Library relocation

New College’s original library (now the Martin Hall) was, according to Rev Professor Hugh Watt’s centenary history, ‘once characterised by a speaker at the General Assembly as one of the finest in the country and the worst housed’. The vast collection was continuously in ‘”much admired disorder”‘, with specific books often difficult to find and the space available overcrowded with volumes (Watt, 1936, p. 168).


©The University of Edinburgh

With the situation deemed no longer tenable by 1934, new library premises was sought. After some investigations, it was decided that the High Church – already integrated within the New College buildings and, with steep and winding steps, an increasingly inaccessible premises for an ageing congregation – was such a natural choice that one could be forgiven for believing Playfair had its repurposing in mind all along.

The chosen architect was Mr Lorne Campbell, who estimated the work at £20,000. Campbell proposed retaining the original church roof, ensuring a majestic and spacious new library. During the basement’s excavation to create the stacks a number of interesting artefacts were found, including oyster shells likely to have been waste produced by Mary of Guise’s Palace centuries before. The oyster shells unearthed are kept in the library’s Strong Room.


©The University of Edinburgh

The new library was officially opened on 8 October 1936. Describing the initial response, Watt writes:

The beauty of the Hall was admired by all, the windows of course receiving an especial meed of praise … The colour of the walls, carefully chosen, provides a “just right” frame for the lovely windows, throwing into relief their harmonious beauty

(Watt, pp. 174-175)


Foot of library hall 1977, ©The University of Edinburgh

Read more about Mary of Guise’s Palace.