James Gillespie (1726 – 1797) was an Edinburgh character through and through. Born into modest circumstances his success in the snuff and tobacco industry, which he shared with his brother John, meant that in 1759 he was sufficiently wealthy to rent Spylaw House and its estate on the fringe of Edinburgh. As Laird of Spylaw and one of Edinburgh’s richest men, Mr Gillespie was a well known figure in the Edinburgh of Burns, Hume, Ferguson, Ramsay and Smith, the Edinburgh of the Scottish Enlightenment. Mr Gillespie was a lifelong adherent of the Church of Scotland and a staunch supporter of the reformed faith, a loyal subject of the British state and an implacable opponent of Jacobitism.
In spite of his position of wealth and privilege, the bachelor Mr Gillespie led a thrifty and pragmatic life, shunning pretentiousness and ostentation and sitting down to eat with his servants each evening. “Waste not, want not” was his favourite saying.
Hard work and self reliance coupled with a concern for the less fortunate in society were what he believed in. Prior to his death in 1797 at the age of seventy one, he instructed that his estate be used to found a hospital for poor people and a school for the poor boys.
The first James Gillespie’s School was opened in 1803 and sixty poor boys enrolled to be taught by one schoolmaster. Over the years that followed the school went through a great many changes, being accommodated in several buildings, but always expanding and establishing itself as one of the best known schools in Edinburgh. By the mid twentieth century the school for poor boys had changed into James Gillespie’s High School for Girls and the author Muriel Spark is perhaps its most distinguished former pupil.
In 1975 James Gillespie’s High School for Girls became a state comprehensive school run by the local authority and at this time the primary department, which also took boys, separated from the High School and became James Gillespie’s Primary School. The building in which the school is currently housed was completed in 1991.
What Mr Gillespie would have thought of the school as it is today can only be imagined. Surely he would have been surprised to think that the school he founded so many years ago would endure to celebrate its two hundredth anniversary and move forward to the future as a well established and well loved institution of this ancient city.