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Interesting Facts About Edinburgh: The History of the New Town.

I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde, a former Edinburgh Tour Guide and resident of the city.

George Street in the New Town

George Street in the New Town

The 'New' Town of Edinburgh is so-called as it reflects the comparative origins of its construction in the 18th Century. It was christened the New Town in relation to the Old Town of the city which was, and still is, situated high up upon the ancient volcanic debris around the famous Royal Mile.

The cramped, overcrowded and diseased-ridden streets, wynds and closes of the historic quarter had out-lived their time for the higher classes who would desert the Old Town in their droves leaving it to the working-class poor to inhabit. New domestic and business lives were being created by the migration down from the slopes

The older part of the city was described as "Piled deep and massy, close and high" by Sir Walter Scott, the author of historical novels such as 'Rob Roy' and 'Ivanhoe' and who once lived in the New Town at a property in North Castle Street in the early 19th century. .

Sketch of the cityscape of the Old Town

Sketch of the cityscape of the Old Town

Into another world

On those new streets, constructed between 1767 and 1890, it would have seemed like another world of splendour, space and luxury as the New Town was specifically built with people in mind. Quality of life with enjoyment of property and garden was the watchword, light years from the pressure cooker of the medieval 'skyscrapers' of tenement life.

That quality of design and construction was so enduring that in 1995 Edinburgh New Town (along with the long-rehabilitated Old Town) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site especially as, in the words of the United Nations;

"the high quality of the architecture, set standards for Scotland and beyond, and exerted a major influence on the development of urban architecture and town planning throughout Europe."

The driving force behind the creation of the New Town was Lord Provost George Drummond. In Scotland this position is similar to that of a Lord Mayor except it is an appointment with no election taking place. Drummond had dreamed of the project of a brand new sector of the city since 1725 and had campaigned for its realisation.

However the 'Proposals' were not published until 1752 and yet another 14 years elapsed before a competition was opened to choose the design. Unfortunately George Drummond died in 1766 and never witnessed his vision fulfilled.

James Craig's plan for Edinburgh

The competition was won by an unknown architect called James Craig who at the precocious age of only 23 years old gained overnight fame. Craig's plan was classic and grand with a grid-iron collection of streets, squares and lanes.

A programme of "simplicity and manliness of style" according to Victorian writer John Ruskin. The layout would have the main streets parallel to each other in a symmetrical design flanked on either side by two sumptuous civic squares, St Andrews Square and Charlotte Square.

James Craig's plan for the New Town

James Craig's plan for the New Town

The street names symbolised the Union of the Parliaments dating from 1707 when England and Scotland were joined politically, economically but also culturally. In fact Craig had originally submitted a street plan based on the Union Flag. Although lauded for its imagination and celebration of all things British, it was rejected.

The authorities were very practically-minded and pointed out that the sharp corners of the cartographic flag would make life difficult for horse-drawn carriages to negotiate. Therefore Craig literally went back to the drawing board and came up with a less patriotic endeavour, although the tribute to the Union was not lost as the street names testify.

An aerial view with Arthur's Seat on the top left.

An aerial view with Arthur's Seat on the top left.

Inducing a hesitant population

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It may seems surprising now that initially there was great reluctance to transfer to the New Town. The first person to relocate was a Mr John Young. He had a home built in Thistle Court and actually needed the incentive of a £20 award to encourage his move.

Another new resident was a merchant named John Neale who was granted an exemption from the city rates in 1769 when he set up in the first house in Princes Street. So people actually had to be offered inducements to leave their old neighbourhoods and venture north into this new world of Georgian magnificence.

As an antidote to the problems that developed in the Old Town the City Council laid down very strict rules about how the new houses should be built. As well as wider streets and common gardens, it was decided the none of the houses could exceed 3-floors in height.

Failure to comply with this edict could incur a £30 fine and so that is why the buildings today have that conformity of style and size. The exception is modern day Princes St which has undergone many transformations and contains a variety of old and modern architecture. There are only four original mansion buildings recognisable from the 1760's behind the commercial exteriors of Princes St.

A typical terrace row of Georgian mansions.

A typical terrace row of Georgian mansions.

The changing faces and facades of George Street

George Street has also changed through the years, although to a lesser extent perhaps than Princes Street. It also began as mainly residential housing before the likes of banks and insurance companies started appearing on the street.

But in modern times it has become dominated by up-market shopping plus leisure pursuits with many bars, restaurants and night clubs opening up. Although nearby Rose Street is still the place to be for the grape and the grain with a variety of food dishes in between.

Nevertheless there still remains some splendid historical buildings in George Street such as The George Hotel, The Assembly Rooms, The Royal Society of Edinburgh building, Freemason’s Hall and the Church of St Andrew’s and St George’s.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh building.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh building.

Elsewhere around the New Town the avoidance of that £30 penalty is there to see today, albeit with some modern shop-front additions. Although the houses were built individually and with slight differences in adornments the integrity and continuity of the streets was maintained.

However, the elaborations, such as the luxury of an artistically-designed balcony or an extra front door may betray sinister secrets of the ugly side of business in the late 18th, early 19th century.

The extra embellishments afforded to many residents were financed by the 'Compensation List', a government-backed scheme to recompense owners for their 'lost property' caused by the gradual emancipation of their slaves in the colonies and elsewhere. The list included 320 Edinburgh properties belonging to 148 owners.

The historical integrity of Queen Street endures.

In the long thoroughfare of Queen St especially, you can enjoy the terraced perspective for almost a mile along its length. Almost unbroken by modernity and commercialism and always a delight to the eye.

A spectacular exception to the uniformity is the neo-gothic building of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, opened in 1889 and wrapped in red sandstone which glows in the sunset rays streaming down the road from the west.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

This diversion aside, Queen Street retains a strong flavour of the original tastes of the Edinburgh Town Council. Here we see the three floor height restriction imposed on the different architects. However, a basement and an attic were not included in the ban and therefore we actually see five floors and consequently many dormer windows projecting from the roofs.

Social stratification carved in stone

However there is more variation when we look at the vertical construction of each individual building. With few exceptions the floors exhibit a progressive change in style, ornament and splendour which betray not only their motivations but also their expense. They also reveal the social mores and class distinctions which prevailed in the upper echelons of late 18th century Edinburgh.

As you peer down from above you will see that the basement areas are marked by their ragged, rusticated stonework which is rough and undisciplined in its make up. These would be the servants quarters and therefore a working area and residential part of the mansion for the lower classes.

Consequently there is little in the way of artistry or indulgence in the shaded world beneath the pavement level. Expense was the prime consideration and the walls remain stolid and unremarkable.

A rough-hewn basement wall.

A rough-hewn basement wall.

The main walls of the building on the other hand were often made of polished ashlar stone with many adornments such as engravings, pilasters and even statues according to the whims and the deep pockets of the wealthy owners.

On another darker note these have become artisan monuments to the dead as many stonemasons have thought to have succumbed to silicosis after being exposed to dust during the carving and sculpting of the décor of the New Town. In particular after the elaborate chiselling required for the neo-gothic intricacy of the Scott Monument, which has stood in Princes Street since 1844.

Branching outwards through the 18th and 19th centuries

The second stage of the New Town took place in the early 1800's. It was more residential and therefore much more homely in style. The downward slope of the hill heading north away from George Street gave tremendous views of the River Forth and the hills of the county of Fife beyond.

The whole development was mainly under the leadership of Robert Reid and William Sibbald. Reid had been the assistant to the late Robert Adam and was the Master of the King's Works in Scotland. Sibbald's responsibility was as the Superintendent of Works in Edinburgh.

Construction spread east and west also into the Victorian era with the architecture of the eastern side largely departing from the Georgian style. The western side now has the uniform grey enlivened by the multi-colours of international flags as many embassies and consulates are based there.

Included in the new constructions was Abercrombie Place, named after the famous 18th century Scottish Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby. It was a sensation in its day simply because it was built with a curvature.

Unremarkable nowadays but back in the early 19th century the accepted wisdom was that the houses must stretch in a straight line. People honestly believed that Abercrombie Place would crumble and fall under its own design.

Abercrombie Place

Abercrombie Place

Heriot Row is nearby to Abercrombie Place and is nicknamed 'Millionaires Row' as even a 3-bedroom flat may set you back a cool half million pounds. On top of that is the almost £500 charge each year for use of the private park opposite.

Desirable residences indeed and homes to the famous members of the Edinburgh literati of the golden years of penmanship and wondrous story-telling. John Buchan, writer of 'The 39 Steps' lived at No.6 Heriot Row and none other than Robert Louis Stevenson who lived at No.17, which was the family home, when he was a child and a young man. He was the author of such timeless classics as 'Treasure Island', 'Kidnapped' and 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.

However, in an iconoclastic mood Stevenson famously described the area as consisting of "draughty parallelograms" expertly conveying the eastern winds through the streets to drive them into chilly bones. A young man of frail health, Stevenson eventually abandoned his treacherous home-town for the warmer Pacific climes of Western Samoa.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

The currency of business and pleasure

But it wasn't just the wintry gales that stormed through the New Town. As an urban child of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, cash flowed freely among the residents. The local economy prospered through public investment as the financial sector grew enormously with banks and other businesses enriching and developing thus making Edinburgh one of the leading centres of finance in Europe.

As still it is today since Edinburgh remains an important finance and business sector in the world of money. Although many large-scale financial offices have opened up state of the art premises in the west end and on the outskirts of the city, the New Town still retains the power of the pound.

And multiple other currencies too as testified by the many tourists who visit the city from all around the world to walk on the Georgian stone or pass through on open-top tour buses. Indeed thousands will flock there every year in August during the Edinburgh International Festival. Probably the biggest cultural event of its kind when even the New Town gaily throws itself into the party.

For at least that month the mathematical and architectural precision of the Georgian landscape of the new Athenia loosens up for a little bohemian fun and frolics to let the artistes run the show.

Street performance in Castle St during the Edinburgh Festival.

Street performance in Castle St during the Edinburgh Festival.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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