Martyrs Public School

M105 Martyrs Public School

Address: Parson Street, Glasgow G4 0PX
Date: 1895–7
Client: School Board of Glasgow
Authorship: Authorship category 1 (Mackintosh) (Mackintosh)

Colour view of N. front of Martyrs' School

Origins and setting

John Honeyman & Keppie's building replaced an earlier Martyrs School situated just to the S., built c. 1859 for the Rev. Norman Macleod (1812–72), minister of the Barony Parish and a great educator. 1 The name commemorates the Church of Scotland Covenanters executed for their beliefs at the Townhead in 1684. With accommodation for only 472 pupils, the old school had become overcrowded by 1895. The new school occupies the site of its playground, and is entered from the S. side of Parson Street (where, coincidentally, Mackintosh was born in 1868). Its setting was radically transformed in the second half of the 20th century, first by the demolition of tenements in the surrounding streets, then by major excavations in the 1980s for an access road to the M8 motorway. This new road obliterated Barony Street, which had defined the E. side of the site, and removed most of the school's playground.


John Honeyman & Keppie were already engaged on a large addition to Dovehill School for The School Board of Glasgow when they were awarded the Martyrs commission. As with the later Scotland Street Public School, they appear to have been appointed without taking part in any competition. They were notified in January 1895 that they were to design 'a new school in Barony Street to accommodate say from 900 to 1000 scholars', their fee being 3% of the overall cost. 2 The tendering process and the appointment of contractors seem to have been handled by the School Board, the architects simply being informed of the Board's decisions. 3


Unlike Scotland Street with its spine corridors, Martyrs has a centralised plan more typical of Glasgow Board schools. The hall surrounded by classrooms on all four sides results in a squarish, compact building. W., S. and E. wings form a U-shaped block, but the N. wing is distinct, shorter than the S. wing, and with its own hipped roof. Projecting slightly in the angles between it and the W. and E. wings are separate staircases for girls and boys, each with its own entrance. A third entrance for infants and girls is in the centre of the S. side. The stairs are distinguished by big, round-arched, mullioned-and-transomed windows at second-floor level, and by roofs with deep eaves on elongated, close-set timber brackets, separated from the adjoining classroom roofs by shallow strips of coping. These contrast with the cornices of the classroom blocks, and look forward to the similar eaves on the N. front of the Glasgow School of Art. With their asymmetrically arranged windows, the W. and E. elevations look disjointed, but this would have been less disturbing before the demolition of neighbouring buildings opened up views that were unintended by the architects.

Colour view of N. front of Martyrs' SchoolColour view of Martyrs' School from the S. E.Colour view of staircase window of Martyrs' School

The 1906 rules of the Scotch Education Department specified that the cills of classroom windows should be no more than four feet above the floor. 4 At Martyrs, however, some ten years earlier, the classroom windows are not only too high for a child to see out, but also above the eye-level of most adults. From the outside, the difference between the high cills in the classrooms and the much lower cills in the teachers' rooms is conspicuous. A small number of classroom windows on the W. side have lower cills, presumably because neighbouring buildings, since demolished, made the view from here less distracting. Most of the windows are multi-pane sashes, but those on the stairs have small square leaded lights.

This is a relatively plain building, in keeping with the budgetary constraints of the School Board of Glasgow. The external walls of red Ballochmyle freestone are snecked and stugged, with smooth ashlar dressings. Some decorative details are mildly baroque, such as the banded architraves which frame many of the windows, and the curved pediments above the second-floor windows on the N. front. The distinctive lintels above the girls' and boys' entrances resemble the top-floor windows of John Honeyman & Keppie's near-contemporary Glasgow Herald buildings in Mitchell Street, and the first-floor windows of Queen Margaret's College Anatomical Department, buildings which can be largely ascribed to Mackintosh. Their sinuous mouldings seem to be adapted from such late-medieval or 17th-century examples as the flattened ogee doorway of the 1636 Skelmorlie Aisle at Largs, Ayrshire, sketched by Mackintosh in May 1890. 5

Colour view of windows on E. front of Martyrs' SchoolColour view of N. E. entrance of Martyrs' SchoolColour photograph of sketch by Mackintosh of the Skelmorlie Aisle, Largs, 7 May 1890

Other details derived from Scottish medieval and Renaissance sources are the relieving arches above many of the windows, the mullioned two-light openings that ventilate the basement, and the chunky, widely-spaced balusters of the boundary wall. W. S. Moyes, a contemporary of Mackintosh in John Honeyman & Keppie's office, thought the balusters might have been influenced by Stirling Castle, but a closer parallel is with the balustrade of 17th-century Cowane's Hospital in Stirling, of which Mackintosh made a sketch. 6 Another possible source is the Lion and Unicorn stair of 1690 from the Old College in Glasgow's High Street, not far from Martyrs, which was relocated to Glasgow University's new building at Gilmorehill in 1872.

Colour view of basement vent at Martyrs' SchoolColour view of balustrade at Martyrs' School Photograph of balustrade, Cowane's Hospital, StirlingColour view of Lion and Unicorn Stair balustrade

Besides these historically derived details there are a number of more idiosyncratic features: the enormously elongated consoles flanking the doors, ending in bulbous, lobed shapes; the concave ends of some of the deep, bracketed window cills that die into the surrounding masonry; the highly distinctive top of the square boiler flue, with brackets projecting diagonally at the angles (some now broken); and the domed tempietti that enclose the roof-top ventilators.

Colour view of console detail, Martyrs' SchoolColour view of window details on N. front of Martyrs' School


Despite conversion from their original use, the main interior spaces are essentially unaltered. The plan is symmetrical about the top-lit central hall, which rises through all three storeys, surrounded by balustraded landings. What were originally ground-floor classrooms open directly off the hall, those on the upper floors off the landings. Former cloakrooms and lavatories (for hand-washing) adjoin the infants' entrance and the bottom of both stairs. On each floor, what was originally a teachers' room opens directly off the stairs, divided from the landing by a lobby and a round-arched, glazed screen.

Computer assisted drawing of ground-floor planColour view of Hall and light well, Martyrs' School

Much of the basement was given over to the heating system, the location of the furnace room in the S.E. corner being indicated externally by the tall, square chimney. According to the architects' drawings, air was warmed by 'heating coils', then distributed by an 'air propeller' through a series of ducts embedded in the walls, with outlets in each room. The drawings show a 'Kitchen' in the S.W. corner of the basement. This was presumably the room referred to by John Honeyman & Keppie when they reported to the School Board on 20 January 1896 that 'the cookery room, with stair down to same and retaining wall are now completed'. 7

The most distinctive features of the interior are the open timber roofs over the two staircases and the central hall. The trusses of the hall roof rest on oddly shaped corbels, and their central uprights have curious lobed swellings near the top – similar to the consoles on either side of the girls' and boys' entrances. Where the rafters meet the wall, they appear to rest on pairs of brackets, which read as the ends of beams projecting through the wall from the neighbouring classrooms and stairwells. In fact, the brackets have no structural significance and are purely ornamental, as was revealed when the plaster was stripped from the wall during repairs c. 1992. 8 These brackets, and the use of pegs both here and on the trusses, carry echoes of traditional Japanese timber construction.

Colour view of Hall roof at Martyrs' SchoolColour view of Hall roof brackets, Martyrs' SchoolColour view of Hall roof corbel, Martyrs' School

The closely-spaced trusses over the stairs are even more unusual, forming a cat's cradle of long, thin timbers in which it is again unclear if the various elements are performing a mechanical or an aesthetic function. Here, the upright members are pairs of thin, flat timbers, clasping the tie beams to which they are attached by wooden pegs, and extending below them, where they are pierced by inverted heart motifs.

Colour view of roof structure of N.W. stair, Martyrs' SchoolColour view of trusses above N.W. stair, Martyrs' School

The complex illusionism of the hall roof timbers contrasts with the frank use of steel beams to support the floors. Structural steelwork is used throughout, but is seen most clearly around the central light well, where the concrete landings are carried on large I-beams, bolted together at the corners, with smaller I-beams laid on top at right angles. Prominent T-beams carry the stone stairs.

Colour view of light well on first floor of Martyrs' SchoolColour view of steelwork of N.E. stair, Martyrs' SchoolColour view of balcony ironwork, Martyrs' School

The internal brick walls are plastered and tiled to dado height on the stairs and landings. The tiling is mostly cream, with a green border. The light-well railings at first- and second-floor level are buttressed by elegant swan-neck supports in the form of elongated wrought-iron leaves. Attached to the I-beams at their bases, they swell out into the light well before curving in again to join the railings just below the handrail.

Critical reception

Mackintosh's perspective drawing was exhibited at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1896 (325), and illustrated in the Building News and Academy Architecture, along with a ground-floor plan. 9 The perspective emphasises the building's Scottish historical character – the snecked masonry, the relieving arches, the wall-mounted sundial (which, however, does not appear to have existed) – even placing it in a spurious 17th-century setting, next to a house with a round stair tower and a lintel dated 1653. The art critic of the Glasgow Herald thought the drawing 'very mannered', and dismissed the school as 'having little pretension to architectural effect', but thought it 'quite suitable for its purpose.' 10 The Builder reproduced the drawing again in 1898, and described the school more sympathetically as 'an effective and characteristic group by Messrs Honeyman & Keppie'. 11

Later history

Martyrs was given statutory protection as a listed building in December 1970. The threat of demolition in 1973–4, for a road scheme, galvanised opposition, not least from the newly-founded Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, a pressure group established to raise awareness of the Mackintosh legacy and campaign for its preservation. 12 A long-awaited external refurbishment was undertaken c. 1987, and in 1996 work began on converting the building into a conservation centre for Glasgow Museums. 13

A report on the condition of Martyrs Public School was produced as part of the Mackintosh Buildings Survey, led by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and carried out between 2015 and 2016. 14



1: Glasgow Herald, 8 October 1859, p. 2.

2: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow School Board, Property Department letter book, D-ED 1/1/12/14, letter from G. W. Alexander to John Honeyman & Keppie, 18 January 1895, p. 294.

3: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow School Board Property Department letter book, D-ED 1/1/12/14, letter to John Honeyman & Keppie, 31 October 1895, p. 989; Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow School Board Property Department letter book, D-ED 1/1/12/15, letter from G. W. Alexander to John Honeyman & Keppie, 18 November 1896, p. 666.

4: Felix Clay, Modern School Buildings: Elementary and Secondary, London: B. T. Batsford, 2nd edn, 1906, p. 548.

5: Dublin, National Library of Ireland: Mackintosh sketchbook, PD 2009 TX, p. 24.

6: University of Toronto, Robarts Library: Letter from W. S. Moyes to Thomas Howarth, 29 April 1947, B96-0028/017 (13); Dublin: National Library of Ireland, Mackintosh sketchbook, PD 2011 TX, p. 30.

7: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow School Board minutes, D-ED 1/1/1, 20 January 1896.

8: David Brett, C. R. Mackintosh: The Poetics of Workmanship, London: Reaktion, 1992, pp. 83–4.

9: Building News, 71, 31 July 1896, p. 147; Academy Architecture, 9, 1896, p. 80; p. 85.

10: Glasgow Herald, 7 March 1896, p. 7.

11: 'The Architecture of our Large Provincial Towns: XVI, Glasgow', Builder, 75, 9 July 1898, pp. 21–34.

12: Architect's Journal, 158, 19 September 1973, p. 648; Architect's Journal, 159, 20 March 1974, p. 602; Alison Harris, 'A Report on the present and future condition of the remaining buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh', unpublished Dip. Arch. dissertation, Glasgow School of Art, 1976.

13: 'Martyrs Public School', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 46, Summer 1987, p. 12; 'Martyrs Public School', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 71, Spring 1997, p. 8.

14: A copy of the report (MBS10) is held by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, Mackintosh Queen's Cross, 870 Garscube Road, Glasgow G20 7EL. The Mackintosh Buildings Survey was funded by The Monument Trust.