Located at the end of Infirmary Street, the Old High School of Edinburgh was built by Alexander Laing in 1777, at the cost of £4000. The building we see today was a replacement for the first High School, built in 1578, which had become too small. Previously the Blackfriars Monastery had occupied the site, founded in 1230 by King Alexander II (1198 - 1249), but this was burned by a Protestant mob in 1558. After its destruction Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), had been persuaded to give the land to the city to build a school replacing the educational function of the monastery (1566). The following year the Queen's husband, Lord Darnley (1545-67) was found murdered in the old monastery garden.
It was in this building that James Pillans (1778 - 1864), headmaster of the school until 1820, invented the blackboard, using it with coloured chalks in his geography classes. Pupils of the school included author Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832), whose initials can still be seen today amongst the 18th Century graffiti on the wall by the entrance, politician Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville (1771 - 1851), politician and carriage-designer Henry Brougham (1778 - 1868) and lawyer and conservationist Henry Cockburn (1779 - 1854).
By 1820, three problems had become apparent. Again the accommodation had become inadequate, education standards had dropped, which led Sir Walter Scott and others to found the Edinburgh Academy at Inverleith. With an expanding New Town, there was an obvious need for a school closer to that area. Thus, in 1829 a new Royal High School was opened and the old school was closed. In 1832 the building re-opened as a Surgical Hospital, in which the University of Edinburgh held its Anatomy classes. Surgeon James Syme (1799 - 1870) and antiseptic pioneer Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912) were in charge of wards in this building, while Professors in the University.
The original building is of two storeys, but not large, presenting a neat 11-bay classical facade to the west. The outer bays stand slightly forward, while a single-storey tetrastyle Doric portico extends over the inner three bays. A large square extension to the rear once contained a steeply raked anatomy lecture theatre, but this has now been recast as three storeys with a more modest lecture theatre, teaching rooms, offices and laboratories. Also to the rear is a distinctive five-storey ogee-roofed tower. The Old High School is linked to the adjacent Institute of Geography building (formerly the New Surgical Hospital) by a short bridge. Rowand Anderson (1834 - 1921) was responsible for most of the alterations when use as a hospital came to an end c.1904. The building was subsequently taken on by the university for science and engineering teaching (until the 1930s), then geography (until 1987), the Faculty Office of Dentistry (until 1995) and now archaeology.