James Gillespie’s High School was founded in Bruntsfield Place in 1803 as a result of the legacy of James Gillespie, an Edinburgh tobacco merchant, and was administered by the Merchant Company of Edinburgh. The first class consisted of 65 students and one master. In 1870, the school moved into a larger building on the south side of what is now Gillespie Crescent. The number of students at the school would later exceed 1,000 and include female students.
In 1908, the Edinburgh School Board took responsibility for this school from the Merchant Company of Edinburgh Education Board.
In 1914, the school moved into the original Boroughmuir School building on Bruntsfield Links, which was previously used by Boroughmuir High School as an annex. The novelist Muriel Spark attended James Gillespie’s High School from 1923-1935. She based the main character of her 1961 novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ on one of her teachers, Christina Kay.
In 1935, Edinburgh Corporation acquired Bruntsfield House and its grounds from the Warrender family.
The construction of the school on Lauderdale Street began in 1964 and was completed in 1966. The school became a secondary school for 800 girls. The project added three teaching blocks, a separate library, a swimming pool, and a gymnasium to the original Bruntsfield House building.
In 1973, the school became a co-educational comprehensive school, taking in boys and girls.
In 1978, ownership of the school was taken over by Edinburgh District Council, and school uniforms became optional. At this time, the school also started to use an annex at 7 Gillespie Street to cope with the rising intake.
In 1989, the school moved to one site at the completion of an extensive building and modernization program. Prior to the move, the high school divided the student population into four ‘houses’ — Warrender, Roslin, Spylaw, and Gilmore. The houses would compete in intramural sports events, etc. The house system lasted into the early 1980s. Since then, buildings on the high school campus have adopted the house names along with the addition of a new name, Bruntsfield. Each of the building names reflects a connection to the name of a locality in, or a historic family from, South Edinburgh.
In 2007, improvements were made to the school buildings after a state inspection found significant deficiencies in several of the 1966 structures. There was a campaign to build a new school. Following consultation with parents, students, staff, and the wider community, building of a new school began on the existing site in December 2013. The estimated completion date was summer 2016.
In July 2013, work started to replace all of the school buildings apart from the Bruntsfield House, which is a listed building. The campus was completed in August 2016 and was officially opened by John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, on 26 October 2016. As of October 2016, it is composed of four buildings: the Bruntsfield House, the Malala Teaching Block, the Muriel Spark Performing Arts Building, and the Eric Liddell Sports Building.
In August 2017, following some re-organisation, the students were organised into one of five communities for the purposes of holistic support. These communities are named Lauder, Roslin, Spylaw, Thirlestane and Warrender.
An entertaining and comprehensive account of the school’s history was written by John Macleod and published in 2016 to mark the completion of the refurbishment of the new campus.