An old New Town

An old New Town, Edinburgh, Scotland (A)

This tour passes the major architectural and historical sites in Edinburgh’s New Town, while explaining the history and urgent need for its creation in the late 18th century. With some lesser known anecdotes intertwined with the remarkable history of Edinburgh’s city center, the tour takes you from the height of Edinburgh castle, into the streets of New Town and ends with panoramic views of the city and beyond, from the top of Calton Hill.
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Sights Featured in This Article

Guide Name: An old New Town
Guide Location: Scotland » Edinburgh
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 1.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.2 Km or 2.6 Miles
Author: lisa pettersson
Author Bio: I was born in Sweden 1976 but moved to the UK in 1995 and have remained here since. I have with my husband Mike, from Wales, also spent nearly 3 years in Asia: traveling, working and writing. We are currently based in Edinburgh, where I work as an artist and graphic designer, and also write occasional travel related articles. We both still enjoy traveling and spend much of our free time abroad.
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Edinburgh Castle
  • The Mound
  • The National Gallery of Scotland
  • The Royal Scottish Academy
  • Princes Street
  • Princes Street gardens
  • Charlotte Square
  • George Street
  • St Andrew Square
  • The National Portrait Gallery
  • Scott Monument
  • Calton Hill
Edinburgh Castle

1) Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh’s Old Town and the castle by which you stand dates back to medieval times. In the 17th century however the Old Town had become so overcrowded and filled with crime, filth and disease that something drastic needed to be done to release pressure on the city and convince its wealthier inhabitants not to abandon Scotland all together.

A ‘New Town’ was proposed by King James VII at the end of the 17th century. It was the age of the Scottish enlightenment and the city needed architecture and buildings to reflect this. Thus 26 year old James Craig was appointed with the enormous task of planning and designing the farmland area north of the existing city, the result often being referred to as a masterpiece of city planning.

The rich subsequently moved north, into the splendid Georgian residencies of New Town, leaving the poor in Old Town.

Here at the very top of the city, on the castle esplanade, you should, unless that famous Scottish ‘haar’ has rolled in, have terrific views over the city and be able to get an idea of the medieval architecture surrounding the castle here in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and the contrasting Georgian buildings and straight streets of New Town as you look north.

You will have a chance to appreciate Edinburgh’s skyline again later, as we end our tour on Carlton Hill, which you can see northeast from here. Firstly though, we will take the steep decent from the castle to the piece of artificial land below which joins the Old and the New Town, called The Mound.
The Mound

2) The Mound

As the foundations and planning of the New Town started to take shape, crossings were needed over the cesspit which today is unrecognisable as the lush Princes Street gardens. To the east of where you stand you can see the pale blue North Bridge, a first version of which was in place by 1772. But a tailor who lived in the Old Town found himself with clients in New Town before the bridge was completed, and in order to service them he began to lay down rocks and planks to step on. The crossing was briefly called ‘Georgie Boyd’s mud brig’ after him.

As the building of New Town progressed around 1.5 million cartloads of earth and rubble were dumped here and by 1830 the area had taken on the somewhat more substantial proportions of today, and became referred to as The Mound.

The Mound hosts some of Edinburgh’s most important buildings. In front of you are the buildings of the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, to the east is the headquarters of the Bank of Scotland, and the blackened spires behind you sit on the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland.

On each side of he Mound Princes Street gardens cut the city in two, dividing south from north and old from new.
The National Gallery of Scotland

3) The National Gallery of Scotland

You are stood between the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy, both designed in neo classical style by renowned Scottish architect William Henry Playfair. The design is a great example of Scottish enlightenment architecture, and the idea of Edinburgh becoming a ‘modern Athens’. Thus when Prince Albert laid the foundation stone to the national gallery in 1850 he envisioned it becoming a ‘Temple to the Arts’.

The gallery became so popular as a place to record and indulge in Scottish achievements, both artistic and historic, that in 1889 the Scottish National Portrait gallery was opened to host some of the excess work.

Since 1984 The National Galleries of Scotland also include the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and since 1999 the Dean Gallery, both on Belford Road, northwest of New Town.

Over the last century and a half, the National Gallery has focused on a permanent collection of both Scottish and international Fine Art, including over 30 000 works on paper in the prints and drawing collection. At the heart of the painting collection is a group of work including masterpieces by Jacopo Bassano, Van Dyck and Giambattista Tiepolo. But here are also Titans, Raphaels and Rembrants, as well as work by Monet and Van Gogh, to name but a few.

The gallery also hosts an extensive public library, and in 2004 a redevelopment project was completed whereby the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy were interconnected underground, with new areas containing workshops, a lecture theatre and a restaurant.
The Royal Scottish Academy

4) The Royal Scottish Academy

The second building on The Mound is the home of The Royal Scottish Academy, founded in 1826. It was built at the same time as the National Gallery - Queen Victoria is of course a later addition to the roof – but it wasn’t until 1910 that the RSA was moved here from the National Gallery building.

The first 11 artist members of the Academy had altruistic ambitions when they put down their manifesto to provide free art education, provide funds for less fortunate artists and hold annual exhibitions open to all artists of merit. They also began collecting for a library devoted to the Fine Arts, and over the years collected plenty of art, some of which today can be seen in the National Gallery.

Until this day the Royal Academy hosts annual open exhibitions of both established and emerging Scottish artists, as well as a show of Scottish graduates. It also hosts some of the National Gallery’s large exhibitions of internationally renowned artists. Over the years these have included amongst many others Warhol, Monet, Turner and Gerhard Richter.
Princes Street

5) Princes Street

Construction of Princes Street, named after King David III sons, began in the east, as a residential street, originally with large houses set back from the street and with stairs down to the basement. It soon however became a home for trader’s booths, allowing the new, wealthy inhabitants of New Town to shop without having to return to the squalor of Old Town. The booths were considered unsightly and were removed, but gradually traders moved into the properties and turned Princes Street into Edinburgh’s main commercial street, which it remains today. The disarray of architecture, some more attractive than other, stems from the 60s when many of the houses were demolished and replaced with more built for purpose concrete and glass shop fronts in the ‘brutalist’ style.

The street is host to Edinburgh institution ‘Jenners’, once the oldest independent department store in the UK, which has survived in more or less its original form since 1838. It sits on the corner opposite Scott’s monument, which we will visit later.

With almost no buildings on its south side the street offers neck-breaking views of the castle and Old Town. Or how about that it was the site for the opening scene in ‘Trainspotting’ when Renton is being chased? Plenty of reasons to take a stroll.
Princes Street gardens

6) Princes Street gardens

In the plan for building Edinburgh New Town was also to drain Nor Loch – the open cesspit between Old Town and the new construction site north of it. Down the narrow streets of Old Town ran everything from human waste to dead cats into this cavity, and even more disturbingly, this is where many unfortunate young women were thrown in and tried for witchcraft. When the gardens were drained during the New Town construction hundreds of female corpses and remains were found.

From 1816 the garden gradually come to replace the swamp, and in 1845 the North British Railway began its construction of Waverly station below North Bridge, in the east of the gardens. The western part however, remains one of the nicest of the many green spaces Edinburgh has to offer, and has become a popular meeting place as well as the host to a band stand and floral displays in summer, and an ice rink and winter wonderland with a Christmas market in the colder months. Quite an improvement.
Charlotte Square

7) Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square was the last part of New Town to be completed, in 1820. It was named after King George III wife and it mirrors St. Andrew’s square on the other end of George Street, which runs parallel to Princes Street between the two squares. Though the square was incorporated in James Craig’s design of the New Town layout, the council decided this square, which was to host the most exclusive addresses in the city, needed special treatment and they approached a different man, Robert Adam, to design it. Charlotte Square is the only part of New Town to be designed as a whole unit and therefore looks somewhat more coherent than other parts of the city. The simple elegance and monumentality of giant windows, pyramid shaped roofs, pillars and rigorous lay out, are some of the reasons why the square is regarded as one of the major achievements in European civic architecture of the time. In fact, it so inspired the architects that followed that as Edinburgh expanded even further north during the 19th century, almost all of the squares were designed in the same manner: As single architectural units, with palatial style fronts.

No 7 is the Georgian House, open to the public it gives a fascinating insight into how the very richest and their servants in 19th century Edinburgh lived, whereas no 6, Bute House, is the official home of Scotland’s first minister.

West Register House is the centre point on the west side, originally however it was St. George’s Church, opened in 1814.

The central garden hosts a statue of Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, as well as the Edinburgh International book festival in August every year.
George Street

8) George Street

George Street was named after King George III and was the main street in James Craig’s design of New Town with two squares mirroring each other at each end. Parallel to George Street on each side run Prices Street and Queen Street, while in between George Street and Princes Street is picturesque Rose Street, named after the English emblem, and between George Street and Queen Street is Thistle Street, named after the Scottish. Both are narrower cobbled streets and were originally used as service entrances to the residential houses on George Street. The simple but rigid grid of Craig’s design is completed in the 3 intersecting streets: Castle Street, Fredrick Street, named after the King’s father, and Hanover Street, bearing the Royal family name.

George Street was designed to hold residencies as well as being the main shopping street in the new town. Princes Street soon took that title however, and instead the major Scottish financial institutions moved into the elegant houses on George Street.

In later years the street has seen much commercial revival and hosts many of the more exclusive Edinburgh stores, as well as some of the trendiest bars and restaurants in town.
St Andrew Square

9) St Andrew Square

St Andrew Square is where the building of New Town began, in 1772. When completed 6 years later it became Edinburgh’s most expensive and sought after residential area. Until this day it claims to be the richest area in the whole of Scotland, and with major banks, insurance companies and the stock exchange located here, this is likely to be true.

Architect James Craig had intended the spot where Dundas House stands, on the far east of the square, for St. Andrew's Church which would overlook the square and all the way down George Street, thus mirroring St George’s Church on Charlotte Square. The location was however bought by businessman sir Lawrence Dundas and he built his Palladian home here. It now houses a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, while St Andrews church can instead be found further down George Street.

Next door to Dundas House, on 38-39 is the British Linen Bank building, completed in 1852. It is now also owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Another one of the first residents of St. Andrews Square was philosopher David Hume, who was persuaded to move there by his good friend Robert Adam. His house stood at the southwest corner of the square.

A few years ago designer retailer Harvey Nichols added its presence to the prestigious area, and at the same time the central garden with the Melville monument had a facelift and was opened to the public, previously having been a private garden to the residents of the square. On a sunny summer’s day – they have been known to occur! – the spot is extremely popular for the white-collared workers of the square to gather for a lunch on the lawn.
The National Portrait Gallery

10) The National Portrait Gallery

Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery happens to be the first purpose built gallery in the world. As we learned it was built to offload some of the excess work from the National Gallery in the 1880s by architect sir Robert Rowand Anderson. Anderson modeled his design partly by Doges palace in Venice, creating a splendid and intricate neo-gothic building with sculptors appointed to make the figures of the famous Scots who decorate the facade. The red Dumfriesshire sandstone is unusual for Edinburgh but more common in Glasgow, the sandstone from quarries local to Edinburgh is the more usual beige colour.

The collection gives a unique insight to the people who shaped Scottish history from the 16th century onwards – a visual history of philosophers, scientists, entrepreneurs, kings, queens, heroes and villains.

It also houses the national portrait photography collection, including an extensive collection of work by Hill and Adamson, the Scottish pioneers of photography, as well as holding temporary exhibitions such as the annual BP National Portrait Award.

We will return to St. Andrew’s square before heading back out on Princes Street to pay a visit to the solemn figure of sir Walter Scott.
Scott Monument

11) Scott Monument

The world famous Scottish Sir Walter Scott left a legacy of classic works of historical literature, poetry and plays behind him when he died in 1832. In Edinburgh soon after his death it was generally felt that some sort of monument should be erected in his memory, and a competition went underway to select a design for such a building.

Self taught architect George Miekle Kemp was worried that his lack of qualifications would count against him and submitted his drawings under pseudonym John Morvo. His design was chosen and the building of the monument began at the same time as sculptor John Steell was commissioned to design a sculpture of Sir Walter Scott out of white Carrera marble. The sculpture shows Scott with quill in his hand and his dog Maida by his side.

The tower itself is over 200ft (61m) tall, making it the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world. It was built from sandstone from a nearby quarry which has shown over time to be softer and more vulnerable to the corrosion of air pollutants than other sandstone, leaving the tower soot black. Inside are 287 steps taking visitors to the top, and the different levels of the tower are decorated with 64 statuettes each representing a character from Scott’s novels.

When the last stone of the monument was laid in 1844 its architect George Miekle Kemp was missing. On the way home from the building project one night he had fallen in the Union canal and drowned.

The last stop on our tour is a bit of a climb, but the ascent to Carlton Hill is well worth the effort.
Image Courtesy of The Mallick Family.
Calton Hill

12) Calton Hill

The view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill is perhaps the most famous and most photographed of all. Here you can see the castle from where we started our tour, Old Town, Princes Street and many of the Georgian landmarks of New Town, but also further – to Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano south of here, the Firth of Forth, the stretch of water in the north, and the Fife coast on the other side.

Over the centuries the hill has been home to the notorious Calton hill prison, a leper colony, an amphitheatre and a public execution spot, amongst other things. These days most notably there are a range of monuments most of them dating from the early 19th century.

The tallest tower on the hill is Nelson’s monument, built as a replica to Nelson’s telescope and here is also the 1818 City Observatory - an astronomical observatory intended to take accurate measurements of time.

The odd folly that dominates the hill is the National Monument, or as it is also known: Edinburgh’s Disgrace. The monument was designed by the same William Henry Playfair who designed the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, hugely influenced by his trip to Athens. It was built to commemorate those fallen in the Napoleonic wars, with catacombs for prominent figures beneath it, but with costs escalating and lack of enthusiasm for the project, the building work stopped in 1829. By now it has in its existing, incomplete form become an Edinburgh landmark.

The achievement of New Town is one of its kind – with extraordinary enthusiasm, vision and aesthetic thousands of townhouses was built here, in one century expanding the city to many times its original size and making it an international architectural landmark. But there are also other reasons why the 1700s was an exceptional time for Edinburgh. Some of the greatest intellects of the time exchanged ideas here: the great architects who built New Town, the philosopher David Hume, Sir Walter Scott, economist Adam Smith and poet Robert Burns to name just a few. Edinburgh’s New Town is therefore a great testament to the men who built it, but also to the enormously influential minds who lived here at a remarkable point in time.

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