McEwan Hall

McEwan Hall and Bristo Square, Edinburgh
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

McEwan Hall and Bristo Square, Edinburgh

Located in Bristo Square, adjacent to the University of Edinburgh's Old Medical School, the McEwan Hall was built by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson between 1888 and 1897 in Italian Renaissance style. Originally planned as part of the University's new Medical School (completed some 10 years earlier), the government of the time refused to fund a graduation hall which they considered frivolous. Thus, the University turned to William McEwan, the brewer, who contributed the money necessary (£115,000) to create this ostentatious building.

McEwan specified lavish decoration, by the artist William M. Palin (1862 - 1947), which includes panels depicting the academic disciplines, the virtues and even included himself presenting the hall. Around the inside of the substantial dome is the inscription:

Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour.
(Proverbs 4:7)

The decoration took more than three years to complete. The organ features a detached console and is by Birkenhead-based theatre-organ builder Robert Hope-Jones (1859 - 1914). The graduation hall is surrounded by an immense curved access corridor, with a starkly white-tiled corridor below at the basement level which has served as a location for several films including Greyfriars Bobby (2005), Reichenbach Falls (2007) and Outcast (2010).

The University undertook a major refurbishment of the hall 2014-17, in-part driven by necessary repairs including damaged exterior stonework, damp penetration and cracked ceilings, but also to make better use of the space including under-utilised basement areas and an upper gallery which has lain unused for many years due to safety fears. The scheme cost £35 million, including excavating new lecture rooms underground, restoration of the interior frescos, much improved lighting, new heating and ventilation, changes to meet accessibility legislation and a controversial new glass entrance set in a revitalised Bristo Square.

With a seated capacity of 1148, the Hall is used for graduations, concerts, public lectures and examinations by the University.

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