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Courtyard House Edinburgh

The Courtyard House

Riddle's Court, hidden behind Edinburgh's Royal Mile, has hosted
merchants, kings, paupers and philosophers over the past 400 years -
and each has left a mark.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

You could almost miss it amid the ebb and flow of Royal Mile crowds, distracted by surrounding shops purveying tartans, tweeds and tourist tat. On the left-hand side of the Lawnmarket, however, as you head up towards the Castle, step through a fairly anonymous-looking close entrance and you find yourself in an ancient enclosed courtyard, the surrounding buildings featuring strikingly ochre-coloured plaster, overhanging corbelled corners and cantilevered stairs in the traditional Scots baronial style.

Welcome to the hidden architectural gem of Riddle's Court. One of Edinburgh Old Town's oldest surviving courtyard houses, this 16th-century property has, during a chequered career of more than four centuries, hosted a banquet for a Scots king, housed aristocrats and philosophers as well as teeming slum families, nurtured pioneering 19th-century educational initiatives and seen stage and screen stars make early Fringe appearances.

An archway into the inner courtyard sports a Latin inscription that hints at building's past, and future: Vivendo Discimus -- "By living we learn." This is a motto of sorts for Sir Patrick Geddes, whose educational philosophy centered on learning by doing. During the late 19th century, Geddes, polymath and visionary, left his indelible stamp on Riddle's Court -- a legacy which the ancient building now embodies as The Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning, following a £6 million refurbishment (about $7.8 million) carried out by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT).

A-listed in terms of architectural importance, the building was reopened in September 2017 by Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, following the three-year restoration project funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, the Architectural Heritage Fund and private donations.

Today, the entrance foyer of Riddle's Court, created during the restoration, is an intriguing mixture of 21st-century lighting, glass and steel and 400 years' worth of layered history. Gliding upwards in the glass-sided lift, you pass sawn-off timber joists protruding from plaster and stonework still showing traces of long defunct doorways or stairways.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2018 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos courtesy of the Patrick Geddes Centre and © Colin McPherson