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News > Archives > Heriot's empire of working-class education

Heriot's empire of working-class education

Calling Former Pupils with family educated at a Heriot's Free School in the late 19th Century. . . .
31 Oct 2023
Daivie Street outschool
Daivie Street outschool

Have you spotted a building in Edinburgh which reminds you of the Old Building/Wark? There is one at the bottom of St. Mary’s Street, where it meets the Cowgate. If one looks up, there on the façade of the upper floors are unmistakeable Wark-like features. This was once a Heriot Outdoor, or Free School. Between the passage of a private Act of Parliament in 1836 and their absorption into the Edinburgh School Board system in 1885, the Free Schools provided the children of Edinburgh’s poorer citizens with basic education. At its height in the early 1880s there were 13 juvenile and 8 infant schools across the City, with a peak roll of nearly 5,000 pupils. The buildings were “embedded in the most congested areas of the City, in the Cowgate, Davie Street, Holyrood and Stockbridge”[1]. Their neo-Jacobean architecture was the brainchild of the Trust’s then Superintendent of Works, Alexander Black.

Together with Brian Lockhart, Head of History when I was at the School, I’ve been pursuing an interest in these schools, not so much because of their architecture, but because of their national impact. They were free. The Edinburgh School Board schools charged fees. This was at the heart of an intense controversy, with elements in the then politically dominant Liberal-party establishment in Scotland opposing what they saw as a waste of Heriot money which could be better spent, they felt, on secondary and higher education. Opposing this group was a so-called “Heriot Ring” in Parliament and a Heriot Trust Defence Committee in the City, dedicated to local control of what they felt was Edinburgh’s heritage. Questions were asked in the House, delegations of Governors were dispatched at short notice to London to lobby government ministers, protest meetings were held in the City and local council elections were decided on the basis of whether a candidate was pro or anti-Heriot. City politics in the 1870s and 80s were often dominated by the Heriot issue. Those old enough to remember the “Hands Off Heriots” campaign of the later 1970s experienced an echo of what had gone on 100 years previously.

This year I’ve spent some time in the Heriot archive at the School. Guided by Carolyn Sharp, the Librarian, and Miranda Henderson, in the Development Office, I’ve benefitted from access to material not available elsewhere. It’s become apparent that the national and political focus of the work has left us short on the local and personal side to the story. Can you help? Do you have an ancestor who went to a Heriot Free School? Do you have a story about what happened to any of the buildings, or perhaps a photo? If so, please let us know by writing an email to If we publish our research and want to include anything you send, of course we’ll get back to you for permission.

Gordon Millar (1980)

[1] R.D. Anderson (1983), Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland, 184

[2] R.Rodger(2001), The Transformation of Edinburgh Land, Property and Trust in the Nineteenth Century, 470

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