George Heriot, 400th Anniversary

Alison Macdonald

By: Alison Macdonald

National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London

12th February 2024 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of George Heriot. His name is well known in Edinburgh for the extraordinary legacy he left to the city and its people after his death, whereby so many orphans and children have benefited from his kindness. Remembered in buildings and streets names of Edinburgh, his most prominent lasting legacy is for the funding for George Heriot’s Hospital, now known as George Heriot’s School, where bursaries continue for children today. It is still operated as a Scottish Charity.

George Heriot was born in 1563 in Edinburgh and followed his father into trade as a goldsmith, operating from one of the booths near St Giles Cathedral. In 1586, he married Christian Marjoribanks and by 1590, they had set up home in Fleshmarket Close off the High Street.

Business boomed for George as he was indeed a very skilled craftsmen, and he gained the attention of Queen Anna, wife to James VI of Scotland. With this royal attention his business prospered mostly through her compulsive buying of diamonds, emeralds and rubies and other precious adornments. The trouble for Queen Anna was that she could not always pay for them and it was not before long that he became not only her royal goldsmith and jeweller but also her banker and money lender. From time to time, he became her ‘pawnbroker’ buying back the jewels or accepting them as security for cash advances when she ran out of money.

The King, wanting to please his wife had on many occasions to step in and pay or pawn them back to Heriot. Indeed, the King also borrowed from George putting the title deeds of the royal chapel at Stirling up as security[i] He also became jeweller to the nobility who wished to show their wealth and power at court and between the nobility and Queen Anna they were running up huge debts to George Heriot. Sometimes the jewels and other precious goods were bought back and then George could resell onto to his trade connections. One thing he was very good at was keeping meticulous accounts of all these business transactions!

Queen Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). c.1610. The ‘Eglinton Jewel’ is a rare surviving example of a piece by the Edinburgh based royal jeweller George Heriot. The enamelled case features the Queen’s interlinked letters ‘AR’ for Anna Regina (Queen), in table diamonds, set beneath a closed imperial crown. It is believed that the jewel was given as a wedding gift from the Queen to Lady Anna Livingstone in 1612. Inside the case is a portrait of her painted by a member of Nicholas Hilliard’s studio.  

With the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI and now I of England, moved his family and court to London. Following in his footsteps to London was George Heriot, where he set up business near the Royal Exchange, with his royal patronage from the Queen in constant demand for jewels, following the same buying patterns as in Scotland, either for herself or to give as gifts and never quite settling her bills. As this pattern of behaviour continued and with the extra lucrative business from English clients now acquired, George Heriot would become a wealthy man albeit at times he had to ‘press’ the royal couple for repayment, who had amassed huge debts to him.

Whilst his business was booming and his acumen sound, his family life was tinged with great sorrow, with the deaths of his first wife and children, then losing his second wife in childbirth, therefore leaving no legitimate children to inherit his estate, should he die.

In 1623 with his health failing and now aged sixty, he made out his will, later adding a further codicil, instructing his executors on the vast fortune he had amassed. His will can be found online in the National Records of Scotland. He died the following year, in 1624, leaving the vast amount of his wealth and property, after certain legacies to family, two natural children and some friends, to the Town Council of Edinburgh to be used to provide a hospital for ‘fatherless bairns’. His executors were to act at speed. However, they had a substantial task ahead of them to ingather all the debts owed to his estate along with valuing the work in progress and stock of his goldsmith business. In addition, properties and rental income obtained from his holdings of land around the city of Edinburgh were passed into this newly created Trust, in memory and in Heriot’s name.

Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Edinburgh Central Library

In 1636 the Trust bought the lands of Broughton, where we see today the name Heriothill Terrace at Canonmills. [ii] In 1628, work began to build the hospital just outside the city walls behind Greyfriars Kirkyard. However, it was not until 1659 that the first set of children were admitted to the school.

In 1750 the lands of Canonmills owned by the Trust were sold to James McDowall, a merchant of Edinburgh, for £850 after being formally advertised for sale [iii]. The Kirkwood map of 1817 shows that lands still belonged to George Heriot’s Hospital in the surrounding districts of Canonmills.

George Heriot, will always be remembered in Edinburgh, and his legacy is still going strong in George Heriot’s School, 400 years after his death.

The North Elevation of Heriot’s Hospital, Edinburgh, by Philippe Mercier – Creative Commons CC by NC

[i] Lockhart, B. R. W. Jinglin’ Geordie’s Legacy: A History of George Heriot’s Hospital and School. Tuckwell, 2003

[ii] Harris, S. The Place Names of Edinburgh: Their Original History. Gordon Wright, 1996

[iii] NRS GD122/2/1488

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