Edinburgh's New Town

March 28, 2022

Edinburgh New Town: the Athens of the North

Edinburgh’s New Town, rich in cultural and architectural significance, is filled with quiet green spaces, elegant squares, spacious streets and evocative memories of people and times long gone. 

Today this wonderful Georgian space, this “Athens of the North,” once frequented by Edinburgh’s literati, scientific thinkers, and celebrated men and women of the arts, is filled with historic houses, galleries, independent retailers and restaurants. There’s even a New Town whisky tour, and staying on that subject, Diageo’s new Johnnie Walker visitor attraction is due to open on Princes Street in the summer of 2021. With all of this and more it is without doubt a glorious place to explore.

But to understand and appreciate the New Town of Edinburgh, visitors to the city must first understand a little of the history of the Old Town of Edinburgh particularly during the 17th and part of the 18th century. It was a time when the city’s growing population, rich and poor, was tightly packed in appalling conditions within the city walls. 

These terrible years were marked, not just in Edinburgh but throughout Scotland, by periods of severe famine and the near bankruptcy of the country following the failure of the disastrous Darian expedition. The further uncertainty caused by the Union of Parliaments in 1707, and the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 only added to the social and economic woes of Scotland’s capital city.

Collapse of tenement building in the Old Town

The events of 1751, when a six-storey building crashed to the ground, by no means an unusual occurrence, marked a turning point which could not be ignored by the city fathers. 

A pamphlet written the following year by Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto – Proposals for carrying on certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh – argued that unhealthy Old Town conditions would lead to a loss of business and an increasing number of the intellectual and political elite leaving the city. 

Essentially Elliot also proposed the building of a New Town connected to the existing centre of population by a bridge. The subsequent construction of the North Bridge happened between 1763 and 1772. There was also the matter of draining the Nor’ Loch, a stinking open sewer long associated with all manner of nefarious activities. You might well imagine what was found when the water was eventually drained.

The founder of modern Edinburgh

While Elliot’s intervention was important, the influence and determination of Lord Provost George Drummond, often considered the “founder of modern Edinburgh,” was paramount to the success of what was, in the 18th century, a project of gargantuan proportions.

In March 1766, the town council announced a competition for the overall design of the New Town. The winner was the almost unknown architect James Craig who produced a plan – a classic grid pattern – based on, “order and regularity.”  The plan was subscribed, “To His Sacred Majesty King George III. The Magnificent Patron of Every Polite and Liberal Art.”

Construction, of what was essentially a series of new towns, began in 1767 and continued until around 1890. Among the architects who played their part were the renowned John and Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers and William Playfair.

With spacious homes sited on broad streets – in stark contrast to the towering tenement buildings and dark menacing wynds that citizens of ‘Auld Reekie’ were used to – Craig’s plans promised a new more comfortable life for those who could afford it. 

Writing in the hugely informative and entertaining Traditions of Edinburgh (1825) Robert Chambers noted:

“The foundation was at length laid of that revolution which has ended in making Edinburgh a kind of double city—first, an ancient and picturesque hill-built one, occupied chiefly by the humbler classes; and second, an elegant modern one, of much regularity of aspect, and possessed almost as exclusively by the more refined portion of society.”

As work progressed, builders removed around two million cartloads of rubble from the excavations, forming an earthen mound now known simply as the Mound, today home to all manner of notable buildings.

A view to Calton Hill

From the top of the Mound the view stretches east to Calton Hill and its wonderfully eccentric monuments – the incomplete National Monument inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, the Nelson Monument built to commemorate the death of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, the City Observatory, styled on a Greek Temple and others too. 

Below are the Princes Street Gardens, the site of the aforementioned, now filled in, Nor’ Loch, today a favourite spot for locals and visitors to sit and watch the world go by.

In the centre of the gardens, an area peppered with monuments and memorials, is the Gothic ‘rocket’ that is the Scott Monument, the world’s largest monument to a writer. Carvings of characters from Sir Walter’s novels decorate the exterior.

While you do need a head for heights in order to negotiate the narrow winding stairs, all 287 of them, the spectacular view from the top is ample reward.

New Town street names

In a sign that Edinburgh was at ease with Great Britain and the Union, a mere two decades after the final Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, even the street names displayed what Professor Richard Rodger of the University of Edinburgh called, “A deference shown by Craig and Edinburgh Town Council to the Hanoverian succession…" 

George Street was named after George III, Fredrick Street after the king’s second son, Cumberland Street after the Duke of Cumberland – the ‘butcher’ of the Battle of Culloden. More modest Thistle Street and Rose Street brought the emblems of Scotland and England together, and India Street and Jamaica Streets allowed a British Empire connection.

Heriot Row took its name from George Heriot – ‘Jingling Geordie’ – goldsmith, jeweller and moneylender to James VI and Queen Anne – a lady with very extravagant tastes.

Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment

UNESCO called the New Town a, “major centre of thought and learning in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, with its close cultural and political links with Europe.” 

It was a ‘Golden Age’ when men like economist Adam Smith, philosopher David Hume, chemist Joseph Black and others challenged the prevailing thinking on philosophy, science, art, literature and other areas of inquiry.

But in saying this it would be only right and proper to include Glasgow, Aberdeen, and other parts of Scotland as Enlightenment centres of discussion and learning.

The eminent French philosopher Voltaire said, “We look to Scotland for all ideas of civilisation.”

Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square

In 1791, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh commissioned Robert Adam, one of Scotland’s greatest architects, to design a new square – one “that was not much ornamented but with an elegant simplicity.” 

Charlotte Square was Robert Adam’s most notable achievement – his crowning glory. “The whole concept had, “a thrilling swagger to it… even the chimney stacks have a dignified air…” said Edinburgh World Heritage.

Although when Adam died in 1792, the work remained unfinished and took more than two decades to complete. The result was almost as the architect intended, with only the Robert Reid designed St George’s Church, a reinterpretation of the original design. Today the building, renamed West Register House, holds some of the National Records of Scotland.

At number 6 Charlotte Square is Bute House the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

Next door at number 7, what’s now known as the Georgian House was originally built for John Lamont, chief of the Clan Lamont. The house is now one of the most popular visitor attractions in the city, today administered by the National Trust for Scotland.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Charlotte Square Gardens is the setting for the International Book Festival, founded in 1983. For three weeks every August the gardens are transformed into a tented village where literary enthusiasts from around the world mingle with distinguished authors and poets, a reminder perhaps that Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Heriot Row

Only a few minutes leisurely stroll from Charlotte Square is Heriot Row, today as much a sought after address as it was in 1857 when the sickly Robert Louis Stevenson moved in with his family to number 17. 

Is it possible that a view of nearby Queen Street Gardens, which, he could see from his bedroom window, was the inspiration for Treasure Island? We may never be sure about that but we do know that the young Stevenson was afraid of the dark and that the gas lamps, still to be seen on Heriot Row, gave him some comfort.

Many years later he wrote the Lamplighter a short poem about his childhood fears. This is the final verse:

“For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!”

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

It’s sometimes said that the very nature of the city – the dark and foreboding Old Town and the more salubrious New Town was the inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the ultimate tale of split personalities.

Applauding the city’s unique dichotomy, UNESCO awarded Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, World Heritage Status in 1995.