Built in around fifty years, Edinburgh’s New Town, part of the city’s World Heritage Site, is probably the largest expanse of Georgian architecture in the world

Edinburgh has an historic city center – and one with a dual character. One part of it is made up from the cramped medieval Old Town, where even new modern buildings have to be crammed into small spaces and forced upwards like the seventeenth-century versions of skyscrapers which preceded them. The other is the elegant and spacious New Town with its wide streets, stunning views and carefully-designed frontages.

In 1995 the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh were jointly declared a World Heritage Site. According to UNESCOthe dual face of an old city dominated by a medieval fortress and a new neo-classical city whose development from the 18th century onwards exerted a far-reaching influence on European urban planning. The harmonious juxtaposition of these two highly contrasting historic areas, each containing many buildings of great significance, is what gives the city its unique character.

The New Town is more than just an assemblage of stone and mortar. The Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland identifies it as the largest Georgian City development in the world, covering around one square mile and containing over 11,000 listed buildings– a fact that is all the more astonishing given the fact that it was built from scratch over a period of little more than fifty years.

George Drummond and His Vision for a New Town

The idea for a northward expansion of Edinburgh was the vision of George Drummond, a colorful character who was six times the city’s Lord Provost (Mayor). He saw that development of the Old Town was constricted by the Nor’ Loch, a stinking body of water which lay immediately to the north and was used largely for disposal of sewerage. The city itself was becoming increasingly cramped and overcrowded.

Drummond envisaged draining the Nor’ Loch to form a park and constructing an entire New Town on the largely uninhabited land to the north. In 1759 the loch was drained (resulting in what we know today as Princes Street Gardens) and four years later Drummond himself laid the foundation stone for the North Bridge, which would connect the Old Town with its planned new neighbor.

The New Town – Design and Construction

Drummond never lived to see his dream become reality. He died in 1766, the year before the city launched a design competition for the new town. The winner was James Craig, only twenty-two years old at the time. His design was simple and classical, involving a rectangle with three main streets running east-west (Princes Street, George Street, and Queen Street) with subsidiary streets running north-south and two large and impressive squares, one at either end.

Work on the new project began immediately, involving many other notable architects and engineers – including Robert Adam, who designed the frontages of Charlotte Square. (Thomas Telford, later to become world famous, worked there as a stonemason). The New Town was an immediate success. The well-to-do citizens moved out of the cramped old town into the more fashionable and spacious addresses of the new and many of the great and the good of the city lived there.

So successful was it that further proposals were put in place for an extension of the project and a second part of the New Town was laid out in 1802, a little way down the hill to the north. In this area, the straight lines were replaced with graceful curves, evident today in such localities as Royal Circus, Moray Place, and others.

Building continued in order to sustain the continued expansion of the city. There was a further extension to the east (Calton Hill), although this (and other areas) is more Victorian than Georgian in character. Generally speaking, different authorities agree that the New Town as we see it today was complete by around 1830.

The New Town Today

The original concept of the New Town was that it should be a residential area, and while the second phase retains much of this character (despite the conversion of many properties to offices and flats) the original core of the New Town now functions as the city center’s main retail area.

Today, much of the unity of Princes Street and George Street has been lost by the construction (over more than a century) of new buildings and shop fronts. Many of the old buildings remain, however, and the modern visitor need only to raise their eyes above the first floor to see them. Many period details remain, as well as plaques identifying the many famous people – including David Hume, Earl Haig, and Alexander Graham Bell – who lived there.

To see the New Town as it was intended, take a walk in the northern extension – or visit Charlotte Square, where the frontages are still complete and some idea of the original character can be gained despite the traffic. Most notably, the National Trust for Scotland maintains a townhouse on the north side of the square – The Georgian House – which is open to visitors.

Sources and Further Reading

Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland

Edinburgh: The Story of a City EF Catford