The name of the headquarters is derived from its original location on Great Scotland Yard, a street within Whitehall. The origin of the name is unknown. It has been suggested that the site was once used as a diplomatic mission owned by the kings of Scotland, prior to the 1707 Union of England and Scotland; or that the street was owned by a man called Scott during the Middle Ages; or that stagecoaches bound for Scotland once departed from the street.
By the 17th century the street had become a site of government buildings, with the architects Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren living there. From 1649–1651, the poet John Milton lived there during the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell's rule.
The Metropolitan Police was formed by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel with the implementation of the Metropolitan Police Act, passed by Parliament in 1829. Sir Robert Peel selected the original Scotland Yard for the new police headquarters, with the help of Eugène-François Vidocq. By 1829 the building was occupied by police, housing the first two Commissioners, Sir Charles Rowan and Sir Richard Mayne. The two Commissioners, along with various police officers and staff, occupied 4 Whitehall Place with one entrance being used as a police station, leading to the headquarters being known as "Scotland Yard" after its address.
Over time the service outgrew its headquarters site, and new headquarters were built on the Victoria Embankment, overlooking the River Thames, south of what is now known as the Ministry of Defence HQ. In 1888, during construction, workers discovered the dismembered torso of a female, believed to have been a victim of the Whitechapel murders perpetrated by "Jack the Ripper"; the case has never been solved. In 1890 construction police headquarters moved to the new location, which was named New Scotland Yard. By this time, the Metropolitan Police had grown from its initial 1,000 officers to about 13,000 and needed more administrative staff and a bigger headquarters. Further increases in the size and responsibilities of the force required even more administrators, and in 1907 and 1940, New Scotland Yard was extended further. This complex is now a grade I listed building.
By the 1960s the requirements of modern technology and further increases in the size of the force meant that it had outgrown its Victoria Embankment headquarters. In 1967 New Scotland Yard moved to the present building at 10 Broadway, which was an existing office block acquired under a long-term lease; the first New Scotland Yard is now called the Norman Shaw (North) building, part of which is used as the headquarters for the Metropolitan Police's Territorial Policing department.
Scotland Yard's telephone number was originally Whitehall 1212, which became famous. Most London area police stations and Scotland Yard itself still have 1212 as their last four digits.
The original building at Scotland Yard was taken over by the British Army after the Metropolitan Police moved out. Rebuilt, it became an Army recruitment office and Royal Military Police headquarters, complete with cells in the basement. It was bombed by the Provisional IRA in 1973, killing one person. It subsequently became the Ministry of Defence Library until 2004. The only surviving element of the original Scotland Yard is the Metropolitan Police stables next door, at 7 Great Scotland Yard.
The Metropolitan Police's crime database is housed at New Scotland Yard. This uses a national IT system developed for major crime enquiries by all UK forces, called Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, more commonly referred to by its acronym, HOLMES (which recognises the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes). The training program is called "Elementary", after Holmes's well-known phrase "elementary, my dear Watson".
A number of security measures were added to the exterior of New Scotland Yard during the 2000s, including concrete barriers in front of ground-level windows as a countermeasure against car bombing, a concrete wall around the entrance to the building, and a covered walkway from the street to the entrance into the building. Armed officers from the Diplomatic Protection Group patrol the exterior of the building along with security staff.
The Metropolitan Police senior management team, who oversee the service, is based at New Scotland Yard.
On 30 May 1884, during the Fenian bombing campaign of 1883 to 1885, an anonymous letter was sent threatening to bomb Scotland Yard and all other government buildings in Central London. On the night of 30 May an explosive device was placed on a urinal outside Scotland Yard, and later detonated causing severe damage to the CID and Special Irish Branch offices. Later the same night another bomb exploded outside a club in what used to be Sir Watkin Wynn's house, and another was found placed at Nelson's Column.
Agatha Christie's fictional Scotland Yard officers: