The Last Public Event in Grassmarket Nursery

The Lives of Old Town Buildings – Symposium November 21st 2013


Grassmarket Nursery in the Vennel, which closed in June of this year, was the venue chosen for an inspiring discussion about ‘buildings in transition’ in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Part of the Word Bank Autumn Season, the symposium brought together three experts - Edward Hollis (Edinburgh College of Art), Bob Morris (University of Edinburgh) and Jim Johnson (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust) - to explore the factors which determine the survival and changing functions of buildings over time.

To set the scene, local resident and researcher, Elspeth Wills, provided a potted history of the building which began life as Grassmarket Child Garden in 1930, a memorial by the parents of James Hamilton Maxwell, killed in the trenches in 1915. Their son had enjoyed 'freedom and fresh air' and his parents felt that it would have been his wish for the deprived children of the Grassmarket. In 1945 this endowment passed to Edinburgh Corporation.

Such clarity of purpose, plan and function characterises how most buildings start life but, according to Ed Hollis, ‘a building should outlive everyone, including its function’. The story of every building changes over time and it’s a matter for us, in the present, ‘how we decide to tell the story now’.

Discussing the differing fate of such buildings as John Knox House and Holy Trinity Church, Bob Morris spoke of the ‘meaning that attaches itself to buildings’, meaning not always reflecting historical truth. Put simply, ‘the story is re-told, the meaning changes’. Discussing the pioneering work of Daniel Wilson and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Bob described Edinburgh as being ‘remade for the people who live there as well as visitors’.

Who is remaking what and for whom? was the subject of Jim Johnson’s contribution to the symposium. Revisiting his work as head of Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust in the 1980s, Jim wondered how places can be improved without producing the negative effects of ‘gentrification’. Well-meaning efforts to preserve the unique character of a place can be detrimental to stable communities, driving up property values and increasing consumerism aimed at visitors rather than residents.

The venue for the evening had its own point to make according to the chair, Sean Bradley (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust). He asserted that the purpose and values underlying Grassmarket Child Garden and Grassmarket Nursery have not changed over time. Early years education and the value of ‘freedom and fresh air’ are still a priority for the city and its people - and it is important that these values are reflected in the building’s future use.

The symposium concluded that there’s no avoiding the changing story of the places we live in. But what needs to be recognised is the central role that residents have in retelling that story.

This event was made possible by the unstinting support of Graham Walker (Community Use of Premises) and his colleagues in City of Edinburgh Council – and greatly enhanced by an exhibition of drawings of Grassmarket Nursery and the surrounding area by Sylvia MacKiewicz, Facilities Assistant with the Council.

 ed hollis


Edward Hollis, Reader in Design at Edinburgh College of Art writes about buildings, and the strange and secret lives they lead both inside and out.



bob morris



Bob Morris is Emeritus Prof of History at University of Edinburgh, and an expert on the history – notably the nineteenth century history, of the Royal Mile.





Jim Johnson of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust has lived and worked around Edinburgh Old town for decades, and has also played a leading role in helping householders and tenants find new ways to deal with the repair, and improvement of their living conditions.