George Heriot lived from June 1563 to 12 February 1624. He was a successful goldsmith whose dealings with James VI and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, helped Heriot amass a considerable fortune, which on his death he left to good causes in his native city of Edinburgh. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Heriot was the oldest of ten children of a notable Edinburgh goldsmith, also called George Heriot. He followed his father into the family business and in 1586, at the age of 23, married Christian Marjoribanks, the daughter of a prominent Edinburgh businessman. Her dowry and a gift from his father allowed Heriot to set up business on his own account, and to dabble in moneylending. Two years later, on 28 May 1588, he became a member of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, and in 1597 he was appointed by James VI to be goldsmith to the Queen, Anne of Denmark.
In 1601, Heriot also became goldsmith to James VI. Heriot's dealings with Scotland's royal family brought him great wealth. It has been estimated that in the decade up to 1603, Anne of Denmark spent £50,000 on jewellery, much of it with George Heriot. By 1599 this had made him wealthy enough to act as moneylender to James VI (who in part needed the money to pay for his wife's spending, much of it with Heriot), and to much of the Scottish nobility.
When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 and moved the Royal Court to London, George Heriot followed, taking full advantage of the wider market for his jewellery and his loans offered by his new location. For his services to the King, Heriot was awarded a share of all duties on sugar imports.
George Heriot's first wife died some time before 1609, when he remarried, to Alison Primrose, the daughter of James Primrose, clerk to the Scottish Privy Council. She in turn died in 1612.
Heriot himself died in 1624. It is thought that he had two sons by his first wife, but they are recorded as having drowned in 1603. This possibly occurred while they were en route between Edinburgh and London: and it is possible that their mother died at the same time. At the time of his death, therefore, Heriot had no legitimate heirs, though part of his fortune was left to two women who were assumed to be illegitimate daughters.
The bulk of his remaining wealth, £23,625 (worth several tens of millions of pounds in today's terms) was left to:
"the provost, bailiffs, ministers, and ordinary council, for the time being, of the said town of Edinburgh, for and towards the founding and erecting of an hospital within the said town of Edinburgh, in perpetuity; and for and towards purchasing of certain lands in perpetuity to belong unto the said hospital, to be employed for the maintenance, relief, bringing up, and education of so many poor fatherless boys, freeman’s sons of the town of Edinburgh, as the means which I give, and the yearly value of the lands purchased by the provost, bailiffs, ministers, and council of the said town shall amount, or come to."
What became known as George Heriot's Hospital was founded on land immediately outside the city walls to the south of Edinburgh Castle and close to Greyfriars Kirk and completed just in time to be requisitioned by Cromwell's troops for use as a barracks. It finally opened as a school in 1659. It has since become known as George Heriot's School and today caters for fee-paying pupils as well as orphans.
Meanwhile, Heriot had formed the basis of a character in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Fortunes of Nigel, and this had helped cement the nickname given to him by the Royal Court in London: "Jingling Geordie." The activities of George Heriot's School in Edinburgh also led to the establishment of a community college. In 1885 this merged with the The Watt Institution and School of Arts to become Heriot-Watt College. In 1966 this became Heriot-Watt University.
Today, Heriot is remembered in the name of the school and the university; in the names of several Edinburgh streets; and in the name of a pub on Edinburgh's famous Fleshmarket Close, The Jingling Geordie.