A Brief History of Where the Sibbald Library Books have been Housed

Okay, now the history lesson.

The first petition to gain a royal charter for the creation of a Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh (RCPE) was presented to king James VI & I in 1617, but it did not gain approval. This happened again in 1630 and yet again in 1656. It wasn’t until 1681 that the RCPE was sucessfully founded by Sir Robert Sibbald under king Charles II. Though they were a legally recognized body they didn’t have anywhere to gather so met at members’ houses or rented rooms until 1704. During this period they did have a library from which members could borrow books if they made a deposit equivalent to the worth of the book they borrowed, however, there is no record of where the library was kept. The initial “seed bomb” of books was donated by Sir Robert Sibbald, and consisted of about 100 volumes. One of the early donations to the library was a copy of the paradigm changing publication Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton, presented to the RCPE by Newton himself. While the physical location of all these books during this period is unknown, the RCPE did appoint a librarian and a deputy librarian from among their ranks, which underscores the importance of the library to the RCPE since its inception.

Warning: I am about to delve into locational information that may not be interesting to people who do not know the layout of Edinburgh. Skim over at will.

The RCPE, and thus the library, finally acquired a dilapidated old house at or near the bottom of Fountain Close on what was at the time a fashionable Cowgate, in 1703. They had the house torn down and a new building designed and constructed by the prominent Edinburgh architect Alexander McGill, into which the RCPE moved in 1704. Unfortunately this building is no longer there, and Fountain Close does not make it all the way to Cowgate anymore; it now peters out in a parking area for the businesses around there.  Apparently the Fountain Close hall didn’t age well, and when New Town was being built in the mid to late 1700s, the RCPE petitioned for a location at the intersection of Princes Street and North Bridge, which they were denied. Instead, the Register House was built at their first choice location, and still stands/functions today (see previous post A Comedy of Red Tape, Resulting in A New Venture for a lengthy and if I may say so myself, comical description of the levels of bureaucracy associated with my attempt to intern at the Register House). The conditions at Fountain Close were growing desperate and the library was under particular duress with many of the books rotting and crumbling due to the conditions at Fountain Close. By 1770 the RCPE had all but abandoned the Fountain Close hall and was meeting at the Royal Infirmary, where they were allowed to temporarily store their library. The New Town planners offered the RCPE the spot where the Scott Monument is now located as a second choice, which the RCPE found unacceptable; I suspect it was because that particular site was opposite the eyesore that was Old Town (a filthy and notorious place at the time) and at the edge of New Town, meaning they may have felt it was a peripheral location. Today the Scott Monument is just about the center of the city! They were offered a choice between George Square, way on the other side of Old Town, and a spot at the east end of George Street. They chose the George Street location and had plans for a magnificent building drawn up and executed by James Craig, the prize-winning designer of New Town. Here is a link to a 1795 version of James Craig’s plan for New Town:  New Town Plan, NLS. The RCPE found this magnificent building very expensive to build and maintain, and in 1843 they were forced out due to financial trouble. The building was sold to the Bank of Scotland, which had it demolished – what a shame!  When circumstances obliged the RCPE to move again they had the Queen Street hall built, where they are still located today. The building was planned by the talented Edinburgh architect Thomas Hamilton. Construction of the new location at 9 Queen Street took place between 1844 and 1846, during which time the RCPE rented a hall nearby at 119 George Street. The RCPE and it’s fabulous Sibbald Library moved into their current location in 1846. The new location was the first of the RCPE buildings to have a library designed into the building plans. This original library is known today as the Front Library, and it is where I spend every Friday, some 167 years after its conception. In 1868 the RCPE acquired the beautiful house adjacent to 9 Queen Street, formerly known as 8 Queen Street, and expanded into it building the New Library in the garden. However, the RCPE did not directly connect the two buildings until 1957, having leased out the majority of 8 Queen Street to renters for the intervening 99 years. The house at 8 Queen Street was probably designed by renowned Fife native Robert Adam, though there is some scholarly dispute as to whether it was Robert or one of his brothers who designed it. By the time 8 Queen Street was being planned Robert was based in London and chances are that he had bigger fish to fry than those in provincial Edinburgh. The house features a circular drawing room on the first floor, a delightfully 18th century innovation, which is still perfectly preserved down to the plaster work, as well as the New Library and various other stunning rooms.

That brings my brief introduction to a conclusion, but I am hoping to add more soon, as well as some much needed photos.


One comment

  1. […] This post used to include a history lesson on the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and their precious Sibbald Library, but it was so long I decided to break it into two. Now see A Brief History of where the Sibbald Library Books have been Housed. […]

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