Listed Building

The only legal part of the listing under the Planning (Listing Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 is the address/name of site. Addresses and building names may have changed since the date of listing – see 'About Listed Buildings' below for more information. The further details below the 'Address/Name of Site' are provided for information purposes only.

Address/Name of Site

University of Edinburgh Old College, including gates and lamp standards, South Bridge, Chambers Street, South College Street and West College Street, EdinburghLB27989

Status: Designated


Where documents include maps, the use of this data is subject to terms and conditions (


Date Added
Last Date Amended
Supplementary Information Updated
Local Authority
Planning Authority
NT 25990 73360
325990, 673360


Robert Adam, 1789; completion of quadrangle William Henry Playfair, 1818-34; dome Sir Rowand Anderson, 1888; landscaping of courtyard, 2010.

A monumental and important classical university quadrangle situated on sloping site with deep raised basement and attic to street elevation and 2-storey quadrangle. It has a distinctive dome over triumphal-arch style entrance to South Bridge (to east). It is constructed of ashlar and has a chamfered rusticated raised basement. There is a deep base course, band courses, one with patera design, cill courses, and a dentilled cornice. There are some Venetian, Diocletian and tripartite window openings with Doric columned mullions. Some 1st floor windows have moulded architraves, balustraded aprons and cornices, and some are pedimented. There are later recessed dormers.

The east (entrance) elevation is 15 bays. It has an advanced central, 3-bay Giant Order Doric triumphal-arch entrance and 3-bay advanced outer bays and a Doric frieze and balustraded parapet. The central key-stoned round-arched entrance with large multi-pane glazing pattern lunette above, leads to a vaulted pend with a central domed ceiling. The centrally placed 3-stage drum and dome is surmounted by a circular lantern with a gilded figure at its apex (see Statement of Special Interest). The drum is pedimented with columned 3-light windows.

The quadrangle is symmetrical, with round-arched openings at the ground level; there are some arcaded loggias; there are Ionic pilasters and columns to the upper storey. There are angle quadrants with Ionic loggias to the upper storeys; the parapet is balustraded. There are pairs of advanced, pedimented 3-bay sections to the north and south. There is a raised balustraded terrace with stairs to the north, south and west elevations.

There are predominantly 12-pane timber sash and case windows and there are some round-arched multi-pane timber sash and case windows. The roof has grey slates, ridge and wallhead chimneystacks.

The interior was seen in 2015. There are some later alterations but with many original features throughout and with outstanding neo-classical rooms by Playfair, notably the library, staircase, Georgian Room and other reception rooms. There is a wide, cantilevered staircase with decorative metal balusters and timber handrail. The library is an impressive neo-classical 11-bay, 2-storey room with a coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling and intricately decorative plasterwork cornicing. It has shelved alcoves to the north and south and Ionic columned screens to the east and west. The 3-bay Georgian Room, has paired Corinthian pilasters to each bay and domed glass and metal cupolas above with intricately carved pendentives. There is a consoled balcony with decorative metal railing. Other rooms have outstanding neo-classical decorative fire surrounds and intricate plasterwork cornicing. There is an oval open-well staircase.

There are 3 sets of decorative spear-headed cast iron gates to the south entrance.

The central courtyard, re-ordered in 2010, is a level area of lawn and is surrounded by paved seating area.

There are several pairs of decorative, cast iron lamp standards with curvilinear bases and capped, glass lantern bowls located in the courtyard.

Statement of Special Interest

Old College is one of the most impressive and significant academic buildings in Scotland, designed by the internationally renowned architect Robert Adam subsequently completed largely following Adam's designs by William Henry Playfair. The later dome is by the eminent Scottish architect Sir Rowand Anderson. The college is a landmark building in the city with a particularly imposing and grand entrance front to the South Bridge and an architectural and social symbol of the great age of the Scottish Enlightenment. The complex of buildings contains a number of outstanding interiors.

The gestation of this building project is long and complex and linked inextricably to the development of a grand route linking the north and south parts of Edinburgh. This was because University funding was managed by the Town Council. Unlike the other Scottish universities, Edinburgh derived its status from a secular charter, promoted by the Town Council and granted by James VI in 1582. Despite the fact that Professor William Robertson, principal of the University from 1762, had been pressing for the reconstruction of the dilapidated University buildings since the 1760s, the priority for the Town Council was the construction of a bridge over the Cowgate and associated roads to enable easy access via North Bridge to the New Town on the north and the area currently being developed, Lady Nicolson's ground, to the south. This route was to cut through the College grounds and would dramatically alter its setting, incidentally re-orientating the building to the east, rather than the north. The 1785 South Bridge Act linked the two schemes and a single set of Trustees were appointed to undertake both. Robert Adam lobbied to be appointed to undertake the whole scheme but he failed and by 1789 the schemes were separate. Some of Adam's proposals influenced the South Bridge development but in the end only his University designs to a new and expanded brief were implemented and of those only a small part had been constructed by the time of his death in 1792.

Robert Adam's plans for this new university building showed a quadrangle with two internal courtyards, separated by a chapel. Work began in 1789, but stopped in 1793 with the outbreak of the Napoleonic War. Only the northwest corner and part of the east façade had been completed by this time. From 1818-34, Playfair completed the building by retaining the main aspects of Adam's design, but reduced it to one courtyard.

Robert Adam's design is of particular significance for several reasons. In the first place, the design was highly original at the time. There was no obvious precedent for a complete new university of this type. Courtyard designs were used in a number of Italian cities (some of which he might have seen on the Grand Tour) and in many of the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge but the latter had grown piecemeal over the centuries. Adam had himself worked on King's College Cambridge in the 1780s but there he was required to add to existing buildings with varying characteristics. Adam's designs for Register House (1771, the first public building commissioned in Britian for several decades) and the University College were inspired both in plan and elevation by palazzo models, rejecting the U-shaped plan which was popular for public buildings in the 1760s – for example in the Royal Exchange buildings (the City Chambers) in the Royal Mile. The main façade of Register House was restrained with small central portico flanked by turreted outer pavilions. However the University design was much more assertive, the centrepiece recalling a triumphal arch with monumental monolithic columns flanking the doorways. It may have been inspired by the entrance at Holyrood with its paired giant columns on deep bases.

In previous centuries a large commission such as this would only have been possible by royalty or high-ranking nobles but the University commission was for a secular institution. A Board of Trustees appointed by the Town Council was responsible for finding the means for financing the renovation scheme (which was initially largely by subscription and later supported by government funds), although the Senate of the University had considerable input into its requirements for teaching. This represents a milestone in the commissioning of monumental public schemes.

Although the University building was not completed exactly to Adam's design it is still recognised as one of Adam's finest designs. Adam himself described it as 'this great and important work, which I had so much at heart'. Adam, like many of his contemporaries, considered public building commissions as the most prestigious and important type. The prominent parts of the inscription over the central arch on South Bridge, his own name and that of the name of James VI make clear that he saw the building's connection with Scots royal antiquity which in a way defined his role as an architect of outstanding significance, to which he had aspired throughout his career.

Only the north west corner of the quadrangle and the façade had been built when work on the College stopped because of problems with funding as a result of uncertainty, inflation and rising taxation of the French wars. The competition to complete the buildings was won in 1816 by Playfair. The rules of the competition stipulated that the Adam design should be followed and Playfair did so but in a subdued fashion. However his interiors are significant, the Upper Library being one of the most outstanding neo-classical interiors in Scotland and may have drawn inspiration from contemporary French architecture.

In 1886-7, Sir Rowand Anderson was appointed by the University to erect a dome above the south entrance. (Adam's original plans had included a dome, although the Anderson one is much larger.) The gilded figure of Youth at the apex of the dome is by John Hutchison RSA and is a statue of youth bearing a torch, symbolising knowledge. The west part of the north façade was redressed in 1888 when Chambers Street was built.

Robert Adam (1728-1792) was one of the most internationally influential architects of the 18th century, and the leader of the Classical Revival Movement. He worked in both Scotland and England, and his country houses are among the most notable in the UK and include Culzean Castle and Syon House.

William Henry Playfair (1789-1857) was an renowned and eminent architect and a leading figure in Edinburgh's Enlightenment and was responsible for many of the buildings in 19th century Edinburgh. An expert exponent of the Greek Revival style, his buildings helped to create Edinburgh's Enlightenment character.

Sir Rowand Anderson (1834-1921) was a distinguished Scottish architect whose practice was involved with many of the most prestigious public and private buildings in Scotland.

References form previous list descriptions: Modern Athens (Shepherd). Georgian Edinburgh (Lindsay). APSD. Architecture of R & J Adam (Bolton). Builder Aug 14 1886, Aug 18, 1888. British Architect June 3 1887.

Listed building record updated as part of Edinburgh Holyrood Ward resurvey 2007-08. Statutory address and listed building record revised in 2015 as part of the University of Edinburgh review. Previously listed as 'South Bridge, Chambers Street, South College Street and West College Street, University of Edinburgh Old College, including Gates and Lamp Standards'.




Published sources

Bryant, J (1992) Robert Adam 1728-92: Architect of Genius. London: English Heritage with the National Library of Scotland.

Fraser, A G (1989) The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair and the

University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gifford, J. et. al.. (1988) The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh. London: Penguin Books. pp188-191.

Glendinning, M. et al. (2004) The Architecture of Scottish Government: from Kingship to Parliamentary Democracy. Dundee: Dundee University Press. pp.177-178.

McKean, C. (1992) Edinburgh: an Illustrated Architectural Guide. Edinburgh: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Edinburgh. pp.66-68.

Youngson, A. J. (1966) The Making of Classical Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp129-132.


Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Robert Adam [accessed 29 October 2015].

Dictionary of Scottish Architects. William Henry Playfair [accessed 29 October 2015]

Edinburgh World Heritage [accessed 29 October 2015]

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Old College, University of Edinburgh, Interior of quadrangle looking west, and grassed courtyard to foreground.
Old College, University of Edinburgh, Interior of quadrangle looking east, with dome tower and grassed courtyard to foreground.


Map of University Of Edinburgh Old College, Including Gates And Lamp Standards, South Bridge, Chambers Street, South College Street And West College Street, Edinburgh

Printed: 17/08/2022 14:59