History of The Playfair at Donaldson's

Donaldson’s was designed by the eminent Edinburgh architect William Henry Playfair and was built between 1842-51. It was built as a hospital for the instruction of children in accordance with the terms laid out in the will of James Donaldson.


James Donaldson died in 1830 and in his will bequeathed “all his property, heritable and personal … to build and found a hospital for boys and girls, to be called Donaldson’s Hospital…” The will also listed the trustees named to carry out his bequest.


In 1833 about 17 acres of the Lands of Coates, was acquired from the Governors of Heriot’s, as a site for Donaldson’s Hospital. Donaldson’s trustees invited plans for the design of the Hospital, however it was not until 1838 that William Henry Playfair was appointed as architect having produced four schemes for the trust. Playfair’s first design for the hospital was a two storey and attic, H-plan building, with symmetrically planned back and front courts. Variants of this twin cloistered approach were developed in the second and third schemes, however by the time the successful fourth scheme was submitted, Playfair had abandoned this approach in favour of a two storey, quadrangular palace block with double ranges of dormitories.


The plans underwent further revision at the request of the trustees and the sixth scheme, in which the ranges were reduced to a single width, was finally approved in 1841. The building is planned around a central quadrangle, with single width ranges surrounding it, and is of two storeys with attic rather than the originally proposed three. At ground floor, projecting from the North, is the chapel. As with all previous designs, girls and boys were segregated, with boys inhabiting the west of the building, and girls the east. Whilst the exterior of the building is palatial in style, the interior was designed in a much more austere way. Playfair undertook specific interior schemes only for the key public areas such as the entrance hall, dining room and council room.

Playfair was also responsible for the design of the setting for the building. The original intention was for a central avenue focused on the southern elevation, and the provision of two pavilion buildings to the east and west. However this was altered under the direction of the trustees and the present arrangement of an east and west entrance was adopted.


The building was opened in 1850 by Queen Victoria. It was rumoured at the time that she was so impressed that she offered to swap Holyrood Palace for Donaldson’s. The school admitted its first pupils in 1851, and later specialised in teaching deaf children. Very little in the way of internal and even less external alteration took place after 1850. In a report to the House Committee in 1852 it was noted that only two alterations to Playfair’s building had been required after occupation. The first was the mode of heating the bath water and the second, the alteration of the doors that led into the quadrangle. 


Up until 1894 all gas lighting would simply have been in the form of an open flame and in 1869 a gas burner with a reflector was placed at the top of the stairs down to the Chapel – the only lighting in this part of the building. In 1894 the first experiments were made with the use of an incandescent mantle which increased the amount of light and reduced gas consumption. By 1909 the whole building was lit by gas. But this was the last hurrah for the gas company as the decision was taken by the end of the same month to install electricity throughout.  


The glass was largely destroyed by a bomb dropped from a Zepplin in 1916 which exploded some way away from the building and thus did little other damage. One fragment of the surviving glass was re-sited in the building but in fact three of the panels survived the explosion and the whereabouts of the other two is unknown.  In 1919, James Ballantine, presumably a relative of the original craftsman, eventually replaced the glass, on a much more modest scale. 


Plans for a complete revamp of the hospital were made in 1938: ‘in connection with the building of new classrooms to the north west of Donaldson’s Hospital and the reconstruction of the hospital itself to equip it as a purely residential school for deaf mute children’.  Due to the war these alterations were not carried out and in 1941 the plans were stored with the Bank of Scotland for safekeeping until after hostilities. During the Second World War the school was used to house both German and Italian prisoners-of-war and evidence of their existence can still be found. 


It is a testament to the far-sightedness of the Board of Governors of Donaldson’s Hospital that no substantial building of any kind (with the exception of the greenhouse) was permitted in the grounds of Playfair’s building until 1956.   


The school was renamed Donaldson’s College, reflecting its role in supporting the deaf of all ages. Then in 2007Donaldson’s moved to a purpose-built school in Linlithgow, more suited to modern educational needs. 


The site was purchased by City & Country.