New College was established in 1843 and became part of the University of Edinburgh, merging with the Faculty of Divinity, in 1935.

Statue of John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation.
Statue of John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation.

Theology at the University since 1583

Theology has been studied at the University since its earliest days.

The University of Edinburgh was, at its founding in 1583, largely a theological college for the training of clergy in the Church of Scotland. The first Principal of the University, Robert Pollock (c. 1545–1599), was appointed in 1583 and became Professor of Theology in 1587. The first endowed professorship in the University was the Professorship of Divinity (1620). This was followed by the Professorship of Hebrew and Oriental Languages (1642) and the Professorship of Ecclesiastical History (1694). The original Faculty of Divinity was housed in Old College, where you can now find the School of Law.

The establishment of New College

The foundation of New College was the product of the zeal that arose from religious conflict.

On May 18 1843 Reverend David Welsh led a walkout of c. 200 ministers from the opening session of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly. This major event saw a third of ministers leave the Church of Scotland in protest against perceived state interference in spiritual affairs. This split was replicated in the University’s Divinity Faculty.

Against all odds, the outgoing clergy and laity formed the Free Church of Scotland as a new national Church, free from state connection and acknowledging only the headship of Christ. Amid the idealism and fervour aroused by the Disruption, the Reverend Professor Thomas Chalmers set about establishing a new educational home for educating not simply a learned ministry, but a new Scottish Christian leadership.

William Henry Playfair was commissioned by the Free Church Education Committee to design a Free Church College and new building for the Free High Kirk congregation. Arguably the city’s leading architect, Playfair had already designed such landmarks as the City Observatory, the Dugald Stewart Monument, and Surgeon’s Hall. The structure Playfair envisioned was an ambitious one that would dominate the city’s skyline with Gothic grandeur.

This was to be New College. While its foundation stone was not laid until 1846, in November 1843, 168 students began their theological education with Chalmers as their Principal on George Street.

Looking up the Mound towards New College at night
Looking up the Mound towards New College

Merger of New College and University Faculty of Divinity

Following the reunion of the Church of Scotland and United Free Church in 1929, and after nearly 90 years as two separate entities, the two main centres of theological learning in Edinburgh came together.

In June 1933 the minute book of the University’s Faculty of Divinity noted that ‘a secure basis has been attained on which the coordinate traditions of New College and the Faculty can rest without danger or loss to either’ (AA 1 2 4).

In 1935 education at New College became part of the University of Edinburgh, when it merged with their Faculty (now the School) of Divinity. The newly merged faculty was housed in New College. Then in a shift away from the Church of Scotland, New College was finally ceded to the University of Edinburgh in 1961. However, the Assembly Hall, nestled between the two sides of New College, still belongs to the Church of Scotland. This is where their General Assembly is held each year.

A modernist makeover

Colour photo of the New College Coat of Arms tapestry hanging up in the Rainy Hall
New College Coat of Arms tapestry

In 1973 New College underwent a substantial internal refurbishment, which saw the repurposing of examination rooms on the top floor as offices and adding a lift. The dramatic foyer staircase dates from this renovation.

On Thursday 15 September 2016, two teaching rooms were renamed in honour of inspirational, female theologians from New College history; the Althaus-Reid Room was renamed in honour of the provocative and daring practical theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid and the Elizabeth Templeton Lecture Theatre was renamed in honour of the creative and passionate theologian Elizabeth Templeton.

In September 2018, work began to restore Rainy Hall to its former glory, in time for the General Assembly in May 2019.

New College today

Today New College has two roles – it is home to the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity and it is the place in Edinburgh where the Church of Scotland trains its ministerial candidates.

In 2021, New College celebrated the 175th anniversary of the day when Dr Thomas Chalmers laid the foundation stone of New College on the Mound: 3 June 1846.

New College Clock 2021

To mark the 175th anniversary, we installed the beautiful clock on New College tower.

When the building was originally designed by William Playfair, there were two decorative stone disc-shapes in the tower. These were likely designed to house the faces of a mechanical clock. However, when the building went over budget by £5,000 – almost £600,000 in today’s money – the project was shelved.

175 years later we had a clock designed for New College, which has now been fitted onto the famed stone roundels of the tower.

Women in New College

Colour image of the New College Clock
New College Clock

Elizabeth Glendinning Kirkwood Hewat was one of the first women to study theology at New College, the first to graduate BD in 1926, and the first female doctoral graduate in 1934.

In 1996, Ruth Page (1935–2015) became the first female Principal of New College.

Marcella Althaus Reid (1952–2009) was the first woman to hold a Professorial Chair in New College.

Elizabeth Templeton (1945–2015) was the first woman to hold a full-time lectureship in the University's Faculty of Divinity.

In 2018, for the first time, the roles of Principal of New College and Head of the School of Divinity were both held by women – Professor Susan Hardman Moore and Professor Helen Bond, respectively.

There is a list of the Principals of New College, 1843–1943, in Hugh Watt, 'New College: A Centenary History' (Edinburgh, 1943).

New College Past, Present and Future

As part of our 175th Anniversary, the School of Divinity created a virtual timeline detailing the history of New College from the 1830s through to present day. This website will be updated with significant historical events as they happen and welcomes alumni to share their stories to be featured on the site.

Further reading