A building with educational links dating back over 250 years is revealing its secrets to a group of adult learners. Raymond Ross reports
the life and times of one of Edinburgh's most notable buildings is being researched for an adult education project.
Riddle's Court has long been a hub of intellectual and artistic activity in the capital. There are few buildings, even in a historical city such as Edinburgh, that can claim such diverse and colourful connections, ranging from James VI to Monty Python.
Situated in the Lawnmarket at the top of the Royal Mile, Riddle's Court has been home to the Workers' Educational Association since the 1970s. But now the building, which dates from 1587, is likely to be sold by the City of Edinburgh, thereby ending its links with adult education, which stretch back to at least 1825 when it housed the Edinburgh Mechanics subscription library.
In fact, there is a rather untoward educational connection dating from 1591, when city merchant, Baillie John McMorran, who built Riddle's Court, was shot dead by a student of the Royal High School while attempting to end a "barring-in" at the school.
"Given its colourful history and links with liberal education that go back to 1751, when it was home to the philosopher David Hume, we decided to embark on a project that would explore and celebrate these connections,"
says Elizabeth Bryan, WEA area tutor organiser.
"There is so much history and integrity to the building, as an educational hub, that we wanted our learners to research and record as much as possible while there is still public access to it."
Founded in 1903, the WEA is a national voluntary sector provider of adult education in the community and workplace. And, in keeping with its principles, it is co-ordinating some 40-plus adult learners to record their findings in a book to be published on November 30, St Andrew's Day, this year.
"The three main groups involved are our historical detectives, our photographers and our creative writers," says project co-ordinator Alicia Bruce.
"They are researching in national and local libraries and archives, modelling their work on classic photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, and they have already produced three historical dramas associated with Riddle's Court.
"So they are developing their research, presentation and creative skills through what is an important educational project. It is very much about the process as well as the end product," she says.
The project was launched in early June with an open day that drew over 150 people to share and explore memories associated with the building; and the WEA is keen for anyone with any Riddle's Court connection to get in touch.
In the post-war years, it housed the Edinburgh Corporation Department of Education, and some respondents recall the long queues as people waited to register for evening classes.
But, before that, it was home to the first ever university summer school in Europe, organised in 1887 by Patrick Geddes, the father of environmentalism. An archway in the courtyard still proudly displays his dictum: vivendo discimus - "by living together we learn".
The historical detectives are paying particular attention to the details of the building, which still houses fine 17th-century plastered ceilings, beams and fireplaces. In what he likes to refer to as the Patrick Geddes room, researcher John McGovern shows off a detailed ceiling, painted by one M. M. Pryor, which he believes depicts the history of the building.
This is just one riddle of many yet to be definitively resolved, but visitors can see the city's coat of arms, that of the university and assorted portraits. "All this is invaluable and I believe it should stay in the public domain, so that it remains accessible," says Mr McGovern who, although retired, has been a WEA student for five years and is making a documentary of the project.
Takako Valantin, a member of the photographic team, describes herself as "a neighbour from Japan". She could see Riddle's Court from the window of her Edinburgh home and decided a year ago to go in and discover what went on there. She has been heavily involved ever since and is quietly pleased that the open day visitors assumed all the photographs were professionally done.
The WEA has a healthy crop of creative writers, and Riddle's Court has long been an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue, latterly under the title Diverse Attractions. It is said that most, if not all of the Monty Python team trod the boards here as students, as did a young Dame Maggie Smith.
"Robin Cook was also WEA area tutor organiser here before embarking on his political career.
"There are just so many connections with this A-listed building that have to be recorded for posterity before we say goodbye to it," says Ms Bryan.
The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the WEA and Edinburgh city council.
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Evelyn Muir, project member
When Riddle's Court goes, it will be a terrible loss. I've learnt so much here. The WEA has been my lifesaver. It has opened up so much to me and I've never looked back.
It has provided the missing links in my life, through creative writing, Scottish literature, photography and art work; so much so that I don't know what retirement means.
After bringing up a family of five and working, Riddle's Court became my university. I just stepped on from course to course and I've been coming into this beautiful, historical building for 10 years now.
It's like a family, and the building is part of that. It's brought out so much potential that I'd say I'm a WEA addict and certainly a writing addict.
This project is terrific. It's like giving back to the building what you've got from it. If only a lot more people who walk past would come in. They don't know what's right under their noses and they won't know, when it goes, what they've lost. It's brilliant here.