George Heriot is acknowledged as founder of the now co-educational Edinburgh Public School which bears his name. However, arguably, there is no longer common knowledge of exactly who Heriot was or of his achievements during the 16th and 17th centuries.
For more than three centuries, the family Heriot occupied lands at Trabroun, near Gladsmuir in East Lothian â€“ property originally granted to John Heriot circa 1423 by the Earl of Douglas. George Heriotâ€™s father â€“ also George â€“ was undoubtedly born at Trabroun, but some doubt exists as to whether George enjoyed the same privilege. At the relevant time, Heriot Snr. was an already established Edinburgh jeweller and goldsmith, so the alternative suggestion that George was actually born in the City on 15 June 1563 may well be correct.
George Heriot enjoyed a good Edinburgh education, while his father continued to prosper both in wealth and social standing. Heriot Snr. was also an Edinburgh Burgess and his name appears often on the Rolls of the old Scottish Parliament as a commissioner for the City.
On completion of his education, young George trained as a goldsmith with his father. In 1586 he married Christian Marjoriebanks, the daughter of another Edinburgh Burgess, Simon Marjoriebanks. Heriot Snr. now considered his son fit to enter into business on his own and granted George 1500 Scots Merks â€“ then worth about Â£80 sterling â€“ to obtain and fit out a shop. That was not a shop in the contemporary sense but ane buth or booth located near St. Giles Cathedral. He obtained a further 1075 Merks â€“ a dowry of sorts â€“ on his marriage to Christian. It appears that, from the initiation of his own business venture, as was often the custom with goldsmiths, Heriot became a moneylender and his 1075 Merks dowry was lent out at the going interest of ten per cent.
Georgeâ€™s Edinburgh business thrived and, on 28 May 1588, he was admitted a member of the Incorporation of Edinburgh Goldsmiths. The Scots Privy Council records of January 1594 refers to him as George Heriot the Younger, Deacon Convenor of the incorporated trades of Edinburgh. Just over a year later, in July 1597, King James VI appointed Heriot â€™goldsmith for lifeâ€™ to his wife, the former Anne of Denmark, then in 1599 Heriot became jeweller to the King.
These Royal appointments were however something of a double edged sword. They were supposed to attract substantial salaries, but the extent to which they were paid is at best contentious. Although the Royal association undoubtedly assisted Heriotâ€™s business, it seems he soon became primarily a moneylender to the King and his Queen. Records show him advancing large sums to James and Queen Anne, who, when pressed for repayment, could not do so and instead gave Heriot jewels which he had in turn to sell in order to retrieve his capital. The consistently impecunious royals did however, while it was their main residence, grant Heriot free use of an apartment within Holyrood Palace.
When King James went to London in 1603 to become James I, Heriot and his wife followed, and his royal connection continued. He also transferred his main business to London where it experienced rapid expansion.
Christian Heriot died in London in 1608, without apparently having given birth to any children. Heriot later returned to Edinburgh where he remarried on 24 August 1609 to Alison Primrose, eldest daughter of James Primrose of Carrington, grandfather to the first Lord Rosebery. At the time of that marriage Queen Anne owed Heriot the then very considerable sum of Â£18,000 â€™ for jewels etc.,â€™ – a sum that was still outstanding when Alison Heriot died in 1613 after only four years of marriage.
Heriot’s business continued to expand and, by 1620, he owned a large London house at Saint Martins in the Fields and a country estate at Rosehampton. He was an extremely wealthy widower, with no children from either marriage, when he died in London on 12 February 1624 and was buried at St. Martins eight days later.
Strangely, given his wealth, his Will had only been written some two months earlier on 10 December 1623. That Testament made provision for two daughters, born out of wedlock in London, with some bequests to other relatives, all of which amounted to Â£6826, but the bulk of his estate was made over to the â€˜Provost, Bailiffs and Ordinary Council for the time beingâ€™ of the town of Edinburgh for founding and erecting an hospital for the maintenance, relief and education of so many poor, fatherless boys and freemanâ€™s sons of the town. If those boys later chose a learned profession, they were to be sent to University for four years with an annual allowance of thirty pounds.
If instead, the boys later entered an apprenticeship, then they were to receive ten pounds per annum for the duration of that apprenticeship.
The foundation stone of that hospital, which is now George Heriotâ€™s co-educational public school, was laid on 1st July 1628 and it was eventually ready for use by 1650 â€“ at an estimated overall cost of Â£27,000. That same year it was commandeered by Cromwell for use as a military hospital. It was not until the Protectorâ€™s death in 1659 that the hospital was finally returned to the Heriot Trustees, with the first thirty boys being admitted on 11 April of that year.
The entire project was run by Trustees, the first of whom were drawn from town councillors and established church ministers. Governing regulations â€“ some of which to an extent still persist today â€“ were drawn up by Heriotâ€™s friend, Walter Balcanquhall, D.D. Dean of Rochester, who had also delivered an eulogy at Heriotâ€™s funeral.
The, perhaps disrespectful, pseudonym â€œJinglinâ€™ Geordieâ€ was allegedly accorded to Heriot by King James, in reference to his jeweller and moneylenderâ€™s eventual great wealth, but it is much more likely to have derived through Sir Walter Scottâ€™s adoption of a character like Heriot in his Fortunes of Nigel.