UK’s first deaf school celebrated in Edinburgh

Ella Leith and John Hay with a floor plan of the deaf school outside the old building. Picture: Toby Williams

Ella Leith and John Hay with a floor plan of the deaf school outside the old building. Picture: Toby Williams

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EDINBURGH’S unique place in the history of education for deaf people is to be recognised with the unveiling of a plaque to mark the site of the UK’s first deaf school.

Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb opened in 1760 in what is now Dumbiedykes.

Teacher Thomas Braidwood had started his career instructing the children of the wealthy at his private residence in the Canongate, but decided to open the specialist academy dedicated to educating deaf pupils and became a leading pioneer of early sign language.

His first pupil was Charles Shirreff, the 11-year-old son of a wealthy Leith wine merchant. And the success of his teaching methods saw the school roll grow to 20 pupils by 1780.

The school relocated to London in 1783 and the building – nicknamed Dumbie House – was demolished around 1939.

A portion of the wall is still visible in Dumbiedykes Road, where the plaque is to be installed.

Lord Provost Donald Wilson will perform the unveiling ceremony next Saturday.

The event is being co-hosted by the British Deaf History Society and Deaf History Scotland, both of which aim to promote the discovery and conservation of the histories of deaf people, their communities, culture and sign languages.

The unveiling will represent the culmination of months of hard work and fundraising, with donations towards the cost of the plaque received from across the UK, from members and friends of the deaf community, local groups and supporting organisations.

Mr Braidwood (1715-1806) adopted a new method of teaching, known as “the combined system”, which was a forerunner of today’s British Sign Language (BSL). Instead of concentrating simply on lip-reading and encouraging deaf children to speak, he focused on natural gestures and signing as a way of communicating.

His pupils included John Goodricke, the famed astronomer; Francis Mackenzie (Lord Seaforth) who became an MP and later governor of Barbados; John Philp Wood, an author, genealogist and friend of Sir Walter Scott, and artist Thomas Arrowsmith.

Dumbiedykes owes its name to the academy.

The Dumbie House nickname survived after the academy closed and maps began to show the road running past it, from St Leonard’s to the Canongate, as Dumbie Dykes.

Soon the whole district was being referred to as 
Dumbiedykes. Dumbie House itself, however, was renamed Craig-side House in reference to the nearby Salisbury Crags.

The site of the academy is just half a mile from the Scottish Parliament, where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously by MSPs last month, giving BSL – used by an estimated 12,500 people in Scotland – the same legal protection as a language as Gaelic.

It means the Scottish Government and other public authorities are now required to produce a plan setting out how they will improve access to information in the language.

Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said the plaque would highlight a landmark in Scottish deaf history.

She said: “It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too.

“Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com