The Top Universities in Edinburgh

Photo: Marketing Edinburgh

In our overview of the leading universities in Edinburgh, Contributor kim Kerr provides (almost) everything you need to know about the top places of higher learning in Scotland’s capital city


While many are often surprised to learn that there are no less than six universities in Edinburgh, they shouldn’t be. Scotland’s capital city has long been a place where students from far and wide have gathered to improve themselves, learning skills as diverse as medicine to farming… and pretty much everything in between.

The first of these places of higher learning to open up shop was the University of Edinburgh. Established in 1582, it ranks as one the oldest universities in the world. Over the centuries, its alumni have left their mark in just about every profession, and include such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Darwin.

The city’s sixth university to open was a far more recent affair. Although only founded in 2012 with a focus on research related to environmental, rural, and land- based activity, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is set to have as big an impact on the city’s reputation for first-rate education as the already well-established universities in Edinburgh.

Whether you’re wanting to study at one of the top Edinburgh universities or are only looking to visit, this handy guide will give you the basics to get you started. From practical, meaningful information on points of interest and attractionswithin their grounds to opportunities for fun stays in student accommodations, from brief histories to links to relevant official websites, you’ll find it here.


The Top Universities in Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh universities graduation ceremony in historic venue
University of Edinburgh graduation ceremonies are held in historic McEwan Hall (Photo: Marketing Edinburgh)


One of the ‘Ancient Uiversities of Scotland’, the University of Edinburgh can trace its roots back to 1582 when it received its royal charter from King James VI. Today, not only is the university one of the largest in the UK, it’s also one of the most prestigious in Europe.

While many of the buildings you’ll see on campus were added after the 19th century, many important older structures remain. Of these, perhaps the best example is the School of Law on South Bridge road. Formerly known as the ‘Old College’, this magnificent structure was designed by Robert Adams in the late 1780s and was in fact the university’s first purpose built structure.

Another structure that should be seen is the stunning McEwan Hall. Financed for the university by politician and brewer by William McEwan in 1897, it serves as the graduation hall.

Other notable buildings include:

  • New College, built in the 1840s and home to the university’s Divinity faculty since the 1920s
  • St Cecilia’s Concert Hall, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built music venue (and the second oldest still in use in Britain)
  • Teviot Row House, the world’s oldest purpose built student union building
  • Mylne’s Court, a 17th century building used as University of Edinburgh accommodation, located on the Royal Mile

The Edinburgh University Library is also worth mentioning, and actually pre-dates the university. Established in 1580, it now holds more than two million items, from periodicals to printed works. While some volumes are spread across the departmental libraries, the bulk of its collection is held in the Main University Library.

While the university – known affectionately as ‘Edinburgh Uni’ by faculty, students, and alumni alike – made a name for itself initially in such fields as anatomy and surgery, it now offers education in a wide array of disciplines. Education and research is centred around its

three ‘Colleges’, which in turn boast 21’Schools’ between them: the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), Science and Engineering (SCE), and Medicine and Vet Medicine (MVM).

If you fancy walking in the footsteps of famous alumni such as Charles Darwin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, why not pay the University of Edinburgh a visit? While prospective students and their parents are welcome to attend special ‘Open Days’ to check it out, tourists are also welcome.

Self-guided walking tours come highly recommended, and will take in areas such as the museums and galleries that are usually open to the public. Those wishing to stay on campus can do so during the summer months, when student accommodations at Pollock Halls are made available to visitors to Edinburgh.

To learn more, visit the University of Edinburgh website at

Heriot-Watt University
Heriot Watt University with statue of founder
Heriot-Watt University offers accommodations for students and, in summer, tourists (Photo: Heriot-Watt University)


One of the world’s top-ranking universities, Heriot-Watt University came into being in 1966 after the former Edinburgh School of Arts, established in 1821, was granted university status. Named after George Heriot, a 16th century Edinburgh goldsmith, and James Watt, the famous 19th century engineer, this modern, well-regarded university, though it’s located on the outskirts of  Edinburgh is easily accessible by public transit. Smaller Heriot-Watt University campuses are located in Galashiels and Orkney in Scotland, as well as in Dubai and Malaysia.

Courses with strong reputations at Heriot-Watt University include electrical and materials engineering, languages, and architecture. In addition, the Edinburgh Business School has one of the largest MBA programmes in the world. Also of note is the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, the only department of its kind in the UK, with brewery and distillery plants on the Heriot-Watt campus… and an excellent reputation in the brewing world.

The International Centre for Island Technology in Orkney offers postgraduate courses in environmental science, while its e-learning programme is respected for its courses in sciences, maths, computing, and French. Well-known alumni include Scottish rugby’s Craig Joiner, Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh, and Muriel Spark, author of The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie.

While the main Heriot-Watt University Riccarton campus is close enough to Edinburgh to offer the city life for those who crave it, it’s far enough away to ensure a peaceful working environment for its students. On-campus drinking establishments include two bars and a club venue, and there’s also a well-equipped sports centre for student and faculty use. Accommodation is offered at Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton campus to all undergraduate and postgraduate students in their first year.

While students interested in enrollment here can arrange a tour of their campus of interest, the university’s Edinburgh location offers vacant student accommodations to tourists during the summer months. (You can learn more here.)

For more information on Heriot-Watt University, visit their website at


Edinburgh Napier University

Edinburgh universities Napier college at night with building lit up

Edinburgh Napier University is within an easy commute to the city centre (Photo: Marketing Edinburgh)


Founded in 1964 and granted university status in 1992, Edinburgh Napier University – named after mathematician John Napier, inventor of logarithms – features several campuses in the easily-accessible south-west corner of Edinburgh. Working in cooperation with its industry and business ties, the university’s teaching focus is aimed at ensuring it students are prepared  for success in an increasingly competitive job market. This is something it does with great success, claiming an average of  95% graduate employment (or further study) rate within just six months of graduation.

With more than 300 undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to choose from, Napier University’s students can benefit from a broad selection of further education opportunities. Popular disciplines for both post-grad and undergraduate study include the fields of business studies, architecture, engineering, and life sciences.

With nearly 16,000 student members, Napier University’s students’ association is extremely active in the areas of sports and culture, offering plenty of clubs and activities to choose from. Tours of the university’s three campuses are available for prospective students.

Those visiting Edinburgh during the summer months and in need of good-quality accommodations should consider Napier’s Bainfield Accommodations. This modern facility features a mix of studios and multi-bedroom self-catering flats (including eight- bedroom units), which are available from late June to late August.

To learn more about summer accommodations or general details of this dynamic university, visit their website at


Queen Margaret University

Edinburgh universities Queen Margaret college showing modern architecture in summer

Queen Margaret University has a proven track record in preparing students for careers (Photo: Marketing Edinburgh)

Founded in 1875, Queen Margaret University is located in Musselburgh and consists of three distinct campuses. This popular university offers degrees (taught and research) in a variety of fields, including healthcare, theatre arts, and cultural management, as well as communication and information. Business and management, along with science and social sciences, are also taught here.

With a focus very much on preparing students for careers, Queen Margaret University boasts a tremendous success rate when it comes to graduate employment. In fact, it’s one of the highest rates in the UK, with 96 per cent of graduates able to find employment (or entering further study) within six months of graduation.

Of the university’s nearly 6,400 students, around 10 per cent come from overseas, many of them drawn by its increasingly research-focused education opportunities. When not studying, Queen Margaret University offers a wide range of sports facilities, and activities, from swimming to squash, as well as a well-equipped fitness centre. There’s also an active student union which features a bar and catering facilities, and hosts frequent social and cultural events.

Looking for somewhere great to stay while vacationing in Edinburgh Scotland? Be sure to consider a stay at the university’s student residences. Offering easy access to Edinburgh Castle and other top attractions through great public transit connections, these bright, clean, and comfortable accommodations consist of single- or double bed suites, as well as spacious self-catering units with kitchens. Availability runs from early June to late August.

Learn more about the educational opportunities at this award-winning university on their website,


Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh
Edinburgh universities Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh copy
The Royal College of Surgeons is home to a number of fascinating public museums (Photo: The Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh)


The Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh (RCSEd) is perhaps one of the city’s most prestigious places of higher learning. Housed in an ionic building that looks like (and actually once served as) a temple, it was founded In 1505 and is not only an important place of education, but also a popular tourist attraction.

The big draw here for visitors is the Surgeons’ Hall Museums. Founded in 1699 and completely renovated in 2015, this collection of related museums have much to make you want to linger. A must-see is the Sir Jules Thorn Exhibition of the History of Surgery, which features displays and information related to the development of surgery (it’s located on the main floor). Upstairs, you’ll find a very informative exhibit related to modern surgical methods.

The Dental Museum is also worth seeing and contains a fascinating collection of tooth extraction tools, antique dentures, and hand drills. There’s also an interesting exhibit related to pathology.

 You can learn more about the Surgeons’ Halls Museums here.


Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)

SRUC graduates outside building celebrating

Scotland’s Rural College is the country’s newest university (Photo:SRUC)


Formerly known as the Scottish Agricultural College, an educational establishment that could trace its roots back to 1899, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC for short) was established in 2012 and is an innovative, knowledge-based organisation that supports the development of land-based industries and communities. It does this through its specialist research and development resources, its education and training provision, and its expert advisory and consultancy services.

The university’s work is wide ranging, with a particular emphasis on agriculture and related sciences, rural business development and management, food chain quality and safety, as well as rural resource and environmental management. Through its six campuses across Scotland, the university provides a unique mechanism for the transfer of knowledge and ideas that result from its own research and development activities, and from other expert sources.

While the SRUC doesn’t offer accommodations to visitors to Edinburgh, tourists visiting other parts of Scotland are very welcome to make use of their student accommodation at its other campuses. SRUC accommodations can be enjoyed in Aberdeen, Cumnock (near Ayr), Cupar in Fife,  and Tyndrum (near Crianlarich). If heading to the Highlands and fancy something a little different, consider staying in one of the ‘wigwams’ in  Strathfillan.

For more information, visit the SRUC website at




Contributor Kim Kerr is a native of Elgin in Scotland, and an accomplished freelance writer. 

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