Interesting Scottish places: Fettes College

Fettes College. <em>Picture: Lee Kindness</em>
Fettes College. Picture: Lee Kindness

By Elizabeth McQuillan

I cannot walk past Fettes College in Edinburgh and not marvel at how much fun it would be to be a student there, especially if you had a room in one of the towers. Ornate spirals and turrets thrust themselves skywards, and the whole gothic structure suggests Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Fettes just seems too grand and fantastical to be used for the somewhat less enchanting job of schooling muggle children born to parents that can afford the fees. Tony Blair was one such muggle, as was the significantly more interesting fictional character, James Bond.

Actually, the school was founded on a legacy provided by Sir William Fettes (1750–1836) who was twice Lord Provost of Edinburgh. It was specifically meant to cater for the poor, orphaned and needy urchin boys of Edinburgh, providing them with a good education. Free of charge.

Fettes was a very successful and canny merchant – and this is where he made his money, trading in tea and wine during the Napoleonic Wars – military contractor and underwriter. There was plenty of demand for a stiff drink in a crisis. And tea. And money.

With his pots of cash, he bought the Estate of Comely Bank, as well as a few others: Arnsheen in Ayrshire, Redcastle in Invernesshire, Denbrae in Fife and Gogar in Midlothian. Fettes appears to have had a genuine care for his fellow humans – he was involved in many charities and showed concern for the welfare of the people of his city. He did serve as Lord Provost in 1800 and 1805, which was unusual given his relatively humble roots, eventually becoming a baronet in 1804.

Sadly, his only son died of typhoid in 1815 while off travelling in Europe. Unable to pass on his wealth to an heir, he bequeathed the enormous sum of £166,000 in memory of his son. He had considered building a hospital, but instead plumped for a school. His will stated:

“It is my intention that the residue of my whole estate should form an endowment for the maintenance, education and outfit of young people whose parents have either died without leaving sufficient funds for that purpose, or who from innocent misfortune during their lives, are unable to give suitable education to their children.”

I wonder if such a philanthropist would approve of his school in 2010? Despite the fact there are a few scholarships available for poorer kids, the Fettes College of today prides itself on being a top-notch private school, and this is reflected with fees that most parents could only aspire to.

It strikes me as the antithesis of what Sir William Fettes intended, and terribly sad that his dream, the memorial to his son and his school ethos got hijacked somewhere along the line. It followed the fate of many similar schools in Scotland’s cities, set up by wealthy merchants, with the poor supposedly the benefactors.

Sir William Fettes’ £166,000 funds were accumulated for a number of years by the trustees, with the architect David Bryce designing the magnificent French gothic structure some 20 years after Fettes’ death. In 1870, 34 years after his death, the school opened its gates for the first time to 53 pupils.

  • spagan

    I think that there must be quite a few Scottish philanthropists swivelling in their lairs Elizabeth.
    It is difficult to fathom how Fettes and whole host of educational institutions of world renown fell into the hands of sundry spivs and speculators.
    I’m sure it was all done “legally and above board” ………………
    I wonder just how many of these fantastic legacies were misapproriated. Robin Hood in reverse – and they claim to be charitable bodies.
    Grrrrrrr!!
    Slainte Mhor

    • believer

      Just for info, I think 1 in 4 Fettes kids has a scholarship or bursary of some sort. If schools like this were no longer charities, there would be NO kids receiving financial help and then there would be a lot more to moan about.

      My cousins go to Fettes on full scholarship/bursary and it was their parents’ best decision to send them there – they are thriving and happy – Thank you Fettes.

      • spagan

        Aye – Tony Blair probably got one as well. I’m sure Iraq is grateful – if not “thriving and happy”…………
        Slainte Mhor

  • David Hodgson

    I really enjoy this series of articles. This one was particularly interesting – thank you. I cycle past Fettes College every day and although I’ve always loved the building, the story behind it is much more appealing. From now on when I cycle past I’ll be thinking of Sir William and his tremendously kind generosity.