This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Creation of Edinburgh's New Town

Medieval Edinburgh grew up around the defensive strong-point of Castle Rock and the long 'tail' of moraine stretching north-eastwards to Holyrood Abbey which became known as the Royal Mile. This area was eminently suitable for building upon, but it was surrounded by lochs and marshes that were not. The result was that its buildings expanded vertically as the town grew, with the dominant style being blocks of flats or 'tenements' as they tend to be known in Scotland, sometimes seven stories high. By the eighteenth century Edinburgh's growing reputation as the modern, progressive City of Enlightenment was strangely at odds with living conditions in the town. The ancient tottering tenements leaned over dark lanes or 'closes' which rarely saw the light of day; overcrowding and squalor was everywhere. Rich, middling and poor citizens lived cheek by jowl, and Edinburgh's rapid but piecemeal growth and restricted area had led to problems with human sewage in the streets and closes, and the emergent middle class were so unhappy with this environment that there were signs of a 'brain drain' in favour of other cities.

Faced with these problems, Lord Provost George Drummond decided that a scheme of expansion could not be delayed. First proposed in 1752, the intention was to create a new and spacious cityscape of wide, symmetrical streets, terraced town-houses and open green spaces. Drummond purchased for the City Council extensive lands a little way to the north of the city which were deemed suitable for building. Blocking access to these lands was a stagnant, heavily polluted pool known as the Nor' Loch, occupying the area now under Princes Street Gardens, and he caused works to begin to drain this in 1759. Crossing points over this area were created; the North Bridge in 1772, and excavated material from the New Town was heaped up into an 'Earthen Mound' which would in time carry a road connecting the upper High Street with Hanover Street. Drummond invited plans for the new suburb by means of a competition, held in January 1766. The winning design was a major surprise; twenty-six year old James Craig, an Edinburgh journeyman mason who had never studied architecture, won the prize. Craig's plan is typical of the classical aspirations of the period, a grid pattern of streets with right-angled intersections, inspired by the urban planning of Hippodamus of Miletus in the 5th century BC. In the Georgian period Edinburgh was utterly besotted by the classical achievements of ancient Greece, and Craig's plan fitted the Council's aspirations for the city like a glove.

The scheme in its original form is utterly simple, and consisted only of the plan, not of the architecture. The principal east-west thoroughfare was to be George Street, with Queen Street parallel to the north and St Giles Street to the south. The names for the streets reflect Provost Drummond's support for both the political  Union and the Hanoverian monarchy; St George's Square in the west was balanced by that of St Andrew in the east, and the minor east-west streets were Thistle Street and Rose Street. Intersecting these and running north-south were Castle Street, Frederick Street, and Hanover Street. When he saw the plans King George III rejected the name of St Giles as unsuitable (the district of that name in London had an unenviable reputation) and Princes Street was chosen instead. St George's Square was also renamed Charlotte Square to avoid confusion with George Square elsewhere in the town. 

Craig had proposed that George Street be terminated by two large churches, situated within each square.Sir Lawrence Dundas, the landowner, decided to build his own home here, and commissioned a design from Sir William Chambers. The resulting Palladian mansion, completed in 1774, is now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland. St Andrews Church had to be built on a site on George Street. The lack of a visual termination at the end of this street was remedied in 1823 with William Burn's monument to Henry Dundas.The first New Town was completed in 1800, with the construction of Charlotte Square. This was built to a design by Robert Adam, and was the only architecturally unified section of the New Town. Adam also produced a design for St. George's Church, although his design was superseded by that of Robert Reid. The building, now known as West Register House, now houses part of the National Archives of Scotland. The North side of Charlotte Square features Bute House, now the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

The New Town was planned purely as a residential suburb for Edinburgh's wealthier citizens; a few shops were thought advisable to cater for local needs, but no more. This first phase of construction ended in 1800, with the completion of Charlotte Square. The illustration below dates from 1789 and shows Edinburgh's Old Town distant on the left and the ordered new streets of the New Town to the distant right. Connecting the two, in centre left, is the North Bridge. Below the Castle in the centre distance is the Earthen Mound.

After 1800, the success of the first New Town led to grander schemes. Four further extensions to the New Town have been described. The 'Northern New Town' aimed to extend Edinburgh from the North of Queen Street Gardens all the way to the Water of Leith, with extensions to the East and West. These developments took place mostly between 1800-1830. Initial designs followed the original grid orientation of Craig’s First New Town, with entire streets being built as one construction. Building continued on an extended Hanover Street, here named Dundas Street, almost one kilometre to the Water of Leith at Canonmills. Broad streets and grand squares were laid out to either side. The Picardy Place extension (including Broughton Street, Union Street and East London Street) was mostly finished by 1809. To the West of the original New Town, Shandwick Place, an extension of Princes Street, was started in 1805. Development of Melville Street and the area North of Shandwick Place followed in 1825. The Gayfield Estate (Gayfield Square) extension was designed in 1807 and from around 1813 the New Town gradually replaced and developed the older village of Stockbridge. The painter Henry Raeburn bought the Deanhough estate in the Northwest of the New Town and started development in 1813 with Anne Street named after his wife. In 1822 the Earl of Moray, had plans drawn up to develop his estates (including Moray Place) also in the Northwest of the New Town sloping down to the Water of Leith. Below; Register House.

In order to extend the New Town eastwards, the Lord Provost, Sir John Marjoribanks, succeeded in getting the elegant Regent Bridge built. It was completed in 1819. The bridge spanned a deep ravine with narrow inconvenient streets and made access to Calton Hill much easier and agreeable from Princes Street. Edinburgh Town Council organised a competition for plans to develop the Eastern New Town but the result was inconclusive. Eventually designs by the Architect William Henry Playfair were used to develop Calton Hill and Edinburgh’s Eastern New Town from 1820 onwards. Playfair’s designs were intended to create a New Town even more magnificent than Craig's. Regent Terrace, Calton Terrace and Royal Terrace were built but the developments to the North of London Road were never fully completed. On the South side of Calton hill various monuments were erected as well as the Royal High School in Greek revival style.

Originally intended purely as a residential suburb, the New Town became in time Edinburgh's most important commercial centre. George Street has long been the centre of Scotland's financial sector, and Princes Street one of the most famous retail thoroughfares in the world.

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