A Historical Guide to the Rooms at Riddle’s Court

Riddle's Court Geddes Room Private Dining Set Up

A Historical Guide to the Rooms at Riddle’s Court

Home > A Historical Guide to the Rooms at Riddle’s Court

Riddle’s Court is steeped in history. A visit to our building is a journey through 500 years: each painstakingly restored room resonant of a different chapter in this complex tale, from the banquet of King James I and VI to the arts and crafts dining hall of Edinburgh’s first university residencies.

We encourage everyone to join us on a tour to discover this rich building and the tales of those who have occupied it over the centuries, such as Baillie McMorran, David Hume, Alexander Seaton and Dame Maggie Smith. Our innovative circulation spaces have been stripped back to reveal how Riddle’s Court has physically evolved and adapted – a unique example of Old Town architecture. The following panes offer virtual visitors a glimpse of and brief introduction to these spaces.

Historical Image of Riddle's Court Internal Courtyard


Around 1590, Bailie John McMorran acquired the north and south facing tenements, and other disparate buildings, which existed and reconfigured them into a processional suite of apartments by adding east and west wings. The date of 1587 in the lintel of the west range window may or may not signify the activity of McMorran’s project. Ornamental thistle motifs decorate the string course.

Above a first floor window, in the left hand corner of the courtyard, is an arched shape lintel – an eyebrow lintel. Only one of these exists in the architecture. It sits above what would have been a door. It was through this door that James VI and Anne of Denmark processed in 1598 – elevated above the common throng by a wooden gallery – towards the high hall and the banquet which awaited them there.


Known as Bailie McMorran’s House or the Grand Tenement, there has been a building on this site since the mid 16th Century. Previous buildings in this area were laid to waste in the Rough Wooing of the 1540s. The building we see today was a private, high status dwelling built by John McMorran.

An unusual, external ‘pentice’ stair is fixed to the north face of the building. This is a replica of the original fitted to the building in the 1890s following a period of improvement works to the external court by Patrick Geddes in 1893. Geddes and his architects removed at last two fore tenements to the east and west of the external courtyard. This approach was known as ‘opening out’ to allow natural light and ventilation into what would have been squalid residential space in the late 19th century.

The plaster shield, above the entrance to the inner pend, is a replica of the one which Geddes would have commissioned when he created University Hall at Riddle’s Court in 1890. The motto, Vivendo Discimus – By Living We Learn, carved into the arch of the pend, is ascribed to Geddes himself.


We’re not sure exactly what this darkly panelled room was used for. The large press or wall cupboard on one wall might suggest this was a study with the press containing ledgers, scrolls, writs and seals. So maybe it was the office of Bailie John McMorran, the high ranking magistrate who built Riddle’s Court in 1587.

Tucked away down a couple of steps and overlooking the inner courtyard it certainly has that feel about it and SHBT often used it for project meetings during the planning stages of the restoration work.

Here we tell the fascinating story of piecing together the clues to get a picture of how Riddle’s Court was originally configured. We also tell the recent story of how the architects have transformed the buildings into a wonderful hybrid – a functioning modern centre elegantly nestled within a tangible and highly atmospheric historic shell.

The room currently houses display trays featuring many remnants from past centuries, both domestic and architectural, which were brought to light during the process of restoration.


The smell of oranges, wine, spices and venison, the sound of trumpets and court chatter are all gone. As are the furs, embroidered doublets and jewels. All that remains from the two great feasts of 1598 is the beautifully painted ceiling.

At that time Riddle’s Court, the McMorran family’s home, was the grandest house in Edinburgh. It even had its own garden in the Old Town’s tightly packed vennels. McMorran who built the house was a magistrate. He’d been killed in a riot three years earlier.

King James VI, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark, along with the Town Council, chose Riddle’s Court to hold the two feasts. They were both in honour of the visit of Anne’s brother, Ulric Duke of Holstein. He was the ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire.

The finest artists were commissioned to paint the ceiling. Its potent political symbols – The Scottish Thistle and the Imperial Eagle in particular – can still be seen today. To great excitement, we discovered new sections of the artwork in our current restoration.

The purpose of the royal feast was entirely diplomatic: James took every opportunity to promote his claim to succeed Elizabeth to the English throne. The support of the Holy Roman Empire was of huge importance. James achieved his goal in 1603, bringing about the famous Union of the Crowns.

The Town Council’s feast was more of an office party and is well documented in the city archives. It was an extravagant affair. Food and drink for many courses, cooks, porters, trumpeters and carriages all added up to 1103 Scots pounds – about £20,000 today. The bill included medical expenses for a few bumped heads – possibly too much of a good thing!

King's Chamber Bedroom
ZAC & ZAC Photography

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This room is named after Alexander Seton who was Chancellor of Scotland from 1604-1622. When James became King of England and Scotland in 1603 and took up residence in London, he needed a trusted representative to hold the fort in Scotland. Seton was that man. He was the godson of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and was also entrusted with the guardianship and tutelage of Prince Charles.

Portrait of Alexander Seton

He was regarded as one of the finest legal minds of his time and demonstrated humanist ethics, vigorously defending a woman accused of witchcraft in 1614. Seton had also benefitted from a classical education in Italy and France. This is reflected in the magnificent plasterwork on the ceiling, which he commissioned around 1620 shortly before he died.

Riddle's Court ceiling

Seton’s main residence was Pinkie House in Musselburgh but he had lodgings here for when he stayed overnight in Edinburgh. He obviously liked to be surrounded by beautiful objects and the fact that he chose Riddle’s Court reinforces its importance. He is on record as having taken delivery of Spanish and Bordeaux wine in March 1598, most likely for the two royal banquets.

Seton had installed a similar ceiling to this in Pinkie House and the plaster cast thistles and roses celebrate the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland. We believe that John Quhytte, a leading craftsman of his day, might have worked on this ceiling. After the Protestant Reformation there was little demand for decorative work in churches and many craftsmen turned to work in the houses of the wealthy.

The wall panelling probably dates from the early 18th Century. The window bays and the embossed wallpaper date from the 1890s when Geddes established his University Hall in Riddle’s Court.

This was the students’ drawing room and Geddes also installed the distinctive seating booths, possibly to encourage animated one-to-one conversation!

Riddle's Court Seton Room
John Duncan


Today this compact, panelled room is painted a smooth green. It is being used as an office space and lucky are those who work there with the presence of past centuries so tangible. In its heyday the room was panelled with paintings of decorative landscapes. When Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch bought Riddle’s Court in 1714 she commissioned a leading painter of the time, James Norie, to transform the Jacobean room with rural vistas.

Portrait of Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch

The height of fashion then and a talking point over cups of tea at the Duchess’s salons, a generation or so on and the fortunes of Riddle’s Court in decline, the panels were seen as gloomy and dated. They were painted over – many times! At some point, several were wrenched from the wall and used as firewood one dark, icy night. The panels were rediscovered in the 1960s when The City of Edinburgh Council were renovating the building. They have now been restored and some are on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Of older origin and amazingly intact is the plastered ceiling. We believe it was commissioned by Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Prestonhall, who bought the house in 1684.

Sir Roderick was a monarchist and a supporter of the Stuart King, Charles II, who was restored to the throne in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Protector.

The royal cypher ‘CR2’ can be seen in the central circle. It is flanked by the crown and the Unionist symbols of the English Rose and the Scottish Thistle. There is some question over the date in that the way it is written could read 1648. But it’s more likely to be 1684 as that’s when Sir Roderick bought the Court.


This room will have eavesdropped on thousands upon thousands of whisperings and conversations over the centuries. But none so earnest, none so explorative and none so raucous as those of the students who dined here when Riddle’s Court was a University Hall of Residence. Patrick Geddes was a man who enjoyed discussing ideas and bringing people together.

Patrick Geddes Photograph

Meal times are the perfect time for both. And as a stimulus for the conversations he envisaged taking place, Geddes commissioned the ultimate talking-piece – a picture storybook painted on each of the panels of the ceiling.

Riddle's Court Geddes Room Ceiling

Thomas K Bonnar supervised the painting and he and four of the contributing artists are named on one of the panels. It was an ambitious undertaking and the panels illustrate a pageant of historical events and allusions, prominent Edinburgh citizens and snippets of Geddes’ philosophical musings.

The profusion of leaves, plants and flowers is testimony to Geddes’ belief that ‘by leaves we live’, a statement underscoring our utter dependence on the natural world and a sentiment that presages what we now call sustainability.

Some scholars think that the ceiling’s heraldic design was inspired by the early 17th Century plasterwork in the Seton Room next door but its style draws heavily on the Celtic Renaissance and the Arts and Crafts movement. Historical panels include those relating to John McMorran, King James VI and the royal banquet of 1598.

Riddle's Court Geddes Room Ceiling Detail

Leading figures from the world of learning include John Napier who invented logarithms and today has a University named after him, and the Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume who lived nearby in 1751. Another Scottish Enlightenment figure, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755), lawyer, politician, man of letters and landscape designer is referenced in the ceiling.

Riddle's Court Geddes Room Dining
John Duncan


Today this magnificent, spacious room looking over Victoria Street from its large south facing windows is used for lectures and conferences and is the perfect setting for a wedding reception. It’s had many uses previously that we know about.

Riddle's Court Library Room Meeting Set Up
John Duncan

From McMorran’s day up until then this room would have looked over the house’s gardens. They were extensive and quite unique for this part of Edinburgh. Old maps show them, along with a close for public access running through the building and connecting the Lawnmarket to the Cowgate. The room was originally two and we’re not sure what they were used for.

A quick cross section gives us a picture of the changing fortunes and functions of Riddle’s Court. The biggest change is that the outer wall is not the original. The south end of Riddle’s Court went through a major facelift in the 1830s when a new thoroughfare was built to connect the new George IV Bridge to the Grassmarket and Cowgate to ease congestion. The result was Victoria Street and Terrace.

Map of Edinburgh Old Town showing the new Victoria Street and location of Riddle's Court

We’re clearer about their use from the time after the wealthy had decamped to the New Town. From 1854-1893 the room housed the Mechanic’s Subscription Library whose purpose it was to broaden the education of working men. In Geddes’ period the room was split into five students’ bedrooms for his University Hall. Then from the 1950s it was used by Oxford and Cambridge University students, then other groups, for Fringe performances. Maggie Smith, and Stephen Fry both trod the boards here.

Interestingly, theatrical performances had taken place previously at Riddle’s Court in the mid-19th Century and the innovative youth club Fet-Lor was based here. Fet-Lor was set up by Fettes and Loretto schools in 1924 to provide an educational focus for the children of working men who had fought and fallen alongside their alumni in WWI. In sympathetic vein to both this and the Subscription library, The Workers’ Educational Association was based here till very recently. So, there’s long been a theme at Riddle’s Court for education and self-improvement.


Learn more about the restoration project SHBT undertook to transform Riddle’s Court from dilapidated council building into an exceptional events venue.

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Step into these historic rooms on a bespoke group tour, or hire out our atmospheric spaces for a spectacular celebration curated by a dedicated events ream.

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Who was Patrick Geddes?

Patrick Geddes Photograph

Who was Patrick Geddes?

Home > Who was Patrick Geddes?


Patrick Geddes, considered to be one of the world’s greatest polymaths, inspired SHBT’s educational philosophy which is imbued in the work that we do. He was a biologist, a geographer, sociologist, environmentalist, philosopher, town planner, cultural champion, anarchist, and educator, so it’s no surprise he has had a lasting impression on our values.

Patrick Geddes Photograph


“I grew up in a garden,” said Geddes. His family moved to Tayside when he was three, and his formative years were influenced by the Tay’s beautiful and fertile river basin. His parents were broad-minded and his father, an army quartermaster, encouraged wide-ranging ‘home studies’ when Patrick left school in 1871. Another early influence was the anti-authoritarianism of the Free Church of Scotland.

Geddes’ subject of choice was biology and he studied in London under Thomas Huxley at the Royal College of Mines. He was then a demonstrator in the Department of Physiology at University College London where he met and impressed Charles Darwin.  A year abroad in Brittany and at the Sorbonne exposed him to the political anarchism espoused by Prince Kropotkin. Another influence was Le Play’s circular theory of geographical locations and analysis of the key units of society being constituted of “Place, Work and Family.” Geddes changed Family to Folk (people).


An early manifestation of Geddes’ connectivity resulted from being struck blind in Mexico in 1879. Robbed of this primary sense, Geddes began to devise a ‘Thinking Machine’, which today we might call a mind map, aligning different strands of thinking. Geddes regained his sight but was affected enough to discontinue working with a microscope. From that point on Geddes’ work both as a lecturer and a town planner drew on biology, sociology, geography, ecology and philanthropy with humankind, culture and the environment at the centre.

This connectivity is best expressed by Geddes himself writing in 1917 on seeing a city as an “inseparably interwoven structure’” akin to a flower. “Each of the various specialists remains too closely concentrated upon his single specialism… Each … seizes firmly upon one petal of the six-lobed flower of life and tears it apart from the whole.”

“He just set you on fire with love of this earth and with desire to cleanse it, to beautify and re-beautify it, to build and re-build it…”

Pheroze R Bharucha, former Geddes student


Patrick Geddes was born in 1854 in Ballater, Aberdeenshire and died in Montpellier, Provence in 1932. In his Obituary, written for The Spectator Magazine, the novelist E.M.Forster wrote: “Sir Patrick Geddes was seventy-eight, but he had the adventurous spirit of a young man, and it was characteristic of him to spend his last few years in founding a Scots College at Montpellier to promote friendship among all peoples. He was primarily a biologist and a botanist, as befitted an old student of Thomas Huxley’s.

But though he lectured for many years on his special subjects at Edinburgh and Dundee, he was far better known as a sociologist in India, as a town-planner at Jerusalem, and, in his “Outlook Tower ” by the Castle at Edinburgh as the promoter of all good causes, educational and other, for the benefit of mankind. To sum up Patrick Geddes in a few lines would be impossible, for he touched life at so many points. His influence was inspiring and will endure.”

Patrick Geddes Photograph Portrait


Forster coined the phrase ‘Only connect’ and that would have made a fitting epitaph for Geddes. Above all else Geddes made connections: between people, between people and the planet, between people and buildings, between culture and place, between arts and science, between religious beliefs and between academic disciplines, eschewing specialism for generalism. This connectivity and interdisciplinary thinking, along with a passion for life and love of humanity makes him a beacon of light and source of inspiration in our own complex and divided times.


It was six or so years on from his Mexican adventure that Geddes embarked on his seminal work in Edinburgh’s Old Town. In 1886 he married Anna Morton, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Anna was Patrick’s rock, supporting him emotionally and sometimes financially in all his ventures. (They lived frugally but he always needed money for his schemes.)

Their children, Norah, Alasdair and Arthur sometimes suffered some emotional neglect as a result of their parents’ strong partnership bound by both love and idealism. And Geddes could be a demanding father, expecting his children to carry the flame of his beliefs.

Patrick Geddes with his children Alasdair and Norah

Anna for the most part though was able to steady things. Amelia Defries wrote of Anna,”…the calm lady who could bring order out of chaos. Even more valuable…was her ability to tone down Pat’s cerebral high-voltage when some bewildered soul was in danger of electrocution.”


Six months married, Patrick took Anna, pregnant with Norah, from the comfort of their Princes Street apartment to live in James Court, not far from Riddle’s Court. Shoeless children with dirty faces characterised the overcrowded slum that this part of town had become. The Geddeses were on a mission. They started cleaning and painting their new home, making it habitable and attractive, encouraging their neighbours to do likewise. Geddes then started to employ his approach of ‘conservative surgery’ keeping and restoring the best houses “weeding out the worst that surrounded them…widening the narrow closes into courtyards” letting in light and air.

Patrick Geddes - Open Spaces Survey of Edinburgh 1909

Working with the residents he transformed some of the spaces he had cleared into community gardens. Gardens were vital for Geddes, not just as an aesthetic, but as the source of oxygen and life or, as he famously said, “by leaves we live”.

He also bought Riddle’s Court at this time, turning it into a self-governing students’ hall of residence.

Layout for King's Wall Garden by Norah Geddes


Alongside this inspired utilitarianism he furthered his beliefs in incorporating culture and learning.

He commissioned a huge narrative painting on the ceiling of the dining hall in Riddle’s Court; worked with artist John Duncan to produce Evergreen, a publication endorsing the values of the Celtic Renaissance, and commissioned the design and building of Ramsay Garden in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement. 

In the same period as all this he lectured in Botany at both Edinburgh and Dundee Universities; held summer schools in Edinburgh and London and set up The Outlook Tower. This innovative project encouraged people to observe the relationships between place, work and people within Edinburgh. Geddes himself was often the enthusiastic guide, bounding two steps at a time, to the top where a panoramic view of the city was revealed. 


As E.M. Forster said, “To sum up Patrick Geddes in a few lines would be impossible…” and at the end of his Old Town period he still had half his life to live. Now, imagine ascending Geddes’ Outlook Tower, looking out over Edinburgh, then letting your eyes drift out over the Forth to the hills and the world beyond, and imagine other cities with golden domes, temple roofs, interacting with this man under hotter suns. It was to be another fourteen years before Geddes went to India at the invitation of Lord Pentland, Governor of Madras. But it was mainly on account of his work in the Old Town that he was invited.

Other developments were further enhancing his reputation. In 1900 he held the International Assembly in Paris. That year and the following he made two visits to the USA. In 1903 he developed plans for Dunfermline and published City Development. In 1908 he restored Crosby Hall in Chelsea as a residence for university women. In 1909 Geddes assisted in the early planning of Edinburgh Zoo, giving the same consideration to animals’ needs as he did for humans in his city plans.

Patrick Geddes - Edinburgh Zoo Plan


As a showcase for this thinking he developed his Cities Exhibition, which opened in Chelsea in 1910. He advocated ‘civic survey’ with the motto ‘diagnosis before treatment’, encouraging exploring the ‘whole set of existing conditions’ and referencing the needs of local people and their potentialities. He was also developing his regional planning model called ‘The Valley Section’ which illustrated the complex interactions between the environment and human systems.

Patrick Geddes - Stained glass Window of the Valley Section


In 1914 as he was writing Cities in Evolution and espousing a philosophy of ‘think globally, act locally’ Geddes was about to step onto the global stage. And, with the work he did in India, he was to act in a very local way indeed, with the needs of people and culture predominant in his plans.

Geddes set out for India with his son Alasdair. Under separate steam sailed the Cities Exhibition as cargo. By the time the cargo ship was nearing Madras, World War I had been declared and it was sunk by enemy fire. Undeterred, father and son reassembled the exhibition: it was displayed at Madras University in 1915.

Patrick Geddes with his Indian Planning Assistant in Indore, 1919


Whilst many of us are rediscovering Geddes in the West, his reputation has never dimmed in India. Between 1915 and 1919 he wrote a series of “exhaustive town planning reports” for at least eighteen Indian cities. From 1919-1925 he was Professor of Civics and Sociology at Bombay University.  He made three trips to the subcontinent, with Alasdair (1914-15) with Anna (1915-17) and with Arthur (1919-23).

Tragically, Anna contracted typhoid fever in 1917. Making the situation worse for Geddes was the news that Alasdair had been killed in action on the Western Front. He spared Anna the news, continuing to read Alasdair’s letters to her as she was dying.


Geddes is remembered with such reverence in India because his designs considered local context and tradition alongside being aware development needs.

“Few observers have shown more sympathy…with the religious and social practices of the Hindus…”

Lewis Mumford

Geddes believed that Eastern philosophy more readily conceived of “life as a whole” therefore “civic beauty in India has existed at all levels, from humble homes and simple shrines to palaces magnificent and temples sublime.”

An extract from his Bombay Town Planning Act of 1915 reveals the heart in his thinking:

  • Preservation of human life and energy, rather than superficial beautification
  • Promoting trade and commerce
  • Preserving historic buildings and buildings of religious significance
  • Developing a city worthy of civic pride, not an imitation of European cities
  • Promoting the happiness, health and comfort of all residents, rather than focusing on roads and parks available only for the rich
Patrick Geddes - Plan for Tel Aviv


Geddes also worked on projects in Israel. In 1919 he prepared a plan for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was never implemented. In 1925 he submitted a town planning report for Tel Aviv. The city is the only one whose core is entirely laid out according to a plan of his.


In 1924, health failing, Geddes left Bombay, choosing Montpellier in the south of France as his new home. He founded his Scots College “on a plot of rough hillside” he managed to purchase, probably with the financial help of the woman who was to become his second wife, Lilian Brown. The College’s purpose was to encourage dialogue between differing intellectual and philosophical positions.

His youngest son Arthur came out to help him but still found his ageing father demanding. He married Lilian, a long-time admirer fifteen years his junior, in 1928.  In a strange mirroring of Patrick’s Mexican adventure fifty years earlier, Lilian went blind on their wedding night – though thankfully only temporarily, and was able to support him in his last great venture.

Having refused one before, he accepted a knighthood in February 1932, “to help further his thinking” and died a few months later on April 17.

Patrick Geddes lived a long time, was open to many influences, from which he created many far-reaching connections. He leaves us with a dazzling example of action based on cherished beliefs. “Vivendo discimus: by living we learn.”

Patrick Geddes - Painted Portrait

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