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.
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