins in their milk. Dolly’s birth made scientific history because it proved that specialised cells could be used to create an exact copy of the donor animal. Previously, from 1984, sheep had been cloned only from unspecialised embryo and foetal cells, but Dolly came from an adult mammary gland cell. The type of research that produced Dolly has now been superseded by gene editing techniques.
The University of Edinburgh was established by Royal Charter in 1582 and took its first students a year later. The Faculty of Medicine opened in 1726. The foundation stone of Old College was laid in 1789 but building was delayed for some years due to lack of funds. From 1816, building commenced to complete the current grand structure.
Initially, in 1821, the University refused to establish a Chair in Comparative Anatomy and Veterinary Physic and Surgery (step 8), and Dick independently funded his veterinary college. Nevertheless, the vet college had early associations with the university and university teachers as well as extra-mural lecturers, notably John Barclay.
|The Highland Society’s Veterinary School
|Edinburgh Veterinary School
|The Edinburgh Veterinary College
|The Dick Veterinary College
|The Royal (Dick) Veterinary College
|The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh
|The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh
|The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh
Association with the University dates from 1906. In 1935, George V signed an Order affiliating the R(D)VC to The University of Edinburgh, and in 1951 the College was renamed as a School. In 1964, it became a Faculty but following further University restructuring in 2002 it reverted to being a School again.
Throughout all these name changes (and a few more than those listed existed), the R(D)SVS has retained an independent spirit. ‘The Dick is The Dick,’ is a quote from a ribald college song probably best inaccessibly filed in the archive.
Walk towards the pedestrian crossing. Cross Nicolson Street to the side opposite The Festival Theatre.
As well as the Dick Vet Archive, Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research Collections houses other rare items of veterinary interest, including a copy of Carlo Ruini’s On Anatomy and Disease of the Horse (Bologna, 1598) which was inspired by the anatomical works of Vesalius. This stunning anatomical atlas was regularly plagiarised, including by Andrew Snape in London in 1693, horse doctor for Charles II. Snape ‘borrowed’ 22 plates from Ruini and flipped the drawings in an attempt to disguise the theft, thereby thoroughly confusing any student who tried to use his book: the right-side organs appeared on the left and vice versa.
Surgeon’s Hall contains fascinating museums as well as a beautiful library, but we are interested in the rear of the main building. Do not approach the museum entrance. Instead, once inside the grounds, bear hard left and walk around the front of the main building to the side courtyard which houses the Quincentenary Hall.
This building is a surgical and clinical skills training facility for human surgeons and dentists, but sits on the site of one of Edinburgh’s other veterinary colleges which was started by John Gamgee in 1857 at No. 6 Drummond Street. In 1862, the so-called Edinburgh New Veterinary College transferred across town to a site on Lothian Road, and in 1865 (the year of the great cattle plague) it moved to London and opened as Albert Veterinary College before closing three years later.
John Gamgee is a major figure in the history of British veterinary medicine. He came from a highly educated family and graduated from the Royal Veterinary College but had also been educated in Europe. He was invited by Dick to lecture in anatomy and physiology but soon opened his own, rival school in 1857. In 1863, Gamgee organized a world veterinary conference and initiated a body that would develop into the World Veterinary Association.
Following the closure of the (renamed and relocated) Albert School in London, Gamgee dedicated his considerable intellect towards the problems of refrigeration. He argued that the transport of animal carcases rather than live animals would reduce the spread of contagious diseases. He developed the world’s first refrigerated ships and the world’s first mechanically-frozen ice rink.
They [Gamgee’s pupils] are debarred from holding any situation whatever in connection with the College.
Cross back on to the other side of the road at the pedestrian crossing and continue walking out of town. Go straight across West Nicolson Street at the PDSA shop on the corner. Keep straight ahead and pass the Southside Community Education Centre (old church) on your right. The other side of the road has many charity shops. Stop at Dick Vet in the Community, just before the Greenmantle Pub.
[A] very important addition has been made last session by Mr Dick, and at very considerable expense to himself. A stable has been provided, and appropriated to what may be termed pauper patients, where such are put under regular treatment, without expense to their owners, and with incalculable benefit to those attending the school.
Following a bequest from an Edinburgh lady named Vida Howie, the Dick Vet started an outreach programme to treat homeless people’s animals in 2009, visiting pet-friendly hostels in the city. In 2015, two fourth-year vet students, Calla Harris and Biana Tamimi, expressed an interest in holding additional pop-up clinics in community centres. A pilot was organised in a community centre in Leith and proved successful. Similar clinics ran in various locations until 2022, now under the name All4Paws.
In 2023, the vet school took over the lease of an ex-veterinary premises on Nicolson Street to provide a permanent base for All4Paws. The project is now well-known and works closely with homeless hostels and organisations across Edinburgh. A self-renewing committee of vet students are involved in all aspects of managing and running the clinic, giving them valuable learning opportunities in clinic management and contextualised and pragmatic veterinary care.
Dick himself rented a shop on Nicolson Street to give farriery lectures in 1819-20 when another venue fell through. He continued the classes even although he had just four students, only one of whom was regular in attendance.
When Scott’s second venture [an educational initiative] came to an untimely end, Dick’s diminutive class did not cease entirely; for he took an unfurnished shop in Nicolson Street, where we may picture him lecturing nightly, by the light of a candle, to his solitary regular student.
Aim for the spire and clock on the top of Queen’s Hall. The street becomes Clerk Street. Pass Queen’s Hall on your right, use the pedestrian crossing and turn right on to Hope Park Terrace, walking towards The Meadows.
At the bottom of Hope Park Terrace, turn left on to Summerhall.
Construction work at Summerhall started in 1913 but was delayed because of the war. Students and staff moved in during 1916 but building work continued. Brought from Clyde Street was the ‘reclining horse rising’ sculpture commissioned by Dick from A. Wallace, which was placed on the archway of the new Maccallum Clinical Department. Also from Clyde Street was the seated figure of William Dick holding a horse’s foot. Clyde Street alumni contributed to a stained-glass window which was installed on the foyer staircase at Summerhall.
An extension to the Summerhall was completed in 1940, and in 1972 a six-storey modernist tower block was added at the north side together with a three-storey block at the south end of the site. The reclining horse was moved to sit on the three-storey building, which became the Small Animal Practice Teaching Unit. The seated figure of William Dick, the horse, and the stained glass window were all re-located to the new veterinary school at Easter Bush in 2011.
Directly opposite Summerhall was a greatly respected institution called Cairns Veterinary Bookshop. The small shop was crammed with every veterinary title a student or staff member could need, and Mr and Mrs Cairns were regarded as Dick family. They posted books to alumni all over the world and were the ‘one stop shop’ for veterinary literature for many years. When Mr and Mrs Cairns retired, the physical shop closed. An internet book store operated for some time, but something unique had disappeared from Summerhall.
As library staff hastily packed up the last text books before finally vacating Summerhall in August 2011, an Edinburgh Fringe production of Medea moved in. The play was staged as a through-the-night production and audience members were provided with sleeping benches. ‘A late session in the library’ took on a whole new meaning.
Today, Summerhall is a thriving arts centre focussing on the avant garde, but still feels like a vet school. Summerhall is a major site during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Edinburgh Science Festival, through which it has developed its own ethos and character. Veterinary memorabilia are on display across the site and original room names have been retained, notably the Dissection Room with its vast windows looking out on to The Meadows. On entering the dog-friendly Royal Dick Bar, you will first see a portrait of William Dick, and will be served at a counter featuring a display of glass lantern veterinary teaching slides.
New Veterinary College
William Williams was appointed Principal of the R(D)VC in 1867. In 1873 he left, taking with him most of the students and the entire library (which was owned by the students) and opened New Veterinary College at Gayfield House, East London Street, Edinburgh (the house is still present). New Veterinary College moved to purpose-built premises at Elm Row, Edinburgh, in 1883, and then in 1904 transferred to Liverpool where it was the first vet school to be incorporated into a British university. New Veterinary College is not to be confused with John Gamgee’s Edinburgh New Veterinary College (see step 13).
Polish Veterinary Faculty
A war time Polish veterinary school operated at Summerhall from 1943-48, with teaching also carried out at 2 Brandon Street in the New Town. Over 80 exiled Polish students and graduates attended. A commemorative plaque is on the wall in the library side reading room in the William Dick Building at Easter Bush. There was also a Polish Medical School in Edinburgh on the site of the Western General Hospital.
John Barlow plaque, 1 Pilrig Street, Leith, Edinburgh
John Barlow (1815-56) was a highly regarded teacher appointed by William Dick in 1844 straight after Barlow’s graduation. Barlow seems to have impressed all who met him on account of his modesty, high intelligence and friendly manner. James Young Simpson, pioneer of chloroform anaesthesia, wrote, ‘I seldom or never conversed with him […] without deriving much information from his conversation. It often appeared to me that he was a man destined to advance and elevate veterinary medicine’. Sadly, Barlow died young. There is a blue plaque on the wall of the house he lived in at 1 Pilrig Street, Leith, and he is buried in the Quaker’s Burial Ground, 42-76 Pleasance, Edinburgh (area now owned by Edinburgh University).
With thanks to
Imogen Gibson, Kirk Secretary, Canongate Kirk | Edinburgh Bus Station | The Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh | Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh | Colin Warwick MBE, Honorary Fellow, R(D)SVS
Bradley, O.C. (1988 facsimile of the 1923 edition) History of the Edinburgh Veterinary College. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Library.
Warwick, C.M. & Macdonald, A.A. (2006) John Barlow: A Mind of No Common Mould. Veterinary History 13(2): 100-110.
Gardiner, A. (2007) Elephants and exclusivity: an episode from the ‘pre-Dick’ history of veterinary education in Edinburgh. Veterinary History 13: 299-309.
Warwick, C.M. & Macdonald, A.A. (2007) Current and Historical Sites Associated with Veterinary Education in Edinburgh. Privately printed leaflet.
Warwick, C.M. & Macdonald, A.A. (2011) Early contributions to the development of veterinary education in Scotland. Veterinary History 16(1): 10-40.
Warwick, C.M. & Macdonald, A.A. (2013) The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies: What’s In a Name? Veterinary History (17)1: 33-65.