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.
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.
THE MCMORRAN ROOM
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 KING’S CHAMBER
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!
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THE SETON ROOM
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.
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.
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!
THE NORIE ROOM
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.
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.
THE GEDDES ROOM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RESTORING RIDDLE'S COURT
Learn more about the restoration project SHBT undertook to transform Riddle’s Court from dilapidated council building into an exceptional events venue.
USING RIDDLE'S COURT TODAY
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.