‘The Athens of the North’: How Edinburgh New Town Became the Epitome of Georgian Elegance

Alice Roberts

4 mins

16 Oct 2019

The 18th century was a period of rapid urban expansion as towns prospered through trade and empire. As St Petersburg sprang up on the marshes of the Baltic coast and Lisbon was resurrected after a destructive earthquake in 1755, Edinburgh also assumed a new identity.

A medieval city of slums and sewers

The old medieval city of Edinburgh had long been an issue of concern. Its dilapidated housing was prone to fires, disease, overcrowding, crime and collapse. The North Loch, a lake once built to bolster city defences, had been used for as an open sewer for three centuries.

With over 50,000 residents sharing tenements and alleys with wandering livestock, it was a place of squalor.

In the 17th century, Edinburgh Old Town was overcrowded and dangerous. Image source: joanne clifford / CC BY 2.0.

In September 1751, out of the blue, a six-storey tenement building on the grandest street collapsed. Although this was a common occurrence in the city, the fatalities included those in Scotland’s most prestigious families.

Questions were asked and the ensuing surveys revealed much of the city was in a similarly perilous state. With much of the city being demolished, a monumental new building scheme was required.

Led by Lord Provost George Drummond, a governing council put forward the case for expansion to the north, to host the growing professional and merchant classes:

‘Wealth is only to be obtained by trade and commerce, and these are only carried on to advantage in populous cities. There also we find the chief objects of pleasure and ambition, and there consequently all those will flock whose circumstances can afford it.’

The west end of George Street in 1829, looking towards Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square.

Drummond succeeded in expanding the Royal Burgh to encompass the valley and fields in the north – which contained the polluted loch. A scheme to drain the loch was put into action and finally completed in 1817. It now houses Edinburgh Waverley train station.

James Craig’s plan takes off

In January 1766 a competition was opened to design the ‘New Town’ of Edinburgh. The winner, 26-year-old James Craig, had been an apprentice to one of the city’s leading masons. He abandoned the apprenticeship in his early twenties, set up as an architect and immediately entered the competition.

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Despite having almost no experience in town planning, he had a clear vision to use classical architecture and philosophy in modern urban design. His original entry shows a diagonal layout with a central square, an ode to the design of the Union Jack. These diagonal corners were deemed too fussy, and a simple axial grid was settled upon.

Built in stages between 1767 and 1850, Craig’s design helped Edinburgh transform itself from ‘auld reekie’ to the ‘Athens of the North’. He designed a plan which was distinguished by elegant views, classical order and plenty of light.

Unlike the organic, granite streets of the Old Town, Craig used white sandstone to realise a structured gridiron plan.

James Craig’s final plan for the New Town.

The plan was highly sensitive to the political mood. In light of Jacobite rebellions and a new era of civic Hanoverian British patriotism, Edinburgh was eager to prove its loyalty to the British monarchs.

The new streets were named Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street, and the two nations were marked by Thistle Street and Rose Street.

Robert Adam would later design Charlotte Square, now home to the First Minister of Scotland. This marked the completion of the First New Town.

A home of the Scottish Enlightenment

The New Town grew together with the Scottish Enlightenment, becoming a centre for scientific enquiry and philosophical debate. At dinner parties, Assembly Rooms, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy, leading intellectual figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith would gather.

Voltaire acknowledged Edinburgh’s importance:

‘Today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts’.

The National Monument was never completed. Image source: User:Colin / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Further schemes were realised in the 19th century, although the Third New Town was never fully completed. Monuments were erected on Calton Hill, and in 1826, building started on the Scottish National Monument, in memory of the soldiers killed in the Napoleonic wars.

As an ode to Edinburgh’s new classical identity, and with Calton Hill echoing the shape of the Acropolis in Athens, the design resembled the Parthenon. Yet when funds ran out in 1829, work was stopped and has never been completed. It is often referred to as ‘Edinburgh’s Folly’.

Featured Image: Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0.