History & Traditions
Merchiston is the only remaining all-boys’ boarding and day school in Scotland. It continues to be a school that stands for quality, providing the environment and stimulus to enable your son's mind to be opened and his talents developed.
We do this by employing the very finest teachers and coaches. We want everyone connected with Merchiston to enjoy the very best teaching resources, boarding and day accommodation, and arts and sports facilities.
The school started from humble beginnings, based at Park Place from 1828 on a site now occupied by the McEwan Hall. Here Charles Chalmers, with the help of some assistant tutors, taught a small number of pupils until their numbers grew too large for those premises. Chalmers decided to take a lease on Merchiston Tower, then in open countryside on the Borough Muir to the south of the city. The Tower was formerly the family home of the Napiers of Merchiston, including John Napier the mathematician who invented logarithms. Mathematics, together with English, the Classics and French formed a broad curriculum together with the Sciences (of which Chalmers himself was particularly fond).
The school continued in this way until Chalmers decided to sell it on to Mr John Gibson in 1850. Formerly the first appointed Government Inspector of Schools in Scotland, Gibson continued Chalmers’ ethos, extending the school with new buildings and developing the tradition of a happy school with a ‘family atmosphere’ introduced by the founder. Gibson’s untimely death in 1856 at the age of forty-three saw the school sold to Mr Thomas Harvey. A brilliant Oxford-educated classicist himself, the new owner perhaps lacked the vision of a broader educationalist. Harvey seems to have overseen few development changes at the school and pupil numbers started to fall. He resigned in 1863 on his appointment to the rectorship of The Edinburgh Academy. The school changed hands once more, this time being taken on by an assistant master who had joined Harvey’s staff in 1858 – one John Johnston Rogerson.
An experienced teacher, Dr J J Rogerson (known affectionately as ‘the Chief’ by boys and staff alike) was the epitome of a true leader. Under his headship, pupil numbers increased and Merchiston’s renown grew. There was great progress in scholarship and on the games field, particularly in Rugby Football in which the school excelled: a number of pupils played in the Scotland international XV while still at school! A perusal of Merchistonian Magazines of the times shows Rogerson as a kindly, understanding and engaging personality who expected each boy to do his best in work or in play.
A dining hall was built and increased boarding accommodation was found as the school grew. The boy’s day was long, starting with prayers at 7.30 a.m., breakfast at 8.00 a.m., and lessons from 9.00 a.m. till noon. Two hours of games followed straight on from this, with an hour allotted to a late dinner before lessons resumed for three hours from 3.00 p.m. After an hour for tea at 6.00 p.m., Prep lasted until 9.00 p.m. On Saturdays there were no lessons but further Prep from 8.30-10.00 a.m. before up to seven hours dedicated to various sports and school matches, halting only temporarily for lunch; after tea on Saturdays the evening was given over to dancing lessons! Academic and cultural events flourished under Rogerson, so that within fifteen years of taking over the running of the school, Merchiston’s name was widely known and respected and has since then featured as an integral part of Edinburgh school life.
As the school grew, so did the city of Edinburgh with houses encroaching onto the Borough Muir as far south as Church Hill and Morningside. The school’s playing field, to the north of the old Tower, was lost to a housing development, but Dr Rogerson was able to acquire new playing fields a little farther along Colinton Road (where George Watson’s College is now located). In May 1878 the new cricket square there was inaugurated by a match between a Scottish and an English XI. The previous season had seen all the school’s rugby XV go unbeaten, without a single point scored against them! And this rare feat was achieved again in the 1888-1889 season, as Rogerson celebrated his 25th year at the helm. Leisure societies, such as photography, were introduced to occupy boys during the working day. An early morning run was introduced to replace the pre-breakfast catechisms, and long-overdue improvements to the school’s washing facilities were built, together with an larger ‘Chemistry Room’ north of the Tower and new classrooms and the ‘Grant Museum’ parallel to Colinton Road, separated from it by the West Garden lawn. The museum housed a skeleton, a mummy and cases of biological and botanical specimens – all fascinating to the younger boys.
Rogerson took an extended lease on the Tower in 1895, and suggested that he transfer his interest in the school to a newly-formed Company, while retaining the greatest shareholding himself. This was agreed in 1896. Thus Merchiston moved from private hands and became an institution – a Public School – run by Merchistonian ‘Directors’. The same year saw the introduction of a school cap bearing the school crest for the first time. Two years later Rogerson, his end achieved, retired from active teaching. He gave money as a parting gift for the building of a new school library. He kept up a keen interest in the school until his death in 1903.
Dr Rogerson was succeeded by Mr George Smith (Headmaster from 1898-1914), who quietly worked to improve the provision of all aspects of the varied life of boys at the School. Electric lights were installed at the turn of the century, accommodation was extended, the old cold water ‘plunge bath’ was replaced by individual baths with hot and cold running water, the assembly Hall enlarged and a new Physics House built between the Chemistry House and the Grant Museum. Cricket ‘divisions’ were introduced to popularise the sport amongst the younger boys. In 1913 the Directors were able to purchase the castle and grounds outright in lieu of the long lease acquired by Rogerson. Mr Smith moved to become Master of Dulwich College in the summer of 1914.
A new Headmaster, Mr Cecil Stagg, was appointed in the spring of 1915. Although the war did not directly impinge on life at Merchiston, several of the current teaching staff had volunteered their military service early in the conflict. Stagg’s main problem was the acute shortage of replacement teachers at the time, but he managed to negotiate through these difficulties. It was Stagg who introduced the variation in the school day with ‘early school’ followed by games in the long summer months.
As the war in Europe stagnated, and with the dreadful loss of life in the conflict so sorely felt at home, the Chapel Fund started by Smith was transferred to a newly-formed Memorial Fund to commemorate Merchiston’s fallen. This had reached its required target by 1919. Plans were started to erect a Memorial Hall in the West Gardens, in the only site available for a building of the required size, and by 1922 the architect, Mr N A Dick, had had plans for the hall provisionally approved. The refusal of permission to proceed came very much at the eleventh hour, and resulted in the energetic Chairman of Directors, Dr J W Dowden, calling a meeting of Merchistonians in 1923 where he put to them that there was a very real need for the school to move to a new more spacious location if it was to continue to thrive. The Directors were able to secure the purchase of the Colinton House estate, and a new era in Merchiston’s history was about to unfold.
The architect entrusted to design the new school was Mr W J Walker Todd. The plan was for a school of 250 pupils, all boarders, built around a central Memorial Hall with a classroom block across it to the south, and study blocks, dining hall, kitchen and accommodation for the domestic staff to the north. Separate from the main block, flanking it on either side, were separate boarding houses, while the original Colinton House was to be converted to science laboratories, library, arts room, armoury and store rooms in the basement. The old house was extended to the west for a gymnasium. At the same time, the constitution of the school was changed, the old Merchiston Castle School Company was wound up and replaced by a new one limited by guarantee and with no share capital. The management of the new school was to be by a Board of Governors, part elected from the Merchistonian Club and part nominated by five public bodies.
Progress on the new buildings went so well that boys were admitted to the new boarding houses – names Chalmers East and west, and Rogerson East and West after two of the significant former Headmasters – in October 1930. Workmen were still putting the finishing touches to the Colinton House conversion (now renamed Gibson House), the new sanatorium in the south of the site and to the fives courts, but everything was finished by Christmas of that year. The new facilities and the space the new school provided had a remarkable invigorating effect on the whole school – better quality food from the new kitchens, copious amounts of hot water, the space for games on separate pitches rather than sharing overcrowded spaces, and places of refuge where boys could find time to carry out hobbies or just rest.
Dominating the school was the Memorial Hall, whose striking oak interior and large organ provided a backdrop not only for Sunday services but also for morning and evening assemblies, for Prep, for examinations, concerts, plays and prize-givings. Its ornate carvings of dragons and astronomical signs suggest hints of strength, resilience and continuity – a Hall for Heroes.
The early 1930s were not an easy time for the school – economic recession at a time when the school had a large debt and relied on filling the quota of pupils if the new location and all its possibilities was to become a real success. Cecil Stagg, in failing health, steered the school carefully through the centenary celebrations and through those early years in Colinton. When he retired in 1936, after 21 years at the helm, the Governors appointed Mr Cecil Evans as the new Headmaster. Evans set about improving the scholarship of the school with the introduction of the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate as the exam for the Sixth Form. The successful Dramatic Society and divisional music competitions restored aspects of the character of the school which had slipped in the period of transition from Merchiston to Colinton, to balance athleticism and academic endeavour. But again, the shadow of war loomed large. In September 1939, masters returned to school early for the autumn term to fill sandbags and to black-out windows. As adult workers became hard to replace as men signed up for the military, the Merchiston boys found themselves waiting at and clearing their own meals, a Pioneer group helped with general grounds’ maintenance (some of the school playing field were ploughed up for growing crops), and senior boys of the Combined Cadet Corps formed a part of the local Home Guard. Pupil numbers fell as low as 142 before they started to increase again, the school rapidly filling to capacity. In 1948 new War Memorial tablets with the 81 names of the Merchistonian Fallen in the Second World War were unveiled outside the Memorial Hall.
A Scottish country dance class was started in 1949, with a Highland Ball inaugurated in March 1950, starting a tradition of a love of dance – or at least awareness by some that a competence in dancing is a useful social asset to acquire – that continues at Merchiston to this day. There were notable successes in minor sports, particularly in Fencing and in Rugby Fives – the latter encouraged by the construction of two Fives’ courts and regular coaching.
Mr Evans was in poor health by May 1957, and increasingly absent from school. He came over to say goodbye to the boys and staff at the end of term, shaking hands with each and every one (from which Merchiston’s tradition of Handshaking at the end of key services and assemblies may derive); he sadly died in the August. After two terms when the Senior Resident Master, Mr AH Humphries, acted as Headmaster, Mr Alan Bush was appointed from the Spring Term 1958. Bush saw the pupil roll swell to 290, which eased financial pressure on the school as the cost of the new school was finally cleared. He introduced a weekly Current Affairs period for the Sixth Form, led by visiting speakers. He also saw the building of the Cecil Evans Memorial Swimming Pool, opened in June 1961. In 1967, most of the old Sanatorium was converted to a junior boarding house named after the main benefactor, Mr James Summer Pringle. Such was the success of Pringle that the House was extended in 1969, and the sanatorium relocated to the former Room 8 in the Main Building.
Mr Bush resigned in the summer of 1968, and Mr Mervyn Preston stood in as acting headmaster until the Governors appointed Mr Donald Forbes in 1969. The building of the Napier and Ure Rooms in the Chalmers and Rogerson courtyards in 1968 gave useful additional recreational space, and the construction of the Dowden wing of Rogerson in 1969 accommodated more senior boys in study rooms. New Tennis Courts were built next to the Walled Garden in 1970, and the Library was constructed from the old ‘Cloisters’ beneath the Memorial Hall, incorporating in its interior décor the old desk tops from the old school at Merchiston. A Music Auditorium was built from the former Gymnasium, and the old tennis courts to the north of Gibson House were replaced by the elephantine ‘Air Hall’ to give an indoor space for PE and various sporting activities. Four houses for married Housemasters were built (‘The Bank’ by the Swimming Pool, and three others in echelon to the rear of the east side of the school), and two others in 1974 joined the four built for married staff in The Cedars on the north side of the Walled Garden. Back Field was levelled to create a grassed athletics track and arena. Finally, an Art and Craft Centre was constructed between Gibson House and The Dell.
On the academic front, Forbes introduced a ‘Science-for-all’ curriculum up to ‘O’ Level, taken in the December of the Fifth Form, allowing an additional two terms for studying courses at Sixth Form level. Evening Prep was moved from the Memorial Hall to Napier, Ure or day rooms in the boarding houses. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays became ‘half days’, with only sports and activities taking place on these afternoons, and Half-Term breaks were introduced. Expeditions, sports tours and foreign visits – introduced during the headmastership of Mr Bush – proliferated during the 1970s.
1983 saw not only the 125th anniversary of the annual rugby match against The Edinburgh Academy, but also the 150th anniversary of the school’s foundation. On Friday 3 June a major Anniversary concert was held, entitled ‘Music for Royal Occasions’ and featuring not only the school’s orchestra and choir, but also various guest performers. The next day, boys from Rogerson East – duly attired in period costume – ran from the old school site at Merchiston to the present one in Colinton. Many displays were visited by the assembled throng, including a major art exhibition and a display of ‘Merchistoniana’ in the glass cabinets in the Library. Merchistonian v. School matches in various sports took place. The Saturday was rounded off by a magnificent Commemoration Ball in the Memorial Hall, with a superb buffet supper in the Dining Hall – and even a disco in one of the upstairs classrooms in the Main Building!
On Donald Forbes' retiral at the end of the Spring Term 1981, the Governors appointed Mr David Spawforth as Headmaster. Formerly on the staff of Winchester College and a housemaster at Wellington College, David Spawforth was employed to modernise Merchiston. Improved communication with parents was seen as crucial, via a School Calendar booklet sent out once a term and a regular Headmaster’s Newsletter. Report Cards were overhauled and fuller assessment given to the progress of Sixth Formers. The teaching staff expanded from 32 in 1984 to 46 in 1990. The curriculum was expanded with GCEs at both GCSE and Advanced Level introduced to complement Scottish Highers, and the school became notably more ‘academic’ in its outlook and success. This was carried through by the introduction of official Heads of Department positions, and a Director of Studies appointed alongside the Second Master.
A new Common Room for staff was created from the former music rooms next to the Library in 1982: this was of great benefit to staff, providing a place to relax for short periods during the day, a place to enable visitors to be entertained and a space where unmarried staff could eat their evening meal. Fund-raising to provide more teaching space, primarily for Electronics and Computing, lead to the construction of a substantial new building: besides new classrooms and a dedicated Careers Room (which moved to the Main Building in 1991), a theatre for drama productions and the Weatherill Sports Hall, it was opened in October 1986. Also at this time, rearrangement of rooms in the basement of Gibson House saw the introduction of a Sixth Form club (‘The 6A Club’) where the eldest boys could relax and entertain. A new Miller Rifle Range adjoining the Pringle Wall was opened the same year. A long-overdue refurbishment of the kitchens and Dining Hall took place in 1987, allowing a new cafeteria-style approach to meals with a wider range of well-cooked food. In 1988 the Sanatorium at Pringle was closed in favour of a modern Medical Centre in the west wing of the ground floor of the Main Building. Overcrowding in Pringle was alleviated with a larger day room, hobbies rooms and better shower and toilet facilities, as well as more dormitory space: these new facilities were opened in May 1990. An additional classroom block (called at the time ‘The New Block’, but more recently ‘Mappa Mundi’) was opened on the site of the former ‘Air Hall’ in 1991, which with the adjoining Theatre Block (now ‘Napier’) enabled teaching to continue in classes up to 20 as the school slowly expanded in size.
Finally, the Headmaster and Governors were concerned that most boys continued to sleep in dormitories, and some studies were shared by three senior boys at a time. Progressive rearrangement of the boarding accommodation in the early 1990s saw each Sixth Former get their own study bedroom in the two boarding houses involved (Rogerson West and Evans) as well as prefect rooms in the other houses. Refurbishment and modernisation also improved accommodation in the Fifth Form House (Rogerson East) and for the Middle School in Chalmers East and Chalmers West.
But a successful school is not just measured in new facilities. Merchiston boys continued to excel at various sports: few schools of Merchiston’s size could regularly put out seven rugby XVs on a Saturday; in 1990 a multisports option for the non-rugby players was introduced, called the ‘Eighth Game’. Notable successes occurred in rugby, cricket and shooting during this period. The School’s CCF contingent celebrated its centenary in 1984. The new theatre allowed for a flourishing of the dramatic arts at Merchiston, whose productions are detailed in the framed posters around its interior walls. By 1998 when David Spawforth retired after seventeen very active years at the helm, the school roll had grown to 368 boys – a 21% increase during his headmastership. Merchiston had become a much more progressive and outward-looking school, and a much more congenial place for boarders. Mention should also be made of the contribution of Mrs Yvonne Spawforth, who made it her business to know all the pupils by name, frequently inviting groups of them to Castle Gates, and strengthening the sense of community by involving the families of staff members at every possible school event.
David Spawforth was succeeded as headmaster in 1998 by Mr Andrew Hunter, formerly of Worksop College and Bradfield College, a staunch supporter of developing the ‘all-round pupil’ and both strengthening and growing the international ties that his predecessor had initiated. A shared realisation by the Governors and the new Headmaster that Merchiston needed to grow still further to ensure it would survive, Andrew Hunter threw himself into recruitment and marketing of the school, appointing new Admissions and External Relations teams as part of a general expansion of administrative staff at a time when legislation bore down heavily on independent schools in Scotland, and keeping on top of the paperwork involved with liaising with various external agencies became a necessary part of running the school as a viable business. A continual need to prepare for inspection by these external agencies became a feature of the work of the teaching and pastoral staff alike, keeping ahead of the changing views of the educational establishment. The abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme in 1997 and the closure of a number of preparatory ‘feeder’ schools in Scotland saw the lowering of the entry age to Merchiston from eleven years (into the First Form, introduced in 1994) to eight (into newly formed J4 and J5 from 2001) in an attempt to compensate for this shortfall. Plans were also put into place to find a way of increasing Sixth Form entry.
In 1998 Hunter decided to appoint an ‘Academic Management Team’ (nowadays the Academic Leadership Team) to support the Director of Studies. Concerns about the increasing disruption to Saturday school due to the demands of the competitor day-schools to play sports fixtures on Saturday mornings, led to the introduction of an eight-day timetable in September 2005. Four ‘long’ days (labelled 1, 3, 5 and 7) falling on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays alternate with four ‘short’ days when teaching only takes place in the mornings, falling on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This has had the effect of spreading the effect of such disruption more evenly, both on Saturdays and elsewhere throughout the week when large activities inevitably cut across teaching time. Over this time, the greater ‘currency’ on the UCAS tariff for university entry saw a dramatic reduction in the number of Sixth Formers following courses in Scottish Highers. Despite the strictures of the timetable, every opportunity is given to boys entering the Sixth Form to study their preferred academic subjects, the option column choices not being set until every boy in the Fifth Form has been given the opportunity to list his preferences for the following year. The analysis of pupil performance against national standards has increased, with Merchiston using the ALIS and MidYIS systems for the middle and upper school pupils, and the InCAS system for juniors. This enables an increasingly accurate forecasting of a pupils potential performance in academic subjects, which in turn aids subject choices in the Sixth Form.
In order to promote an active ‘library culture’, the former Music Auditorium was completely reworked to form the Spawforth Library, opened in 2000 with a permanent librarian. Bringing together Merchiston’s hitherto fragmented library resources, enhanced with new stock and library events to encourage reading and the borrowing of books, it continues to be a significant success. During the same period, year-on-year academic results saw Merchiston’s A Level top grade pass rates soar. For a relatively small school, Merchiston continues to over-achieve against national figures academically.
In terms of new facilities, four stand out in the years of Andrew Hunter’s headmastership, all supported by significant fundraising campaigns. Firstly, the construction of the Robertson Building – named after the Merchistonian and long-serving Chairman of the Board of Governors, the Hon. Lord Robertson, and opened in 1998 – created purpose-built accommodation for Electronics and IT/Computing, as well as an auditorium and various music practice rooms for the Music Department. In 2003 the new Pringle Centre was opened, providing separate teaching accommodation and changing rooms for the junior boys. In 2008 there were 107 boys in Pringle, a doubling of numbers since the mid-1990s: Pringle continues to be a vital source of pupils for the senior school. A boy entering at J4 will spend ten years at the school, allowing much time to develop talents and interests to the full. The long-term project to provide top quality accommodation for Sixth Formers, as well as more Sixth Form places, came to fruition with the opening of Laidlaw House – named after Merchistonian Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay, a major donor to the fund. Its 126 en-suite bedrooms, mini-kitchens, extensive day rooms and a basement weight-training room are a far cry from accommodation in the Merchiston of the 19th and 20th centuries! The fourth important new facility was the construction of an all-weather pitch on Back Field, adjoining the athletics arena, allowing sporting facilities to take place when Edinburgh’s climate is less than supportive, with hours extended further by the floodlights.
The opening of Laidlaw House allowed for improvements to boarding accommodation for Fifth Formers. Upgraded so that all boarders have their own study bedroom (some larger ones being shared during the day with a day-boy colleague) in what was formerly Rogerson West (the house now being renamed ‘Rogerson’), with a new Sixth Form day-boy House (the new Evans) in part of the former Rogerson East: the main stairwell of the latter now allows access to ‘Mount Olympus’, housing the Classics, Economics and Geography departments, together with a kitchen area and formal eating area for ‘Masterchef’ classes. The Science laboratories in Gibson house were all refurbished to high, modern standards (Chemistry in 2003, Physics in 2004 and Biology in 2005). Dramatic improvements to the quality of grass playing surfaces – as well as excellent presentation of the grounds as a whole – have been made by the School’s Works Department in recent years.
The tireless work of Mr and Mrs Hunter in many internal forays around the world to recruit international students, together with the development of exchange programmes with foreign schools around the world, has helped create a pupil body that is very understanding of modern internationalism. Mention must be made of Merchiston International School, in Shenzen, China, which opened its doors to boys and girls aged 4-18 on 27 August 2018.
This sustained effort in marketing Merchiston to the full, coupled with further significant facility improvements, allowed the school to grow to around 450 pupils during Andrew Hunter’s time as Headmaster. Plans to replace the Evans Memorial Swimming Pool with a new sports’ hall/swimming pool complex on the bank above the athletics arena and a further all-weather pitch in the area of the ‘Himalayas’ pitches were not realised due to a lack of funding and some structural difficulties. The controversial but necessary selling of the staff houses in The Cedars, which created an initial fund to kick-start many of the above developments, resulted in a subtle change to the life of teaching staff; although some of the loss was offset by some staff flats in Laidlaw, many more teachers had to commute into work in the increasing traffic difficulties, and it became harder to instil a sense of community within the staff body compared to what was achieved in the 1980s and 90s. When Andrew Hunter retired in 2018 he left a school whose name was much better known beyond the boundary of Edinburgh and its environs than perhaps it had ever been before.