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Riddle’s Court: the venerable Edinburgh townhouse that became a hotbed of fringe talent

Front of Riddle's Court and the Seton Room
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Recently reopened after painstaking restoration, Riddle’s Court has had many guises in its 400-year history, from grand residence to 19th-century slum, before becoming a thriving fringe venue. Nick Smurthwaite investigates…

Performers booked into one of Edinburgh’s oldest venues this year may well find themselves in competition with the building itself. Riddle’s Court, a stunning 16th-century merchant’s house on Lawnmarket, recently reopened after a three-year, £6 million restoration undertaken by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust.

Its extraordinary 400-year history has been a rollercoaster ride of aristocratic residence, slum dwelling, performance venue, library, craft market and most recently, learning centre and tourist attraction.

This year, for the first time, it has been taken over for the duration of the festival by the production wing of the Pauline Quirke Academy, Q Productions, which is presenting a mixture of comedy and drama in its three key performance spaces.

The story of Riddle’s Court can be traced to 1587 when the prosperous Edinburgh businessman Baillie John McMorran commissioned a smart townhouse a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Castle, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. He used existing buildings to create “a great tenement”, as he described it, providing a sequence of state and private chambers, fit for visiting dignitaries.

A great banquet attended by James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark in 1598 was held in the high-status chamber in the north-west wing, famed for its highly decorated ceiling, depicting the symbols of Scottish monarchy and the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. James was canvassing support from the great and the good before making a bid for the throne of England.

The ceiling of the King’s Room, as it became known, was uncovered by a conservation team in the 1960s when the building first came into the ownership of the City of Edinburgh, which turned it into a centre for community education classes.

Riddle’s Court has an association with the fringe dating back to the late 1940s

According to Russell Clegg, of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, Riddle’s Court is aptly named because “it is a riddle that has been unravelled through the profound excavation into its walls, floors and ceilings”. He adds that the restoration of Riddle’s Court has proved to be “the greatest ever intervention into its labyrinth of rooms and corridors”.

Revelations include painted beams in an access space adjoining the King’s Room, where the 1598 banquet was held, and a secret 16th-century fireplace concealing a well-preserved bread oven and salt press, probably used to prepare of food for the royal banquet.

Since it reopened last year, Riddle’s Court has been named the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning after the influential 19th-century philanthropist, town planner and polymath who was closely associated with the building. During Edinburgh’s expansion in the 1880s, the neglected old town went into decline. Riddle’s Court virtually became an overcrowded and insanitary slum.

The forward-thinking Geddes, appalled by these living conditions, intervened to rehouse many of the poor families to other parts of the city, as well as acting to preserve the fabric of the building and reconfigure the area to make it more conducive to healthy living.

Now Riddle’s Court will honour his memory as an educational centre, specialising in town planning, environmental matters, botany and other disciplines Geddes excelled in. It is also available for private functions, craft fairs, presentations, receptions and meetings. And, of course, shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Riddle’s Court was also a fringe venue before its restoration

Riddle’s Court has an association with the festival dating back to the early days of the fringe in the late 1940s, when the building was being used as a library and a venue for the Workers’ Education Association. One of the earliest visiting companies was the Oxford Revue, which featured a very young Maggie Smith, already a star in the making in 1954.

A couple of decades later Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson made early appearances there, also in a university revue.

Not being a building designed for performance, it has to be adapted to the needs of visiting companies and performers. There are three key areas for performance – the library, the Patrick Geddes Room and the Seton Room, all of which can be reconfigured according to the needs of the production.

Q Productions’ 2018 line-up includes a revival of Jonathan Lewis’ award-winning play Our Boys, directed by the author. Among other shows are the musical revue Closer Than Ever, a play about TV presenter Bill Grundy’s ill-fated encounter with the Sex Pistols in 1976, and stand-up comedy from 18-year-old Andrew White.

The purpose of restoring Riddle’s Court was not only to conserve a beautiful historic property, retaining all the hidden gems within, but also to improve public access and modernise its facilities for future generations.

As marketing manager Roger Ashworth says: “We’re not merely about preserving the past, we’re also about enriching the future.”

See Riddle’s Court’s website for further details

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