The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 20, 2007

New Town Walk

A few weeks ago, smack in the beginning of the cold season that is habitual of the Scottish capital, the wife and I find ourselves at a crossroads. Edinburgh, that jewel of the North, is freezing our butts off, but having braved the cold to arrive there, we do not want to waste the opportunity to gawk at its wonders. So off we walk into the wind, armed with a pocket guidebook6, teeth chattering, eyes watering, the wife muttering and I fumbling with my camera.

Heading out of the Cloustons' lovely establishment on Cambridge Street, we decide to start our exploration of Edinburgh's grand New Town at a most exceptional building. At the intersection of Princes Street - the main drag in the city - and Lothian Road is the imposing red sandstone Caledonian Hotel, once owned by the Caledonian Railway Company, constructed at a time when Britain was criss-crossed by grand railroads whose owners strove to outdo each other by building signature hotels and termini. Today it is owned by the ubiquitous Hilton Hotels. In the late 19th century, it was a byword for Scottish sophistication, rivalling the Balmoral at the other end of Princes Street. [The image above to the left is reproduced with thanks to Peter Stubbs1.] A quaint mixture of Dutch baroque and Victorian design, this hotel has always been dearer to Scottish hearts than the Balmoral, which was built by the North British Rail Company, a competitor of the Caledonian company. The rivalry between the two operators was so bitter that they each built railways stations at either end of Princes Street; sadly, the Caledonian station was eventually found unviable and closed, and the NB company's Waverley became Edinburgh's main railhead. The Caledonian had a number of interesting features. For instance, the steam from the locomotives at the nearby railway station was recycled to power the hotel's hot water supply. Parts of the walls of the old booking office, and indeed the design of the old Princes Street station are now seen in the Chisholms restaurant of the hotel.

We cross over to the other side of Princes Street, and, bearing slightly left, walk up Hope Street to Charlotte Square, the western extremity of the first phase of the New Town. Edinburgh's Georgian architectural jewels were built over a period of about forty years, starting with a grand competition to design a new planned town in 1766 (won by James Craig, see here), finishing in 1805. The Craig plan (blueprints can be seen at the Huntly House Museum, now the Museum of Edinburgh) called for two squares (Charlotte and St. Andrew's) connected by three main thoroughfares (interspersed with green areas and public gardens) now called Queens Street, George Street and Princes Street. Encouraged by the success of the first phase, a second New New Town was begun around 1800 to the north of Craig's masterwork, and was completed around 1830.

The reason for the construction of the New Town is not far to seek. Mediaeval Edinburgh - the Old Town - was a warren of crowded, unhygienic and polluted streets, all hemmed into a walled city, overlooked by the brooding Castle. The burgeoning population meant that houses had to be converted into tenements, with even the rich (landlords) having to share their buildings with their inferiors. A grisly collapse of a particularly crowded tenement in the mid 1750s was the spur for the city fathers to cast about for solutions. While the great landowning families already had started building south of the walled city, it was felt necessary that a new planned township be constructed north of Old Town. Despite the potential demand, however, when an obscure 23-year old architect named James Craig won the competition for the design of this new residential township, incentives needed to be given to builders to get their acts together and actually begin to build.

Charlotte Square, named after the then King George III's wife, was the last completed part of Craig's plan. He originally had wanted churches at either end of the east-west thoroughfare (George Street), but at the eastern end, the landowner had already begun to construct a grandiose Palladian residence (of which, more below). So it was that there was only a church in Charlotte Square, built to the design of Robert Reid, which since 1971, is a public records office titled the West Register House. This has a lovely green dome, although against the setting sun and the overall grey overhanging the city that day, that loveliness needs to be imagined rather more than be seen.

We walk around Charlotte Square. Unlike the rest of New Town, as we eventually discover, there is a pleasing externally unified design to the buildings in this square. Everywhere else, the architecture is much more monotonous, peas-in-a-pod.
The disadvantage of the method of developing the New Town adopted by the City Council was that, with each house built separately, there was no overall control of the design process, and this resulted in monotonous and rather undistinguished street facades.2
The City Councillors, therefore, decided that a special effort should be made with Charlotte Square. Various architects provided their ideas, but it was the urban palace design (with frontages camouflaging the fact that behind them are independent houses) of Robert Adams that was finally accepted.

At the northern extremity of the square, we find the National Trust-run Georgian House, which I have described elsewhere. Rounding the square, we sneak into Young Street, one of the alleys around which was built lower-income housing, quite distinct from the great houses of Charlotte (and St. Andrew's) Square. Shopkeepers and skilled artisans made their lives here, as they did on Rose Street (now pedestrianised and filled with pub after pub). But now we have doubled back onto George Street, the heart of Craig's New Town, and one of the great thoroughfares of the world. It used to be the financial centre of Edinburgh (along with St. Andrew's Square) but today is a hip shopping street. We pass the former Bank of Scotland, Assembly Rooms, and the George Hotel (see right), and the remarkable oval church of St. Andrew and St George (an engraving9 shown here).

[The late 18th and early 19th centuries seem to have been a fermenting cauldron of architectural talent. The formidable Robert Adams2, considered the greatest Scottish architect ever, wielded his talents to stellar effect all around the New Town. The Register House, the unified design for Charlotte Square, the University of Edinburgh, and many more grand buildings sprang from his fertile creativity. Other architects of influence were Robert Reid (West Register House), David Kay (St Andrew's and St George's Church) and David Bryce3.]

At the eastern extremity of George Street, we arrive at the fulcrum of Scottish finance: St. Andrew's Square. An immense column, modelled on Trajan's in Rome, some hundred-and-fifty feet tall, supporting the statue of Henry Dundas, stands in the middle of the square, and was installed in 1823. This fellow was the supremo in 18th century Scotland, confidante of William Pitt, Prime Minister of Britain, and absolute dictator as he was called by Lord Cockburn. The graceful dwellings that once housed aristocrats are now offices of banks. As mentioned earlier, the Palladian building called Dundas House [picture above left by Robert and Erin] that disrupted Craig's plan of having churches at either end of George Street, is the registered head office of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Beside it, the mansion of the other great institution, the Bank of Scotland, sports six figures: Navigation, Commerce, Manufacture, Art, Science and Agriculture, the interests at the time of the British Linen Bank, who commissioned the building in 1846 [picture above right].

We do not go into the RBS office, and when we later hear that it has a stunning ceiling in turquoise blue and ivory colours with a skylight with star-shaped glass "window-lets"4, we will feel a minor twinge of regret. However, ignorance is bliss, and anyway I am not thinking kind thoughts of RBS owing to the ongoing takeover (and eventual obliteration) of ABN Amro, and we hotfoot it into West Register Street.

Here we pass by the General Register House, one of the oldest purpose-built civil registry offices in the world. Built to a design of Robert Adams (yup, him again) in 1786, it has Corinthian columns, a rotunda, a turret with a clock from Benjamin Vulliamy10, Clockmaker to the King, and - shrewd! he knew the niggardliness of the Scottish councillors funding the work - possibilities to extend and expand the edifice when funds became available and the need was perceived.

Coming out of West Register Street onto Princes Street, we see before us the awesome Balmoral Hotel, the flagship, the centrepoint, the acme of the ambitions of the North British Railway Company. Since I spent some time describing its great rival, the Caledonian, at the other end of Princes Street, I guess I should mention a tidbit or two about this one too. While not top-of-the-heap in Scottish affections, this hotel of golden sandstone has been called the Grand Old Lady of Princes Street, and its 195-foot tall clock-tower is considered a fine landmark in the city. It opened in 1902, a year ahead of its western competitor, and was renowned for its superb food and accommodation, private elevator would whisk guests directly from Waverley Station into the hotel, and even the fact that the chefs and the kitchen staff would only converse with each other in French. From the beginning itself, however, the hotel evoked discontent among the locals, its name considered a condescension to the proud Scots:
The term "North British" was a curious snobbery left over from the early days of the union which bound Scotland and England into a United Kingdom. The "best" families had headed notepaper marking their address at North Britain, not Scotland, and in choosing the name the railway company deliberately selected their clientele, seeing Edinburgh not just as a provincial capital but as the centre of a much larger world.5
We return to St Andrew's Square to begin our assault on the second phase of New Town. Encouraged by the success of James Craig's brilliant township, no fewer than three extensions were approved by the city fathers to handle the ever increasing stampede out of the walled city. To the north, the New New Town extended to Drummond Place; to the west, to Moray Place and Ainslie Place, and the Royal Circus. This time, elegant crescents and circles were added to the design, and with the idealism of the Enlightenment, the desire for nature and beauty was translated into large public gardens and open spaces.

From the north-east corner of the square, we head up Dublin Street, and pass the elaborate National Portrait Gallery at the corner with Queens Street. The first purpose-built portrait exhibition in the world, predating even the one in London, this building dates from 1889, built and funded by a local newspaper, the Scotsman. A grand neo-Gothic construction in red sandstone, its north and east sides sport famous Scots monarchs, statesmen and poets, while its entrance is guarded by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

On the left is Abercromby Place, named after General Sir Ralph Abercromby who gave up his blanket to a cold soldier as he lay dying himself at Aboukir Bay in the Napoleonic Wars. It was the first curved street in town and its construction drew astonished crowds. At No.3 a plaque commemorates Mary Stopes, pioneer of birth control.7

We turn right on Albany Street (named after the title of the Scottish King's second son, analogous to the English Duke of York) and left onto Broughton. Several theatres stood here a hundred and fifty years ago, many of which were destroyed by fire; these days there are cafes8 galore here and what look like printing presses, but we are now almost frozen solid, so we do not linger. A quick left onto London Street gets us to Drummond Place (designed by Robert Reid), where dwelt Sir Compton Mackenzie (the famed author of such works as The Monarch of the Glen) in numbers 31-32, which could barely accommodate his library of twelve-thousand books7. In Drummond Place is also the Scottish Catholic Archives, wherein are maintained the manuscripts from all the Catholic dioceses of Scotland.

A left turn onto Nelson Street followed by a quick right brings us onto Northumberland Street. As noted in the venerable Old and New Edinburgh9:
In the narrow and somewhat sombre thoroughfare named Northumberland Street have dwelt several people notable in their time.
Talk about damning the likes of the naval family Fairfax and the irrepressible Bishop Terrot with faint praise. About the Bishop, who resided at number 19, the following catty remark is made:
He was born at Cuddalore in the East Indies in 1790. For some reasons, though he had not distinguished himself at the Cambridge Tripos list of University honours, his own college (Trinity College) paid him the highest compliment in their power, by electing him a Fellow on the first occasion after he had taken his degree in mathematical honours...9
A mathematician! I suspect that qualification alone should forgive his relapse into theology soon after his doctorate.

A bit further along, we arrive at the intersection with Howe Street. A look along the right reveals St. Stephen's Church, which - for some reason - is always described as imposing, formidable, or even massive. I did not find it overly dominating, but that was possibly because I was standing slightly uphill of it, and at least a furlong away. This church was designed by W.H. Playfair, an architect I have not heard of till now, but evidently considered one of the finest in the 19th century, who took up in 1828 the challenge of building it on the slope down from Frederick and Howe Streets. The frontage of the church is ornate and elaborate, but the back of it is unadorned to save on costs.

We walk away from the church, up on Howe Street, and make a right onto Heriot Row, one of the finest streets of New Town. On this street, at number 17, Robert Louis Stevenson lived; naturally I have to take a picture. A snazzy car parks suddenly by me and two women, Russians evidently, get out of it with their kids. I grin at them engagingly. They take a look at my camera, at the building, at me, and their lips compress into a thin line. My grin falters. I guess this is their house. As soon as they go in, I take the picture and rush away to rejoin the wife . Despite the cold, I can feel a sharp hot pain in my back. I do not turn around. I am convinced it is the glares from the women cutting into my spine, concentrated looks of disdainful anger.

The Cloustons used to run a very successful B&B on Heriot Row before they moved to Cambridge Street. We look for the building housing their business, but are unable to find it. It is growing darker and ever colder. The wife is out of temper. I wanted to spend time with you relaxing, she says, glowering, not tramp around in the freezing weather. I promise to take her back to our warm room by the shortest route, which, coincidentally takes us through the bits of New Town we haven't seen as yet.

A brief look to the right at India Street reveals the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences at number 14. This is the birthplace of that genial genius, the first successful unified theorist, James Clerk Maxwell. I think about browsing around his old house, but the wife will reduce me to electromagnetic radiation with a single lash of her tongue, so I desist, and we turn, instead, towards the grand Moray Place.

This was the last and the grandest of the New Town developments, and the baby of the Earl (not eel) of Moray. The deficiencies of prior constructions in the neighbouring areas were quite evident (all straight lines and uniform design) and so began the great design of Ainslie, Moray and Royal circuses, built between 1820 and 1855. Moray Place was the glorious centrepiece: a huge 12-sided Roman Doric circus. Enough of its original appearance, right down to the cobbles and paving stones, has survived for it to be a favourite film location, standing in as a generic 'grand address' in any great Western European city during the early 19th century.7 (Check out David Farrer's lovely shot of the place.)

From Ainslie Place (named after Moray's second wife), we head back to Princes Street, and home.


1. Peter Stubbs, EdinPhoto: a veritable treasure trove of maps, historical photographs and engravings.
2. Julian Small, The Architecture of Robert Adam
3. The Architecture of David Bryce
4. Shefaly, La Vie Quotidienne, Things to do in Edinburgh
5. The Edinburgh Balmoral
6. Kerry Nelson, Edinburgh: 40 Town and Country Walks. Pocket Mountains Ltd. (2007).
7. Edinburgh Military Tattoo: A New Town Walk.
8. Broughton Street, Edinburgh.
9. James Grant, Old and New Edinburgh, vol IV, Chapter 27, Cassell, 1880.
10.Benjamin Vulliamy, clockmaker extraordinary. See an example of his craft here.


Anonymous said...

Overall, I found the blog to be very informative and contain a lot of interesting details.

There are just a couple of minor points that I'll mention.

- You refer to the 'Northern British Rail Company'. In fact the company's name was the North British Railway.

- You say 'till recently the Head Office of the Royal Bank of Scotland'
I believe that it is still officially the bank's Head Office, even though most of the staff are now located at the new RBS complex at Gogar near the Airport."

Fëanor said...

@Peter: thank you for your feedback, which I have incorporated in the article. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Feanor: The bank branch at 36 St Andrew Square is the registered office of RBS. The head office is now at Gogarburn where the post code given to them is EH12 1HQ. Since we are being specific... :-)

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: my head is spinning between registered office and head office - nary a clue what the difference is! Cheers for the update, though.

Anonymous said...

Feanor: Blame it on me, seriously.

A registered office is where Companies House sends all formal correspondence. It has to be a physical address and a PO box type address cannot be used. Many limited companies use their company secretary's or accountant's offices as registered offices while they themselves work from different premises, which may be their office or head office, and need not even be a physical place so a PO Box address would suffice.

Have I confused you enough? :-)

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