George Watson was born in Edinburgh on 23 November 1654. After a long career as an accountant, a merchant banker and an investor, during which time he was appointed the first accountant of the newly formed Bank of Scotland, he died on 3 April 1723. Although the precise location of his grave is unknown, a memorial plaque to him can be found in Greyfriars Churchyard.
In his will he left money with the aim of providing academic excellence and the creation of an environment where young minds hungry for knowledge could flourish. He was determined that children from less advantaged backgrounds should be able to enjoy the quality of education available to those more fortunate. As a result, George Watson's Hospital opened in 1741 the first of four buildings to bear his name and which over the centuries have prepared many thousands of young people for their lives, in Edinburgh, throughout Scotland and around the world.
It is now clear that George Watson was involved in financing at least one ship which almost certainly took part in the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people. It seems likely that he was also involved in the voyages of similar ships over a number of years at the end of the seventeenth century and in the early eighteenth century. This fact, along with other aspects of his business practices, raise important and troubling questions about George Watson and the way in which we have traditionally venerated his memory.
The school is currently engaging in a process of research, discussion and deliberation about the history of George Watson, involving pupils, parents, former pupils, staff and academic specialists. The process is intended to lead to a fuller understanding of George Watson, what he means to all who are associated today with the institution that bears his name and how we should acknowledge him and his legacy now and in the future.
In July 1870 the Merchant Company was granted powers by Parliament to reform all the “hospitals” under its management, and, along with the other Merchant Company Schools, George Watson's Hospital was remodelled into a day school, George Watson’s Boys’ College. George Watson’s Ladies’ College was founded in 1871 as a sister school and educated girls and young women for over a century before merging with the Boys’ College to form a single co-educational school at Colinton Road.
The legacy of George Watson continues today, through the George Watson's Family Foundation, which raises funds for bursary support, enabling more young people to achieve their full potential.