Several names recur through the architectural history of Edinburgh - William Playfair and Robert Adam are probably the best known of the city's stylists, along with Thomas Hamilton and David Bryce. William Burn was similarly influential with his major contributions to the city, along with his connections to several other figures who would be significant architects in their own right.
Burn was born in December 1789, one of the 16 children of another architect, Robert Burn, and his wife Janet Patterson. Robert Burn had been responsible for several of Edinburgh's landmarks, including St Cuthbert's church, the Nelson Monument, the Hermitage of Braid, and the original gravestone of Robert Fergusson in the Canongate Kirkyard.
Doubtless inspired by his father's work, young William was sent to London to train, and returned to Scotland in 1812 to begin his own career.
Burn lodged an application to take over Robert Adam's unfinished project to build Old College for the University of Edinburgh, in 1816, but lost out instead to William Playfair. Frustrated at this missed opportunity, and with no love lost between himself and Playfair, Burn turned his hand instead to commissions of large country houses which would help secure his status and reputation as a grand designer.
Within Edinburgh, Burn followed in his fathers footsteps to create some significant structures in a variety of styles, notably the Scots Baronial form. He would later act as a tutor to a variety of other architects, including:
- David Bryce, who would redesign the Bank of Scotland building and under whose practice Scots Baronial became iconic;
- John Lessels, who with William Cousins would develop what became the default tenement style of the Victorian 'improvements' of Old Town;
- and George Meikle Kemp, who would go on to design the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
Here are four of William Burn's structures which survive in Edinburgh to this day.
John Watson's Institution / National Galleries of Scotland Modern One
When John Watson, an Edinburgh solicitor, died in 1762, he left a bequest to establish an institution to provide care and education to 'faitherless' children in the city. In 1825, the institution commissioned William Burn to build a home to accommodate the children they worked with.
Watson's Institution closed in 1975, and in 1984 the grand building at Belford, to the west end of the New Town, was acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. Today the building houses Modern One, a gallery of contemporary art and sculpture.
One of Edinburgh's castles (which aren't Edinburgh Castle), Lauriston Castle was at one time home to the Napier family, and in 1827 William Burn was commissioned to design a new wing for the sixteenth-century building.
Rather than imposing the Scots Baronial style on the much older building, Burn drew on the original period details to create a Jacobean-styled extension for the house.
St John's Church
Located at the west end of Princes Street, and directly adjacent to St Cuthbert's, which his father had rebuilt nearly fifty years previously, St John's church was built in 1818 at a cost of £18,000.
It continues to operate as a church with a degree of social consciousness, as well as hosting a huge contemporary craft market every summer.
One of the largest monuments in the New Town can be found in the centre of St Andrew Square, and commemorates not St Andrew himself but a corrupt politician named Henry Dundas.
Burn was commissioned by Dundas himself in the 1820s to produce the huge column that dominates the square, although the statue of Dundas at the top of it was added later by another artist, Robert Forrest.
Burn is presumed to have designed the mausoleum for his father which stands in the Old Calton Burial Ground (shown above) and also designed the Edinburgh Academy building on Henderson Row, to the north of the New Town, which remains actively used as a school, and featured as the Marcia Blaine school for Girls in the 1969 film adaptation of Muriel Spark's novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The popularity of Gothic revival architecture - which evolved into Scots Baronial - can be partially attributed to Burn's use of it in his work, not only in Edinburgh but across the whole of the UK.
Discover more of Edinburgh's iconic architecture with my private city walking tours!
Venturing Forth to South Queensferry
The river Forth, flowing into the north sea to the north-east of Edinburgh city centre, was a major obstacle to travellers for much of history. In particular, those pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews faced an arduous diversion inland to the west in order to cross the river at a narrower point, before trekking back all the way to the eastern coast of Fife.
Towns like Culross on the northern side of the water were major towns along the route, growing up around the business that the pilgrims provided to their taverns, inns and hostelries.
But in the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland established a ferry service which would significantly shorten the journey time of those on the pilgrimmage to St Andrews - it provided a means of crossing the firth of Forth just outside Edinburgh, between the banks of the river at two towns which still bear names connected to this service.
South Queensferry remains a charming coastal town that is well worth your time if you get the chance to visit. It's just over 10 miles out of Edinburgh, and can be reached via car or on a short train ride from the city centre (alight at Dalmeny and walk down to the level of the town, on the coast below).
Stretching along the water between two of the three bridges which now cross the Forth at this point - Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for 900 years until the Forth Road Bridge was opened to vehicle traffic in the 1960s - South Queensferry offers a wesalth of small shops, cafes and opportunities to enjoy views across to Fife, and of the original Forth Bridge in particular.
Engineered in the aftermath of the Tay Bridge collapse in the 1870s, this railway bridge was deliberately designed to create an image of strength and stability with its criss-crossing gantries and vivid red colour. It continues to be a major rail link between Edinburgh and all points north of the Forth, and for modern pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews (known today as the home of golf) it provides the easiest means of making the crossing into Fife. (St Andrews itself is no longer on the mainline rail route, requiring visitors to alight at the nearby town of Leuchars and catching a local bus or taxi service into the town centre.)
In 2015 the Forth Bridge was designated Scotland's sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was previously considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The single main street of South Queensferry itself is still lined with many original buildings which originally housed locals engaged in the fishing and ferry industry, with an elevated level of shops and accommodation looking out over the cobbled road which is often (sadly) choked with traffic - visitors would be advised to park as close to the Forth Bridge as possible, where a large car park is located, rather than trying to navigate the narrow street of South Queensferry itself, which provides limited space.
At the western end of the town is an area called the Binks, which was where the original ferry service arrived and departed. Near this is the Priory Church, a fifteenth century monastery building which remains active as a community church today.
The Carmelite monastery had been established here in the fourteenth century originally, but after the Reformation of 1560 the church ceased operation as a monastic order and became a Church of Scotland church.
It remains the only medieval Carmelite church building in the British Isles which is still in use.
South Queensferry is also one of the four cruise terminals that serves Edinburgh - for people arriving into the city off a cruise ship I always advise them to clarify which of the ports they are arriving into as none of them are actually Edinburgh. From South Queensferry, a taxi into the city will be pretty expensive, the shuttle buses can take up to 45 minutes to make the journey into town, and the rail service from Dalmeny requires a significant climb from the coast up to the level of the railway line.
Near the point where the cruise terminal delivers visitors onto land is the Hawes Inn, a hostelry dating from the seventeenth century which features in Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure story Kidnapped.
Other notable buildings in the town include the Black Castle, which is the oldest house in South Queensferry, built by a trader named William Lowrie in 1626. Not actually a castle at all, the name is derived from events in 1646 when Lowrie's sister-in-law confessed to paying another woman to use witchcraft to sink Lowrie's boat, causing his death. Both women were later burned at the stake, although the whole events may have been orchestrated by a local 'witch finder' who wanted Lowrie's grand house for himself...
South Queensferry is also the location for a number of annual traditional activities for locals. The Burryman festival dates back several centuries and is believed to be derived from pagan rituals, wherein a local man is clad in sticky burrs from the burdock plant which cover his whole body, leaving only his mouth and eyes exposed. He's led on a slow, uncomfortable pilgrimage through the town, fortified only with whisky sipped through a straw, while local children collect money for local charities and community organisations.
No less uncomfortable is the annual Loony Dook, held on New Year's Day, where people gather at South Queensferry and then plunge into the freezing waters of the Firth of Forth to raise money for charity. In recent years this community event has been co-opted by the organisation which runs Edinburgh's Hogmanay events, but it remains an absurdly popular event for people willing to risk hypothermia (and worse).
Take a trip out of Edinburgh to South Queensferry and on a sunny day you'll enjoy the best of this picturesque town, with incredible views of the Forth Bridge and across to Fife.
Find a local cafe to enjoy a coffee, or take home a souvenir of this historic town.
Discover more of Edinburgh's historic neighbourhoods with my private city walking tours!
In a city as old as Edinburgh, one question which arises with relative regularity is which building, precisely, is the city's oldest? Luckily for us, there is a specific answer to that!
Found within the complex of buildings that make up Edinburgh Castle, St Margaret's Chapel is considered to be the oldest surviving building in the city which still retains something of its original function.
Many churches in particular have been repurposed over the years, and St Margaret's Chapel hasn't always served as a site of religious worship, but the building today still offers the same experience that it was built to provide nearly 900 years ago.
It may not seem especially interesting from the outside, but this small but perfectly formed structure has survived fire, war, revolution, Reformation, military occupation and a rapid rise in tourism over the last couple of decades - and still it stands!
The building was built originally on the instruction of David I of Scotland, who was also responsible for establishing Holyrood Abbey at the eastern end of the medieval city. It is approximately 15 feet (4.5m) wide by about 30 feet (9m) long and is built right at the summit of the castle rock, at the highest point of the castle - what must have been considered an estimable location for communing with God!
Over its history there have been various additions, restorations and improvements to the chapel structure, but the earliest part of its construction is considered to date back to around the late 1120s. Queen Margaret had been married to Malcolm III (known as 'Canmore' or 'Bighead') and died at Edinburgh castle in 1093.
She had previously established the ferry service over the waters of the Firth of Forth, to the north of Edinburgh, for the central purpose of improving access to St Andrews for religious pilgrims, and the two towns established on the banks of the water where the crossing was made are still named North Queensferry and South Queensferry. In 1250 Margaret was canonised, and having been Queen Margaret of Scotland became St Margaret of Scotland.
Hence the chapel that David originally created in honour of his mother would have been Queen Margaret's Chapel, only a century or more later becoming dedicated to her as saint.
In 1314, during Robert the Bruce's 'scorched earth' policy of removing all fortresses and structures which might have been used by the English army as places of shelter or embattlement, he ordered all the buildings of Edinburgh Castle to be demolished, with the exception of St Margaret's Chapel. Later, on his deathbed in 1329, Bruce ordered the restoration of the chapel, with a provision of 40 Scots pounds being set aside for this purpose.
One notable occupant of the chapel, in the sixteenth century, was Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. While Mary was overseas in France, her mother remained in Scotland, and stayed at Edinburgh Castle to hold the fortress on her daughter's behalf. In May 1560, after several months of declining health, Mary died. Her body was embalmed and laid in a lead coffin inside St Margaret's Chapel for several months (partly due to the English holding the port of Leith under siege) until she could finally be transported to France for burial in March 1561.
The building was later used as a storage of gunpowder, and served as a general storeroom by the military personnel barracked at the castle site for several centuries, until 1845 when its original role as a chapel was divined and restored.
There are five small stained glass windows in the building, which were created in 1922. They represent saints Andrew, Columba, Ninian and Margaret herself, along with more secular icon William Wallace.
Today St Margaret's Chapel is maintained and looked after by the St Margaret's Chapel Guild, a team of dedicated women who are all named Margaret - they ensure the chapel is kept stocked with fresh flowers for the enjoyment of visitors who can access the chapel during their exploration of the castle site.
The chapel also remains actively used for weddings and baptisms, primarily by members of the British military who are stationed at the castle barracks. By virtue of the size of the building, weddings held here are necessarily small-scale and intimate affairs!
Discover more of Edinburgh's many historic structures with my private city walking tours!
The University of Edinburgh has campus buildings across the Old Town and beyond, designed by a whole host of notable architects who have left the imprint of their style and vision on the city. And the university's first dedicated campus building to be built was Old College, which remains an iconic structure in the heart of the city.
Although the university was founded by James VI in the sixteenth century, Old College was built just over two hundred later, intended as a visible symbol of the university's status as a centre of academia and learning at the tail end of the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Land was secured adjacent to South Bridge (thanks in part to the political manoeuvring of Henry Dundas) and the plans for the building were drawn up by Robert Adam, who had also given the New Town its high status stylings, as seen on Charlotte Square (and, indeed, South Bridge itself).
The land on which the college was built originally lay partly beyond the city boundary itself, and had previously been occupied by a medieval church and hospital called St Mary-in-the-Fields (ie. not in-the-city), commonly known as Kirk o'Field, adjacent to which was the house in which Henry Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, was staying on the night of his murder in 1567. It can only be a coincidence that the university, established by James VI, had its first custom-built college space on the same site where his father had died...
Robert Adam drew up the plans for Old College, which had only been partly constructed when Adam died in 1792. Funding for the college project ran short, and the building work stopped until early twenty years later. At that time, Adam's uncompleted plans were passed to another architect, William Henry Playfair, who made modifications to the project in order to get the work completed, and the building - called New College - was finished in 1827.
Playfair's changes to the design of the college had been intended to reduce the cost. Whereas Adam had intended the building to form two square quadrangles - a kind of figre-of-eight shape - Playfair took out the central range of the buidling to leave a single rectangle of space at the heart of the building. He also removed the ostentatious dome which Adam had planned for the east entrance to the building, and imposed his style on the internal spaces of the college.
Although Old College remains actively used by the University of Edinburgh, housing their law school along with various academic office functions, there is a publicly accessible area which shows Playfair's classical internal space, which is the Talbot Rice gallery. This free-entry art gallery is worth visiting to see Old College from the inside.
Sixty years after Playfair's vision for New/Old College was complete, the university had sufficient funds to be able to reinstate the kind of grand dome that Robert Adam had intended for the building. Designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, who had also built the nearby McEwan Hall for the university's students to graduate in. The stonework of the dome is noticably differen in colour and texture even today, indicating that it was added to the building later than the bulk of the construction.
Anderson's dome was topped by the figure which makes the Old College dome most easily recognised on Edinburgh's skyline today: popularly known as the Golden Boy, sculpted by John Hutchison, the statue represents the figure of Youth holding the torch of Enlightenment - the two principles for which the university was founded.
Students who attended classes in Old College included Charles Darwin, in the 1820s, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1870s.
In 1923, the Robert Lorimer-designed memorial to university figures who lost their lives in the First World War (with similar losses from World War Two added later) was installed, creating a public memorial at the west end of the central quadrangle which today forms a patch of grass on which students can be found relaxing during the early summer months.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the University of Edinburgh commissioned William Playfair to design a new purpose-built college space, which was built at the top of the Mound - this building took on the mantle of New College, and the building which had once been New College became Old College.
Discover more buildings of the University of Edinburgh, and more of the city's iconic architecture, with my private walking tours!
There's a matryoshka doll quality to some of Edinburgh's historic buildings, with spaces to be discovered within other spaces, and history found within other historical features. Old College of the University of Edinburgh is one such building, being worth visiting by itself (and featuring on a number of my Edinburgh walking tours) but also boasting one of the city's great art galleries within its walls.
The Talbot Rice Gallery, named for the university's professor of fine art between 1934 and 1972, occupies the upper levels of the quad building, designed originally by Robert Adam and William Henry Playfair. It's a free entry gallery hosting contemporary exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, and offering a glimpse of the interior style of Old College itself.
Located in what was previously an exhibition hall within Old College, the Talbot Rice Gallery opened in 1975. It offers a classical space under a vaulted ceiling supported by Playfair's Grecian ionic columns, as well as a 'white box' contemporary-feeling exhibition space, and feels a million miles from the busy city streets just a few metres away outside.
Both spaces have a lower and upper viewing area, creating a tremendous sense of space and light, with skylights allowing natural light to flood the spaces as needed.
Accessing the upper levels of the classical space also allows visitors to appreciate the style and decoration of the space, with ornate plasterwork on the arches and architraves and cast iron balustrades in typical 19th-century designs.
William Playfair's Greek-influenced interior spaces contrast with the order and symmetry of the classical exterior of the building, which was Robert Adam's vision when he designed the original structure at the end of the 18th century. Taken together the inside and outside offer visions of two contrasting architectural styles, not just from different designers but from different centuries - and visiting the Talbot Rice Gallery is one way of visitors being able to appreciate those contrasts and differences.
The gallery is open to the public year round, although dates of exhibitions may mean it is closed for installation on occasion, so do check their website for details before planning a visit. Special events and public lectures from visiting artists and critics bring an added dimension to the gallery's stated goal of "exploring how the University of Edinburgh can contribute to contemporary art production today and into the future".
Discover more of Edinburgh's art galleries and museums, as well as some of its hidden historic spaces, on my private walking tours.
Edinburgh is a city that isn't entirely short on green space, with areas like Holyrood Park, the Meadows and Princes Street Gardens providing valuable parkland for locals and visitors to enjoy.
But as well as these, and plenty of smaller local park spaces across the Old and New Towns - in part an innovation of Patrick Geddes, a nineteenth century planner and heritage figure who championed the creation of public green spaces in overcrowded cities - is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), an expanse of space which offers the opportunity to get lost amongst trees and plants and reconnect with nature.
The gardens themselves were initially created in 1670 as part of Holyrood Park itself, adjacent to the royal palace (hence its royal connections). Just a few years later the gardens had grown and were moved to a new site in the valley where Waverley railway station is today - a plaque inside the station commemorates that the gardens were on this site for a time, before being moved again to the bottom of Leith Walk a century later, in the 1760s. Shortly after, in the 1820s, the garden was moved again - uprooted and replanted - to its current location at Inverleith, at the bottom of the New Town and providing views across towards the city skyline.
There are two entrances into 'the botanics', as they're known - the west gate has a modern complex housing a cafe, giftshop and (yes!) a garden centre, for visitors to purchase their own plants and botanical-themed gifts. The east gate is marked with a huge stainless steel gateway cast in the shape of hundreds of flowers.
The gardens themselves are laid out over 70 acres, with ponds, lawns, and themed garden spaces made up of more them 13,000 species of plants. Each specimen is noted and identified with labels, and information panels throughout the space highlight particular features or specific plants and trees of scientific or cultural interest.
This field elm, for example, is one of only four known trees of this species in the entire world - and Edinburgh has three of them!
As well as valuable collections of rare and special plants, the gardens include a glasshouse of tropical and temperate plants species, and collections of national plants from China and Japan, you can feel small as you stand beneath towering sequoias or just relax beside babbling water features that cascade through rocky alpine landscapes.
In the botanics it's very easy to forget you're in the heart of a major capital city - yet it's only a short walk or a bus ride away!
Discover more of Edinburgh's green (and blue) spaces with my private city walking tours...
First thing to clear up, there are only two cathedrals in Edinburgh, and they're both called St Mary's. (St Giles' Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, isn't technically a cathedral but a high kirk...) One of the St Mary's is a Catholic cathedral, to be found at the east end of the New Town, but this post is about the episcopal St Mary's cathedral, which can be found at the west end of the New Town.
It's notable because the building has three tall spires which reach up over the city skyline, meaning that the cathedral can be seen from a variety of viewpoints and outlooks in the city. But the building itself is often overlooked by visitors, perhaps because it's a little further from the traditional tourism area of the Old Town, but perhaps also because of its reputation.
One of my favourite guidebooks to Edinburgh, written with a dry sense of humour, describes St Mary's cathedral as: "worth seeing, but not worth going to see"...!
Despite that phrasing, I think the building is rather interesting, so here is my short appraisal of it.
St Mary's is not actually as old as might be assumed from looking at it. Construction on the spires, which were a later phase of development from the body of the kirk, so to speak, was only completed in 1917. The land on which it was built was an estate owned by the Walker family, stretching from the Dean Village to the north all the way up to Charlotte Square, having been purchased by William Walker in the early 19th century.
On William's death, the land passed to his wife and three children. The eldest son, Sir Patrick Walker, oversaw the development of Walker Street, Manor Place, William Street, Coates Places - all survive today, with their grand late-Georgian terraces now serving as a mix of offices, residential and commercial properties.
After the death of Patrick, sisters Barbara and Mary Walker took over managing and developing the family estate. In 1850 the sisters drew up the first plans to create a church large enough to accommodate a congregation of 1,500 people, between Manor Place and Palmerston Place. They stipulated that the church should be named in honour of their mother, and so the plans to build St Mary's cathedral began taking shape.
From an original budget of £30,000 - equivalent to just over £5m today - the cost of the church eventually topped off at £110,000. Barbara died at the end of the 1850s, and it wasn't until shortly before Mary's death that a competition was launched to source an architect to handle the building's design. The final structure was the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a notable designer from the Gothic Revival tradition who also designed the Albert Memorial in London for Queen Victoria, the Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras Station in London, the main building of the University of Glasgow, and parts of the Whitehall collection of offices which house functions of the British Government today.
The central spire of Scott's church is 90m tall, making it the tallest structure in Edinburgh city centre, and the two shorter spires added to the western end of the building later became known locally as Barbara and Mary, after the Walker sisters themselves.
The church remains active and functional, and is known for its acoustic qualities which has led to it being used for a variety of musical events - choirs, chamber orchestra recitals and so on - for which its rather impressive organ is often deployed.
One of the stained glass windows in the cathedral was designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, the father of pop art, whilst one of the buildings in the cathedral's grounds dates back to around 1610. The large cross which hangs above the nave inside the church was created by Robert Lorimer as part of his war memorial, one of many which he designed and built cross Scotland in the years after the First World War.
Otherwise the interior design is also considered to be a curious mixture of architectural styles which borrow from a variety of other iconic churches across Europe, perhaps leading to its rather unfortunate reputation for not being worth visiting.
Explore more of Edinburgh's historic buildings on my private city walking tours...
With Edinburgh being a city steeped in banking - the New Town was the first place in the world where people advertised themselves as accountants, paid to manage other people's money - it's perhaps no surprise to find a museum within the headquarters of a global bank!
The Museum on the Mound is perhaps a slightly coy name for what is essentially a history of banking and finance. It resides in the lower storey of the Bank of Scotland building at the top of the Mound, on what is actually named Bank Street. As with the majority of Edinburgh's museums and galleries, entry is free - and although it's a relatively small attraction it is crammed with fascinating and intriguing information about the cash we carry in our pockets.
The Bank of Scotland was established (by an Englishman) in 1695, a year after the Bank of England was established (by a Scotsman). A year later it became the first commercial bank in Europe to release banknotes into general circulation, promising to pay the bearers of the paper notes 'on demand' the cash equivalent of the value they represented. Since the 17th century the bank has evolved and is now part of the Lloyds banking group, and part of the Museum on the Mound charts the growth and change of the bank and its functions over the last three hundred years.
From issuing early banknotes to the modern technology which allowed cash to be taken out from ATMs, banking and finance has been an industry which has grown and changed as society has developed.
And just as our relationship with money has changed, so issues like forgery, fraud and theft have been problems that the bank has had to find solutions to across the years. You can even try your hand at safe cracking! Solve the riddles and spin the wheel of a specially designed safe - succeed and getting it open and you can 'steal' a golden voucher which can be exchanged for a reward at the museum's giftshop.
And if you've ever wondered what a million pounds in cash looks like, there's a cool £1,000,000 on display in a glass case! (No truth to the rumour that it is the Bank of Scotland's last million pounds, which they're very keen to show off....!) Sadly the notes have been invalidated, so even if you could find a way of sneaking them off the premises, they wouldn't be worth very much if you tried to spend them....
The displays are well laid out with plenty of interesting detail to explore. See a facsimile of the story that was printed in the local newspaper following the murder in Edinburgh's Old Town of William Begbie in 1806, along with the original cape worn in the iconic Scottish Widows insurance adverts. From the plates used for printing banknotes - then and now - to the emblems of the different iterations of the bank and its subsidiaries, there's all manner of historical artefacts on display.
The Bank of Scotland building itself is David Bryce's renovation of the original structure, dating from the late 1860s. It is an impressive sandstone edifice, offering views from the museum space across towards the New Town of Edinburgh, and topped with a statue of the goddess Fame, sculpted by John Rhind.
It's an iconic building, and perfectly placed to act as a major landmark of Edinburgh's city centre. The Museum on the Mound is accessed by an entrance directly from the Mound on the western side of the building.
All-in-all you'll discover there's much more to your money than you might have realised...
Discover more of Edinburgh's history with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh has a fantastic array of architecture from a wide variety of styles and forms. A close examination of the city's structures reveals all manner of intriguing details and features, and each of the major periods of growth that Edinburgh experienced brought with it a new and distinct style of architecture. Today these different styles sit side by side to create a glorious patchwork of historic features.
Across the city, however, one architectural style seems more common than others. The Scots Baronial form was developed in the mid-nineteenth century and came to dominate the city structures thanks to the sheer volume of development that took place at this time. And most intriguingly, this form - which is most easily identifiable in the Old Town - was itself creating a sense of history by reflecting older styles of architecture. It's for this reason that I often tell visitors that the Old Town isn't always as old as it seems - the Victorians were consciously reflecting and recreating older styles of architecture in the modern buildings!
So here's my introduction to the Scottish Baronial architectural style, with some key features and elements to look out for during your exploration of the city.
Scots Baronial evolved from a returning interest in Gothic architecture, which drew on the ornate levels of building decor from the Renaissance period of the sixteenth century. This vision of highly decorative and intricately carved elements in a building was a reaction to the more formal and organised neo-classical architecture, typified with symmetrical designs, columns and pediments, and a formality of style (which can also be found across Edinburgh in the work of William Playfair, for example).
This Gothic revival - which in Scotland branched into the particular Scots Baronial form - tapped into a renewed interest in medieval architecture, most commonly found in churches and cathedrals, and in the traditional skills of stonemasonry which had begun to be supplanted by the rise of industrialisation and mechanical process in the building trade. Buildings like the Scott Monument are almost pure distillations of the neo-Gothic (ie. 'new' Gothic) style.
Achitects like William Burn and David Bryce incorporated these ideas into their architectural vision, and what we recognise as Scots Baronial becomes a recognisable architectural style around the middle of the 19th century.
One of the most easily identifiable features of a Scots Baronial building is the witches' hat tower, a conical roof structure over a corner turret. Sometimes these tower structures don't reach all the way to the ground, and they're called bartizans. These features help give the style its name - taken from the large country houses or baronial properties of the Scottish Highlands, which had evolved as fortified mini-castles, these towers and their distinctive rooftops were incorporated into what were ordinary quality properties, creating the illusion that they were a little grander than they really were - more like castles or baronial villas!
Another easily recognised feature of Scots Baronial style is the zigzag gable or roofline over windows - it's known as a crow step. Flat lines are called cat slides, and the zigzags are crow steps...
These were often a feature of an earlier architectural style, when a gable wall would be stepped in order to provide support to roof beams and support the timber covering of a building. When the Victorians replaced those original buildings they copied the crow step but featured it as a decorative element rather than a structural support.
The crow stepping is particular noticeable when you look out over the roofs of the Old Town from an elevated level, or see it contrasted against a blue sky from street level. Look out for them in the Grassmarket, along the tops of buildings on Victoria Street and Cockburn Street, and find original versions of crowstepping on Bakehouse Close, just off the Royal Mile at Canongate.
You'll also find crowstepping on the tenement terraces of Edinburgh;'s suburbs, such as around Marchmont and Bruntsfield, which were being developed to accommodate the city's growth in the late nineteenth-century.
But because the crowstepping was a deliberate reference to older buildings, it's understandable that people often took at Edinburgh's Old Town buildings and assume that they're older than they really - in fact, because of the wholesale 'improvement' of the city instigated by the Lord Provost William Chambers in the 1860s, many of the 'old' buildings are actually a whole lot younger than they look.
If you're ever in any doubt, cast about to find a date on the building, and the chances are it'll be somewhere around the 1860s or 1880s, which was the pinnacle of the Scots Baronial period.
Explore more of Edinburgh's architectural features and styles with my private city walking tours!
Another entry in this occasional series, highlighting some of Edinburgh's amazing museums and galleries, all with FREE entry and worth checking out during your visit! See also The Museum of Edinburgh and the National Museum of Scotland.
The Writers' Museum can be found on Lady Stair's Close, a narrow lane leading off the Royal Mile at Lawnmarket, just a short stroll from Edinburgh Castle.
With such a wealth of literary history to celebrate - Edinburgh became the world's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2005 - this compact museum focuses on three of the most significant literary figures associated with the city: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns.
Inside the museum are collections celebrating the life and work of the three writers often thought of as the holy trinity of Scottish literature.
Sir Walter Scott was the father of the historical novel, as well as being a major influence on the way Scotland was perceived and represented in the early 19th century. Today much of the traditional imagery used to promote Scotland is based on Scott's writing.
One of the most poignant pieces in the Scott exhibition space is the small wooden rocking horse which belonged to Scott when he was child, living on George Square in the Old Town. Having suffered from polio, Scott's legs were at slightly different heights, and on the rocking horse the stirrups for his feet are at different levels to compensate for this minor disability.
At the top of the building is one of the original hand presses used for printing books, and it is believed the press on display here was the one on which Scott's Heart of Midlothian was originally printed. Scott became the most widely read British author of the 19th century, with books like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe selling in their thousands to readers all around the globe.
In the centre of the building is a double-height atrium space with a balustraded walk with its wooden decorations, plaster work, and original fire place giving a sense of the style of the original property.
Lady Stair, who lived in the building at one time, was also associated with a local legend relating to her husband and a strange dream that she had. The story was adapted by Walter Scott into his short story, My Aunt Margaret's Mirror. It's rather nice that Lady Stair herself helped inspire the writing of one of the authors who is celebrated in her former home today!
Also in this large open area is a contemporary tapestry weaving which represents all three of the writers, although Scott is most prominent because the piece was created in 1971 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
In the room celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson you can find a large wooden cabinet, which is one of only a handful of pieces of furniture surviving today that is known to have been made by the master craftsman William Brodie. Brodie had his offices and workshop just a short walk from Lady Stair's Close, and is best regarded today as one of the original inspirations behind the creation of Stevenson's character(s) of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Edinburgh also influenced characters and settings found in many of Stevenson's other works, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Stevenson ended his life living on an island in Samoa in the western Pacific Ocean ,and the exhibition at the Writers' Museum includes several artefacts and objects relating to this later stage of his life.
All in all the museum is a small but intriguing venue that provides a fascinating glimpse of the life and times of some of Edinburgh's literary heroes.
Entry to the museum is free - check the museum's website for updated opening times and details of restricted access.
If you're visiting the Writers' Museum it's also worth checking out the stones along the lane on which it is located. Known as Makar's Court, after the Scots' word for a poet or a bard, the paving stones feature a variety of quotes from Scottish writers and poets, celebrating the country and the city in which they lived.
You can also see a Celtic cross monument celebrating the First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who have links to Edinburgh, at the former Craiglockhart military hospital where they were treated for shellshock.
To explore literary Edinburgh in more detail, contact me to arrange a customised walking tour of the city!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour? Buy me a coffee!
Search the blog archive...