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 David Cousin 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 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 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.
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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.
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