University of Edinburgh | Attraction Guides | History Hit

University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

Sarah Roller

12 May 2021
Image Credit: Edinburghcitymom / Shutterstock

About University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh is the UK’s sixth oldest university, and one of Scotland’s so-called ancient universities. It has played a key part in the development of Edinburgh, and helped the city earn its nickname – the Athens of the North.

History of the University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh originally started as a college of law, funded the legacy of Bishop Robert Reid: it was only in 1582 that it was granted a Royal Charter and formally established as a college by King James VI. Prior to this, universities had been established by Papal Bulls, but since Scotland’s move to Presbyterianism, the King now had the power to create a universitiy.

Originally called ‘Tounis College’, this new institution was the fourth Scottish university – meaning the country now had double the centres of learning of England, its more populous and wealthier neighbour and rival.

The University of Edinburgh is particularly well known for its role at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment throughout the 18th century. Intellectuals including David Hume, Joseph Black and James Hutton ensured the university continued to produce work which challenged established ‘facts’. The development of university’s medical school during this period was also invaluable in helping it stay on the forefront of scientific discovery.

In 1762, the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres was appointed, formalising the study of literature at the University of Edinburgh and therefore making it the oldest centre of literary education in Britain. Major building work also took place at the university during this period. 

As with many British universities at this point, women were not permitted to graduate at the university until the very end of the 19th century: a group known as the Edinburgh Seven garnered national attention for their campaign to be allowed to graduate and qualify as doctors, having been admitted to study at the university.

During the Second World War, a Polish School of Medicine was established as a ‘wartime testament to the spirit of enlightenment’ – it closed in 1949, after 336 students had matriculated.

The University of Edinburgh today

The university remains a working academic institution, and is a member of the prestigious Russell Group. There are around 35,000 students in total who attend the university today.

The campus is spread across the city, divided into 5 main sites. The ones most of interest to visitors are Old College and New College, neo-Gothic buildings in the heart of the city, as well as the cluster of buildings found around George Square.

The university has webpages available for self-guided tours, but does not offer tourist-orientated tours of the university. Be warned that it remains a working academic centre and trespassing in buildings is not permitted.

Getting to the University of Edinburgh

University buildings are scattered throughout the city: George Square is just south of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and just north of the Meadows. Buses stop on nearby Buccleuch Street & Nicolson Street. Edinburgh Waverley station is about a 10 minute walk away.