Lost Edinburgh: Teviot Row House

Picture: Creative Commons
Picture: Creative Commons
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TEVIOT Row House has played a hugely important role in the lives of Edinburgh’s university students since opening almost exactly 124 years ago. It takes its place in history as the oldest Students’ Union building in the world.

Teviot Row House is located across from McEwan Hall on modern day Bristo Square. It is one of several of Edinburgh University’s union buildings.

Inside and out, Teviot is noticeably influenced by 16th century Scots-Renaissance architecture. Key aspects of the outer design, such as pinnacled drum towers and crow-stepped gables, mirror those found at Holyrood and Falkland Palaces. The architects awarded the Teviot contract were the esteemed partnership of Sydney Mitchell & Wilson who in 1887 had completed the commission for a long-since demolished drinking fountain that stood in the University’s Old College Quadrangle. That same year they went on to toast further architectural success following acceptance of their picturesque design for Craighouse Hospital located on the slopes of Craiglockhart Hill. The huge late Gothic traceried windows to the front seldom fail to impress.

It was the students themselves who set out to raise the funds to build the Students’ Union at Teviot Row - perhaps an early form of crowdfunding. Disappointingly, significant finance for the project was slow to materialise and completion would take more than two years. The official opening ceremony took place on the 19th of October 1889. A sizeable crowd watched as the University Chancellor eagerly cut the long-awaited ribbon before pointing out the advantages that were likely to follow from “a more social and gregarious life among the students, and freer intercourse between teachers and taught”. The students marked the occasion with a torch-lit procession through the city later that evening.

The building is undoubtedly impressive, reaching upwards with its 4 floors, as well as attic and basement. In addition to the Renaissance features the interior presents Scots-Gothic features such as turnpike staircases leading to upper floors and considered vaulting. On its top floor it contains a debating chamber featuring a fine hammerbeam roof. The building has been subject to two major extensions over the years the first being a western extension completed in 1905; the second being a southerly extension added in 1962.

Perhaps of greater importance to the life of the average student at Edinburgh University is Teviot’s abundance of bars and dining areas. Even the traditional library was subject of a conversion to the library bar in 2008.

On the subject of alcoholic beverages, it may be surprising to learn that spirits were only first permitted to be sold at the Union in 1970. The original constitution had to be amended for this change. A year after this constitutional change another was required, when for the first time women were permitted at Teviot Row in 1971.

The building has been in University ownership since the mid 1960s, it is still student run by the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. Long may it continue - Happy 124th birthday to the oldest Students’ Union on the planet.

• David McLean is the founder of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page