The University of Edinburgh enjoys a unique and fascinating history, and, for over 400 years, its life has been intertwined with that of the city and some of its most famous (and infamous) characters.
The University was established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI in 1582. This was an unusual move at the time, as most universities were established through Papal Charters. What makes the University of Edinburgh even more unusual is the fact that its funding came the following year from the Town Council, making it in many ways the first civic university, known as the 'Tounis College'. It became the fourth Scottish university in a period when the much more populous and richer England had only two - a position which continued until the early 19th Century when Durham and the London Colleges began to be founded.
As an interesting, if vaguely macabre, aside, it is worth noting that James VI was the son of Mary Stuart and Lord Darnley. Lord Darnley was murdered at the Kirk o' Field site in Edinburgh and the chief suspect for the murder was Bothwell, who Mary later married. Old College, The University's first real campus, was built and still stands on the very same Kirk o' Field site. The Raeburn Room (where Prince Phillip as Chancellor of the University, sometimes now dines) presently stands on the exact place of the murder.
Before the building of Old College, The University of Edinburgh did not enjoy a custom built campus and existed in a hotchpotch of buildings from its establishment until the early 19th Century.
Certainly the approach to The University was not especially picturesque. Coming from the Cowgate, the University was reached along College Wynd. Conditions were far from sanitary, and the old houses were cleared as part of the public health movement in the latter part of the 19th century. The street photograph shown was part of a survey of the area after the houses were cleared, but before they were finally demolished.
From the basement of one of these houses ran the anatomy tunnel corridor. It went under what was then North College Street (now Chambers Street), and under the University buildings until it reached the University's anatomy lecture theatre, delivering bodies for dissection. It was from this tunnel that the body of William Burke was taken after he had been hanged.
In a period that was known for graverobbing for medical dissections, Burke and his accomplice Hare became infamous for simplifying procedures. Rather than stealing from fresh graves, they instead lured at least 15 people, generally down and outs, into their lodgings where they would get them drunk, kill them by smothering (to leave no evidence) and then sell the corpses to Robert Knox's school of anatomy. When they were finally exposed in 1828, Hare turned King's evidence and was eventually released, and never heard from again. Burke was tried for murder and hanged, with his body to be used for dissection, but his body was stolen from the tunnel before this could happen.