Educational History: The Edinburgh Settlement

The Edinburgh Settlement is a multi-purpose voluntary organisation with a rich history spanning more than 100 years. It is part of the international Settlement movement: a global network of social action centres which work closely with local communities, representing and responding to needs and aspirations, to promote social and environmental justice.


University Settlement

Throughout its long history, the Edinburgh Settlement has been instrumental in many significant initiatives in community development and welfare; with innovations in education, support for people economically or socially disadvantaged; through poverty, disability, racial inequality, health issues and other problems; promotion of community volunteering, fostering of the arts and cultural activities, and the provision of much needed community resources.

The Edinburgh Settlement was originally founded under the auspices of the University of Edinburgh.  Edinburgh University Settlement (EUS) was founded by members of the University of Edinburgh and representatives of the city of Edinburgh; their goal was to link ‘town and gown’ in the cause of alleviating poverty, providing services for the disadvantaged, and helping people bring about effective and lasting development for their communities.

The founding of the Edinburgh Settlement in 1905 was part of the growth of the Settlement movement that saw many universities and colleges establish multi-purpose voluntary organisations to use the expertise of their staff, students and graduates to respond to the needs of local communities. The international Settlement movement began in Britain with the founding of London’s Toynbee Hall in 1886. By 1911 there were 46 university and social settlements in Britain, and more than 400 in the United States.

Traditionally, the Settlement movement established ‘Settlement Houses’, usually run by university undergraduates, which attempted to provide social work in deprived areas. Men and women would set up a home in underprivileged districts and would live and work from this house. They would run clubs and societies, do social investigation and coordinate support work from the Settlement. They attempted to make the house a centre of the community. Not only would the residents of the district benefit from their support and good example but it was hoped that the ‘settlers’ would also benefit from their experiences. This was embodied in ideas of fellowship and citizenship, which remain prevalent in the Settlement movement.

Historically, the contribution of the Settlement movement to the development of social welfare policy and provision has been significant. Toynbee Hall, for example, provided the base, in the late nineteenth century, for Charles Booth and his team of researchers working on the innovative social survey ‘The Life and Labour of the People of London’, which informed and influenced responses to poverty in the early twentieth century. Many of the key figures in the development of the British welfare state, such as William Beveridge, R.H. Tawney, Kenneth Lindsay and Clement Atlee, were closely associated with the Settlement movement as resident Settlement workers early in their careers.

First Annual Report


A number of organisations also began their work as Settlement initiatives; among them the Workers Educational Association (1903), the Youth Hostel Association (1931), Community Service Volunteers (1962), Child Poverty Action Group (1965), and some of the first Citizen’s Advice Bureau worked from established Settlement centres, as was the case in Edinburgh at the Settlement’s Cameron House.

Today’s settlements rarely have a residential element to their activities. Neither do they have to be connected to a university, although some still are. To reflect this change, the movement now incorporates independent ‘neighbourhood’ or community centres. Today the Settlement movement is essentially community based, multi-purpose and multi-disciplinary. Each settlement chooses its own mission and aims, responding to the needs of its local community through its programming objectives. Yet, all settlements have the same overall values and share a common methodology. Namely, to promote social justice by creating opportunities for individuals to realise their full potential.

Throughout its history, Edinburgh’s Settlement has been an innovative, community-focussed organisation; maintaining a vibrant programme of activity at the forefront of community action in and around Edinburgh, and has been instrumental in the setting up of many pioneering projects of a social, educational and medical kind.


As well as providing services and managing projects focusing on community development, health, education and training, the Settlement has functioned successfully as an umbrella for a range of independent and emerging community organisations, working in partnership with many organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors, both in Scotland and internationally.


For many years EUS maintained a successful partnership for social and community development with the University of Edinburgh, and with other institutes of further and higher education, and was an active member of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, and the International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres.

Edinburgh Settlements Social Service Plans

To mark the centenary of the Edinburgh Settlement in 2005, ‘Edinburgh Evening News’ published the following feature; outlining some of the many initiatives undertaken in the course of the Settlement’s history:


 ‘They say charity begins at home. A hundred years ago a dozen or so Edinburgh University students took that phrase one step further by moving into the city slums to launch a new organisation aimed at helping people less fortunate than themselves. The Edinburgh University Settlement (EUS) group set themselves up in a building in High School Yards in the Pleasance, where they lived among the impoverished local community.


From the outset the Edinburgh Settlement maintained a particularly close association with its parent university. Under the slogan “linking town with gown”, the group established a range of projects and events  to help the underprivileged local population in the overcrowded slums of the Old Town and Pleasance area, literally on the doorstep of the University.


EUS was founded by a group of prominent citizens and academics, which included University Principal Sir William Turner, Lord Dundas and Stormont-Darling (Session Court Judges), the Earl of Mansfield MP, ten University Professors including founding convener Professor Sir Richard Lodge, and three leading consultant doctors;  these included Joseph Bell, the city doctor famous as the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, three local Church of Scotland Ministers, the Moderator and three ministers from the United Free Church, two advocates and five writers to the signet. EUS began working from a group of buildings in High School Yards, purchased from the University by means of a legacy from Sophia Jex-Blake (a graduate of the University’s medical school, and the first female doctor in the UK).


Over the years the group also attracted other well-known members, including Peter Pan author JM Barrie, who lent his name to a fund specifically to help needy children, and most recently, writer Alexander McCall Smith. The organisation was originally part of a nationwide movement which started in London and eventually spread to universities around the world. Today, the original immigrant settlement houses may be long gone, but as today’s members celebrate the centenary, the legacy of many of the group’s achievements remains.

EUS director Nick Flavin, who has helped organise a centenary exhibition at the Edinburgh University George Square Library highlighting the EUS’s work, explains how Edinburgh came to join the Settlement movement. He says: “There was a large Irish immigrant population in Edinburgh at the time, living in slums in the Cowgate, Southside and the Pleasance, cheek by jowl with the university, which was based at the Old Quad. The main founder of the Edinburgh settlement was a history professor called Sir Richard Lodge, who met with a group of staff and students in 1905. They modelled the settlement on the first settlement, which was pioneered by Reverend Samuel Barnett at Toynbee Hall in London in the late 1800s.

The Settlement began its work operating from a cellar in the University’s Anatomy  Department, (notably the same premises occupied by Dr Robert Knox; the infamous Edinburgh surgeon who received  the corpses supplied by Burke and Hare in that same building years previously). A group of ten to twelve students moved in to High School Yards, living with a warden appointed by the academics. The students would live there free or for cheaper rent in return for doing community work. They were people with a conscience who would have thought it good experience, as training for future work.” A typical settlement house had a range of facilities including teaching rooms and performance rooms. High School Yards was renovated and adapted by the Settlement for teaching, recreation and social welfare initiatives; these included various activities for local children, a woman’s club, literary and debating societies and lectures.

Originally, the funding for the Settlement’s work came from members’ subscriptions and fundraisers like Settlement Day – which was later replaced by Student Rag Week. Although most of the money used to fund its work is now raised through grants, the group is always keen to attract new members, whose annual membership fees all help towards projects. Meanwhile, the group has expanded its work to help people overseas as well as in Edinburgh.’ (Julia Horton)

Edinburgh Settlements Celebrates

Following the First World War, the Edinburgh Settlement forged an alliance with Edinburgh University’s new School of Social Study and Training, which brought much needed funding to the Settlement for the maintenance of it’s High School Yards centre, and also an influx of student volunteers from the School of Social Study, which used High School Yards for practical studies of social problems at a time of economic depression, high unemployment and privation among the local population.

Grace Drysdale, who had worked for the Settlement during the war, was elected as the Settlement Warden around this time and a major public appeal was launched in 1926 to raise £30,000 for the expansion of Settlement activities. A programme of slum clearance of the Pleasance area surrounding the Settlement was begun by the Edinburgh Town Council in the late 1920’s resulting in the relocation of much of the local population to the area of Prestonfield on the south-eastern outskirts of the city.


Owing much to the initiative of Grace Drysdale, the Settlement took the decision to establish a new centre for its activities at Prestonfield, and Cameron House, was opened as an educational and social centre by the University Rector, Winston Churchill, in 1931. Cameron House, later gifted by the Settlement to the City of Edinburgh Council, offered a variety of activities, including nursery facilities, residential accommodation and a care programme for the elderly.


Edinburgh Settlements on Guthrie Street
Edinburgh Settlements on Guthrie Street


In the same year the Settlement began it’s pioneering work in education with the opening of Kirk o’ Field College.  Kirk o’ Field was the personal gift of Professor Sir David Wilkie, who served as Chairman of the Settlement in the 1920’s and 30’s. Wilkie, a leading Edinburgh surgeon, together with the author and then Chancellor of the University, J.M.Barrie, launched the college as a “open university” for unemployed people. The Settlement continued its Kirk o’ Field College tradition with a range of educational initiatives in subsequent decades.

In the 1980’s at the Settlement’s Wilkie House, the Adult Basic Education Centre and the Walk-In Numeracy Centre functioned as a collaborative venture with other educational organisations including Edinburgh University’s Maths Department. The Settlement also led the first adult literacy programme in Scotland with its ‘Second Chance to Learn’ project.  In the 1990’s the Settlement opened its ‘Microbeacon’ programme for computer training. In 2004 the Settlement merged its education and training programmes into a single programme with the establishment of the EUS Community Learning Centre.

In 1936 the Settlement opened its new Craigmillar College with a similar educational and social work programme as in the other three centres, but with the addition of a medical clinic focussed mainly on child welfare.  Later, The Craigmillar Festival Society grew out of the Settlement house at  Craigmillar College. Originally the house operated as a community centre providing teaching and performance space. It spawned the Festival Society, resulting in a resident theatre company which put on regular performances by people in the community.


Edinburgh Settlements Second Chance To Learn
Edinburgh Settlements 2nd Chance To Learn on Regent Road


With the changes in statutory welfare provision after 1945 many Settlements in Britain began to disappear, but the close relationship of the Edinburgh Settlement to the communities it served enabled the Settlement to continue its work and identify new initiatives to pursue. In 1960 the Settlement in the city centre moved from High School Yards to a group of buildings in Guthrie Street. The old Peoples Palace in Guthrie Street was reopened as Wilkie House in tribute to Sir David Wilkie.

From the 1970’s the Settlement firmly established itself as a multi-purpose ‘social action’ centre, it provided services for older people, children and families, a range of courses and learning opportunities, and community work and advisory services. Settlement programmes always had a significant educational component, and within this area there was significant innovation, particularly in the areas of adult basic education and the development of opportunities for those with disabilities and learning difficulties.

In the 1960’s the Settlement developed new initiatives in working with teenagers and young people, addressing the lack of opportunities for youth recreational activity in the city.  Youth centres were opened at Cameron House and Craigmillar College, and the Settlement built the first adventure playground in Scotland at Craigmillar. The Settlement’s Wilkie House Club for members aged 16 to 21 had a joint membership for students and the local youth.

Edinburgh Settlements Second Chance to Learn

By the mid-sixties the Settlement had a full professional staff assisted by around 200 student volunteers. In 1964 an International Service Centre was opened at Wilkie House which helped co-ordinate the work of student societies and provide information and advice on opportunities for voluntary work at home and overseas.


Also in the 1960’s, the Settlement established it’s CommunityLink programme; continuing it’s role in building relationships between students and staff of the university with the wider community. CommunityLink functioned as a student volunteer bureau, financially supported by the University of Edinburgh, which placed students within the Settlement’s own portfolio of projects and also with other voluntary organisations in Edinburgh and internationally.

Throughout its history the Edinburgh Settlement has been instrumental in setting up or supporting community projects which became independent or continued under the auspices of other organisations; these include the first domiciliary service for sufferers of senile dementia, LEAD -Linking Education and Disability, the Scottish Gypsy Travellers Association, and many others.

Provision of innovative community-based mental health care stretches back almost to the founding of the Settlement. Among the Settlements many initiatives was Scotland’s first school of art therapy. The need for the school was identified by Settlement workers as the nationwide policy of closing down institutions and moving people back into the community moved forward. In the late 80s and early 90s patients from the former Gogarburn Hospital and the Royal Edinburgh Hospital were offered art therapy at Wilkie House in the Cowgate – a Settlement run centre providing a range of community services. The New Wilkie House Club was one of the first Scottish responses to the government’s ‘care in the community’ agenda.

This initiative provided a range of community services including the Settlement’s ‘Headstart’ project; with various activity groups and workshops for mural painting, writers and readers clubs, and drama groups. From these activities the Settlement created its ‘Stepping Stones’ mental health art therapy project, and in 1991 the Settlement’s School of Art Therapy established Scotland’s first professionally validated Art Therapy training course. The EUS also engineered the first academically validated art therapy course in Scotland at Glasgow’s Caledonian University. A similar course was later established at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, while the Settlement’s ‘Stepping Stones’ project provided art therapy and creative training for people with a variety of mental health issues.

In late 2010, financial difficulties forced the loss of many of Edinburgh University Settlement’s established community projects – such as the Settlement’s Community Learning Centre, its student volunteering services, and its pioneering Stepping Stones art therapy projects, as well as valued community resources such as the Roxy Art House and the Forest Café in Edinburgh.


Edinburgh Settlements on Leith Walk

The Edinburgh Settlement continues it’s work, under the auspices of The International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres – Europe (IFS-Europe). As well as ensuring the safe keeping and providing access for research to the extensive archives of the Edinburgh Settlement, IFS Europe has fostered the establishment of the Edinburgh Settlement Projects and Stepping Stones- Bonnyrigg (Midlothian) social enterprise initiatives, which work to provide local community resources and raise funds to support community development projects both locally and internationally.

This history was written by Steve Robb