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.
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...
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!
In exploring the built heritage of Edinburgh's Old and New Towns, there are several architects whose names crop up regularly.
William Playfair, Robert Adam, and Thomas Hamilton are just three of the figures whose buildings and grand designs help to give the city its sense of style.
But there are other architects whose buildings were never finished, or have long since been demolished - and then there's James Craig, whose influence on the city was extensive but in a more subtle way.
There are no public memorials to James Craig. Only one structure that he designed still stands in the city, and at the time of his death he was buried in an unmarked grave. But Craig's influence was integral to the city as it stands today, over two centuries after his death - because his was the vision which gave the Georgian-era New Town its distinctive grid system of intersecting straight lines.
Born in Edinburgh in 1739, Craig's father was a city merchant, and his mother was the sister of the poet who wrote the lyrics to Rule, Britannia!. James was the only one of the six children to survive infancy, and was educated at George Watson's Hospital, a school founded to educate the sons of city merchants.
Craig left school in 1755, at the age of 16, and in 1759 began six years of training as an apprentice mason and architect. Despite his work, he appears never to have formally sat his exams, and was never officially a member of the incorporated trades register of architects in the city.
In 1765, the city of Edinburgh launched a public competition to design a layout for the proposed New Town expansion to allow the city to grow across the valley to the north of the mouldering Old Town. Seven architects entered the contest, among them was an idea for a plan drawn up by James Craig.
There is a degree of uncertainty over what Craig's plan looked like at this stage. If you look at the protrait of Craig at the top of this page, you'll see the plans on which he's working resemble the New Town but with a circular element which never manifested in the development of 1767....
There is a suggestion that Craig's original vision took inspiration from the design of the Union Flag which had been drawn up following the union with England in 1707, featuring an element of diagonal streets linking to a central 'circus' - there's even a hand-annotated map which can be viewed at the National Library of Scotland archive of maps which shows what this version of the New Town might have been expected to resemble.
If this was Craig's vision, it would account for him being chosen as the winner of the competition - celebrating the new union was one key intention with Edinburgh's New Town project - but was fundamentally a problematic design. The landscape on which the New Town was developed is a high ridge of rock with steep valleys to its north and south, and constructing a circular intersection at the summit of this ridge would have been architecturally challenging at the time.
So although Craig was picked as there winner, he is believed to have then worked with the council authorities to develop his plan and his vision into a form that would be architecturally practical. And the grid system of the New Town as we know it today was that improved form.
Craig's original drawings for the New Town can be seen today in the Museum of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile. In a case nearby are Craig's pencil case and pens which he used in his work as a draughtsman.
But the layout of the city streets of the New Town are the best celebration of his vision for a modern city - the first example of comprehensive town planning in the UK, and the first time a British city had been built from scratch to a specific plan.
Craig was set for a career as a master architect and town planner - at a time when Edinburgh was growing and building at a faster rate than ever before.
Except Craig was, in the eyes of some of the city's master masons and architectural practitioners, an unqualified amateur - and having been given the opportunity and prestige of laying out the New Town over some of the era's best-known builders and designers, he was considered an unwelcome upstart. So he never fully developed the career he might have anticipated, and although he was associated with a number of major projects in the city, relatively few developed into paid employment for him.
He did build the original headquarters for the Royal College of Physicians, on George Street - the grandest street of his iconic development. The building was constructed in the 1770s, directly opposite St Andrew's Church (now St Andrew's and St George's) on the site of The Dome bar and restaurant today.
As that notation indicates, Craig's building no longer stands - it was never finished to his (or the College's) satisfaction during to rising costs, and in 1843 the building was demolished in order for David Rhind's banking hall for the Commercial Bank of Scotland.
In 1790 Craig was employed to redesign the stable block of Newhailes House, James Smith's Palladian estate property in East Lothian, and was employed to produce engineering plans and drawings for a variety of grand country properties across Scotland.
The only project in Edinburgh which James Craig built and which remains visible to visitors today can be found at the top of Calton Hill at the eastern end of the New Town.
Designed and built in the late 1770s, the City Observatory was a public installation which provided access to the latest astronomical and scientific instruments - when the money ran out in 1777, the building had only been part finished, and would later be completed in 1792.
Although the bulk of the observatory complex was redeveloped by Playfair in the 19th century, the western elevation with its gothic tower still stands today.
Towards the end of his life, Craig had been living his uncle at a house at the bottom of the West Bow in the Grassmarket. His financial situation was precarious because of the lack of work, and any income from cash-in-hands jobs he was able to secure went straight to paying off his creditors.
He had only ever had one paid employment south of the border in England, and Craig lamented in one letter to a friend that he received few offers of work which deviated from what he described as "the monotony of the straight line", a reference to his iconic work designing the grid system New Town.
Craig died of tuberculosis on 23 June 1795. He was buried in an unmarked family plot in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, just a stone's throw from the house in which he died. His grave today is marked with a stone noting his influence on the New Town.
I think it's a shame Craig remains overlooked and broadly uncelebrated, despite the impact his vision had on the Scottish capital. But despite never having achieved his full potential as a grand designer, Craig's influence on Edinburgh was unmistakable and iconic - and still there for visitors to see!
Explore Craig's New Town in more detail with my private city walking tours!
In the days when Scotland was occupied by grand families who operated estate properties which employed local people from nearby villages and towns to work on their estate properties, the 'big hoose' became a focus for community life. While some of these estates remain active and operational (and, often, still family owned) others have passed into the care of heritage bodies like the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. Many remain publicly accessible, or have grounds and parks that can be visited either for free or for a small charge.
Here's my brief guide to a handful of these 'big hooses' that can be visited from Edinburgh...
Built as Whitehill House in the 1680s by the architect James Smith as his own private residence, Newhailes is an early example of the Palladian style which became so popular in Britain in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, a style pioneered by Smith who 'imported' it from Italy where he had studied under Andrea Palladio himself.
Smith had to sell the house barely a decade after it was built to ease financial troubles he had acquired by investing in failed mining operations, and the property and its estate passed into ownership of the Dalrymple family, baronets of Hailes.
The brother of Newhailes' first owner notoriously gave the order which let to the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, while later members of the family would entertain figures such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at Newhailes.
When Sir Mark Dalrymple, the 3rd Baronet of Hailes, died without having produced children in 1971 the house began to fall into disrepair, before being finally vacated in 1980. Dalrymple's widow lived in a cottage on the estate until 2011, and her death in 2017 represented the end of the Dalrymple family line.
The National Trust for Scotland has overseen the maintenance and care for Newhailes House since 1997, and today the estate remains popular with local walkers and with a cafe in the property's former stable block - partly designed by James Craig, who created the plans for Edinburgh's New Town - providing lunches and snacks to those who stop by to explore the grounds.
Another James Smith property, Cockenzie House is at the heart of the village of Cockenzie and Port Seton in East Lothian.
Operated now as a community centre with a variety of studios for local artists, therapists and jewellers, the building is set in its original gardens and has a popular cafe and studio shop, as well as hosting antiques fairs and a variety of community events all year round.
Following the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 - the first skirmish of the '45 Jacobite Uprising - Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops retired victorious to Cockenzie House, where they fed from fruit trees in the grounds. Later the house hosted artists such as JMW Turner and Sir Walter Scott as guests of the Caddell family who owned the property.
In the gardens of Cockenzie House, look out for the fruit trees which fed those early Jacobites, as well as a characteristic grotto built from pumice, the stone used as ballast which was discarded by ships sailing into and out of the nearby port on early trade excursions to northern Europe and Iceland.
The hecla grotto - its name is spelled out in stone at the front of the structure - was a 19th-century folly with whale bones forming its doorway. Remains of its original ornate decorations, using shells and stones from the local beaches, can still be seen inside the building.
A rare example of an estate which has fallen entirely to ruin, Cammo is a suburb to the north-west of Edinburgh with grounds accessible to local people and visitors. The house itself, another late 17th-century family home, fell victim to vandals in the 1970s, and the area today is maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council.
Only a few collections of stonework and the original doorway of Cammo House survive, although the grounds continue to show evidence of the former status of the property, with an ornamental canal, a pinetum (a collection of rare trees), a walled orangery and a derelict carriage house all suggesting the grandeur the property would have had at its height.
The writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area frequently, and is believed to have used Cammo House as the model for the House of Shaws in his novel Kidnapped.
Another local property easily accessible from the city centre is Prestonfield House, dating from 1687 and operating today as a boutique hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.
Set within its own grounds to the south-east of Arthur's Seat, Prestonfield was originally site of a 12th century monastery and later a house named Priestfield, which was destroyed by fire in the 1680s. The new building built to replace Priestfield changed its name to distance itself from its Catholic connections.
As the home of the wealthy Dick family in the 18th and 19th centuries, the estate at Prestonfield becamea high society venue which attracted guests such as David Hume, Benjamin Franklin and (a recurring name on Scotland's visitor records) Samuel Johnson.
The house was also the first place in the UK to cultivate rhubarb, and that vegetable gives its name to the restaurant in the house today.
The interior of Presonfield is a reason in itself to visit for dinner or afternoon tea, with rooms styled in a variety of ornate styles creating a unique and sumptuous setting.
In the grounds, look out for the estate's peacocks who roam freely, and the circular stable block which has been adapted to hosted lavish weddings and other special events.
A short distance from Edinburgh is Vogrie House, a 19th century estate property built in the typical Scots Baronial architectural style, which originally accommodated the Dewar family.
A cafe provides refreshments, and a play park and indoor soft play area for children can help keep younger members of the family engaged.
Although the building is not accessible to the public, the grounds of Vogrie Country Park are spacious and spectacular, with a number of pieces of art dotted through the woods and lawns of the former estate. Look out for two huge, brightly coloured chairs, and a giant's tricyle!
Sometimes known as Dalkeith Palace, today the Dalkeith Country Park provides access to the grounds of this grand estate property. There had been a castle or fortified house on this site since medieval times, but the current house was another of James Smith's constructions from the early years of the 18th century.
The house has several royal connections, having provided accommodation a number of monarchs over the years, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, George IV during his historic visit to Scotland in 1822, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V.
During the Second World War the property accommodated Polish soldiers who used the grounds for military training and practice.
Today, although the estate remains active as farmland, much of its grounds are accessible for walkers, with a cafe and artisan gift shops in the former stable block and with an extensive children's play area.
Look out for a huge folly which is currently undergoing renovation.
Another estate property which retains its family ownership is Gosford House in East Lothian. Built at the end of the 18th century to plans by Robert Adam, who also styled Edinburgh's New Town, the property has a distinctive neoclassical style and sprawling grounds which continue to provide space for visitors to explore.
The estate's ponds and woodlands offer a real sense of escape from the routines of daily life.
Used as a filming location for the Outlander television series, Gosford stood in for the Palace of Versailles - an indication of its sense of status and style!
The original owner of the property, the 7th Earl of Wemyss, was Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and after his death he was buried in the grounds of Gosford House in a huge mausoleum styled as a pyramid, referencing several ancient masonic traditions.
The estate also has a rare example of a curling house, effectively a pavilion for the popular Scottish sport of curling, which would have been played on the estate's frozen lakes during the winter months.
Gosford House is open to visitors in the summer, with grounds accessible through the rest of the year (subject to the family's permitting access).
Explore more of Edinburgh's high status history with a tour exploring the Georgian-era New Town!
Edinburgh's New Town is an often unfairly overlooked side of the city, especially by visitors who (perhaps understandably) imagine from its name that it may be a 1980s shopping district.
In fact the New Town has over 250 years of its own history, style and culture, dating back to its origins as a residential expansion for wealthy citizens of Edinburgh when it was first constructed in the 1760s.
As well as offering a dedicated New Town tour, I always try to encourage visitors to explore areas of Edinburgh's New Town for themselves, and at the start of a whole new year, now is as good a time as any to highlight features that the New Town has to offer!
So here's my must-see guide to New Town highlights... but to explore them in more detail, join me for a walking tour!
Much of the original New Town has been converted for commercial use, and it's hard to get a sense of the style and grandeur that the city originally offered when confronted with Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe...
But Dundas House on St Andrew Square is one of the finest original buildings that remains publicly accessible, and it offers an astonishing glimpse into life for the uber-rich in the early years of the New Town project.
Laurence Dundas had been a self-made businessman. His father had owned a luckenbooth (a small stall or shop) on the Royal Mile, and Laurence Dundas had built his fortune from canny investments and business enterprises.
In the 1760s he bought what he considered to be the prime location for his family's residence, on St Andrew Square. The space had originally been intended to be occupied by a church, but such was Dundas's influence in the city he was able to commandeer the site for his own property instead. The original villa property was designed by iconic architect William Chambers, who also designed Somerset House in London.
Dundas was later an early director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and following his death the Royal Bank acquired the building Dundas had lived in. It remains the world headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, and is maintained as a public bank branch... which means it's open for visitors to check out during their visit!
The banking hall itself is not actually part of the original house, but it is one of the grandest commercial spaces in the city even today, and gives a great sense of how much wealth and affluence could be found in eighteenth century Edinburgh. As a major banking city, it was finance which helped create the grand style of the New Town, and Dundas House is a great example of the style that such wealth could buy.
The huge domed ceiling is cut with star-shaped skylights, which not only create a very dramatic visual effect, they also allowed huge amounts of natural light into the banking hall, which helped to give the Royal Bank a commercial advantage over some of its competitors, by allowing it to stay open later into the evening!
Today the building still serves as a bank, but even if you aren't going in to make use of its cash machines or banking facilities, take a few minutes to check out its iconic bank hall designed by architects Peddie and Kinnear.
One of the Insta-friendly highlights of the New Town is this historic former mill town which originally lay well beyond the city limits of Edinburgh. When I first started taking tours around the area it was a guaranteed visitor-free zone, but with the rise of tourism and the takeover of Instagrammers, it's rare to explore this area is such solitude and peace today. (I blame the internet and tour guides. :) )
Dean Village provided one of the only original access routes into Edinburgh, crossing the steep valley cut by the Water of Leith via a narrow stone bridge. The river itself provided power to a series of industries along its length, and Dean Village - meaning 'the village in the valley' - was a mill town, where farmers brought grain to have it turned into flour to be exported into Edinburgh.
One of the most notable buildings in the village is the former guild of baxters (bread bakers) who built the building in 1675. You can find their emblem - representing paddles bearing loves of bread - around the area, along with sheaves of corn cut into some of the original warehouse structures.
Another significant structure is Well Court, an 1880s housing development built by John Ritchie Findlay (proprietor of the Scotsman newspaper) as affordable housing in order to attract people back to the Dean Village after the industries had moved away in the 1830s.
Built around a central courtyard, Well Court is a distinctive tenement style that had community spirit built into its structure, with a dedicated space for community events and activities. The well-used communal washing lines shows that the community is still alive and well in the Dean Village, and the area remains a popular residential suburb for people to enjoy the benefits of living in the city without being stuck right in the centre of town.
Another of the highlights of the New Town of Edinburgh is Calton Hill, one of the three volcanic peaks to be found in the city centre.
Developed as the city's first public park in the 1720s, Calton Hill continues to offer visitors (and locals) a space to escape, with views across to the Old Town, Arthur's Seat, out to Leith, and over to the county of Fife, across the water to the north of Edinburgh.
The hill also boasts one of the most iconic structures in Edinburgh, the National Monument. This unfinished memorial for the dead soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars was intedned to be a full recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, but was left incomplete when funding dried up. The memorial was designed by William Henry Playfair, who also built several other structures and monuments on the top of Calton Hill.
The Nelson Monument is a telescope-shaped memorial to Admiral Nelson, a British naval hero, and you'll also find the original City Observatory building, now an art gallery with a restaurant space within its precincts, as well as a memorial cairn celebrating the campaign to re-establish an independent Scottish parliament.
THE SCOTT MONUMENT
Probably my favourite structure in the city, the Scott Monument celebrates the author Sir Walter Scott, best known for novels like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. When Scott died in 1832, he was the most widely read British author of the age, and his memorial was paid for with nearly £17,000 of money donated by the readers of his books.
Designed by an architect named George Meikle Kemp, the monument remains the world's tallest monument to a writer, with a staircase up to four viewing platforms, the highest nearly 200ft above Princes Street Gardens.
Nicknamed the Gothic Rocket, for its style and shape, the there are over 60 statues on the monument representing Scottish historic figures as well as fictional characters from Scott's writing. The statue of Walter Scott at street level was carved by the sculptor John Steell.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally private gardens for the wealth residents who lived on Princes Street, Princes Street Gardens are some of the most popular public spaces in the city today.
At the western end of the gardens is the Ross Memorial Fountain, recently restored and renovated, with views up to Edinburgh Castle on top of its volcanic outcrop.
The valley in which the gardens sit today was at one time an artificial lake, and today the mainline railway runs along the bottom of the gardens, with a large outdoor stage area occasionally used for concerts (weather permitting!).
Look out for a statue of Wojtek the bear, a Polish folk hero with an Edinburgh connection, a First World War memorial given as a gift from the people of America to Scotland, the world's oldest floral clock, and a small memorial to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in Edinburgh but died on an island in Samoa in the western Pacific Ocean...
Taken altogether, the New Town of Edinburgh represents a distinct contrast from the 'historic' Old Town side of the city, and is well worth exploring! (It's also arguably better for bars and restaurants than the Royal Mile area, too...)
Explore the New Town in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Modern developments in Edinburgh tend to be received hesitantly at best by locals in the city - the desire to protect the style and heritage of the Old and New Towns sometimes feels like a reluctance to countenance any modernisation or improvement, and it's not unusual for 'new' buildings to be greeted with widespread outrage.
But Edinburgh has always been a city of development and growth, from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century 'high rise' houses which rose in the Old Town, to the major 'New' Town of the eighteenth century. The Victorians systematically 'improved' the Old Town in the nineteenth century, and as Edinburgh became a major European capital of the twentieth century there have been waves of development that have either removed or built onto existing structures.
So here's my potted history of Edinburgh's ever-changing cityscape, starting with those original efforts to modify the city properties to accommodate more people as the population steadily rose.
Demolishing the existing houses in order to build bigger ones was impractical and expensive, and the challenging physical geography of the city made horizontal growth almost impossible, so instead Edinburgh developed as a vertical city.
Buildings would be modified by adding an extra level to the top of the structure, creating a new floor of accommodation space. These would be added through the years as needed, as the city drew communities from outlying towns and became the focus of an exodus of people from further afield with the dawn of industry and mechanisation.
A great visual example of this can be found on Bakehouse Close, just off the Royal Mile at Canongate. At the back of the building here, the different 'layers' of the building can be identified like strata in natural stone.
My coloured scribblings on this photo show the various different phases of construction on this building, from the original late sixteenth century structure to the late eighteenth century.
It's not always easy to parse one period of development from another, as the building increased in size as needed, and later phases of development consumed earlier sections of the structure.
Here the building has four or five visible storeys, but towards the top end of the Royal Mile, near Castlehill, where the landscape is more dramatic, the steep hills meant up to 12 or 14 storeys were possible.
Within these phases of development, doorways and windows were frequently bricked up or knocked through, as the function, layout and structure of the properties changed. Doubtless the residents at the time bemoaned the level of construction and development to their city, the way locals do today!
By the 1740s, Edinburgh's population was swelling beyond manageable proportions. The city had an area of just half a square mile, with in excess of 50,000 souls crammed within its walls. Overcrowding, filth, deprivation and squalor were to be found on every corner and in every property, and so the city authorities planned an expansion off the ridge of volcanic rock that marked the first major expansion to the city in its history.
Building the New Town from the 1760s onwards became a feat of engineering, as well as a major commerical enterprise. Land was bought and sold, property developers converted pastures and grazing land into residential streets, and for the better part of a full century the city's growth and development seemed unstoppable.
James Craig had laid out the city's formal grid system of streets, with the intention of creating grand, broad streets of high status residences. However, his vision was nearly derailed in the early stages by two deviations from his structured layout...
A property developer by the name of John Young had taken the council's incentive of £20 cash to purchase the first plot of New Town land, and promptly built two sets of semi-detached/duplex accommodation facing each other across a fine courtyard. Thistle Court, as it was called, was typical of the Old Town style of rubble-built housing, and the courtyard offered the familiar layout of space that grander Old Town residents would have expected.
The trouble was, it wasn't the terraced street that James Craig had planned for! So tucked away behind George Street, near St Andrew Square, this small development remains the oldest surviving development of the Georgian New Town, even though it completely failed to conform to the expected standards and layout.
A second deviation from Craig's plan would also be the kind of incident to leave modern residents frothing and foaming at the mouth, and it can be found on St Andrew Square itself.
Craig's vision for the city was a symmetrical layout of straight lines and garden spaces, 'bookended' with a large church building at both the eastern and western ends of the city. On Charlotte Square today you'll still find the former St George's Church, which was the major feature of visual impact at the western end of the city. However, at the parallel space on St Andrew Square, the space where Craig had drawn his church is occupied by the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
That was as a result of a wealthy businessman named Laurence Dundas convincing the council to allow him to occupy the land instead of giving it over for the church to use, because it represented the grandest and most high-status location in the city. St Andrew's Church was bumped onto George Street itself, and Dundas lived with his family in the grand villa which passed into the ownership of the bank in the nineteenth century.
The first phase of New Town took nearly 50 years to complete, meaning that for many people in the city, the area to the north of the Royal Mile would have been a building site for almost their entire lifetimes. And not everyone who could embrace the opportunity of the New Town did so - stories survive of at least one aged celebrity figure of the Old Town boasting that he had never even seen the New Town, never mind taken the trouble to visit it!
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Old Town was crumbling and collapsing, with incidents like the tragedy of Paisley Close becoming dangerously close to common occurrences. Edinburgh Council was forced to develop a vision to improve and modernise the medieval city streets, and from the 1860s onwards a significant proportion of the original city was demolished in order to widen the streets, rebuild the houses, and improve the quality of life for the thousands of poor wretches who were unfortunate enough to call Edinburgh's Old Town 'home'.
St Mary's Street at the World's End was the first street to experience this modernisation, giving birth to the Scots Baronial style of architecture which filled standard homes and shops and functional buildings with the kind of decorations and architectural features more commonly found on more high status buildings.
This period of the Victorian 'improvement' deliberately sought to recreate some of the historic stylings of the original buildings, which is why today visitors are often surprised (and dismayed) to learn that buildings which look not unreasonably like ancient structures are often barely more than 140 years old, and are. in fact a full century newer than the surviving 'New' Town buildings...
During the twentieth century, whole swathes of Edinburgh's historic buildings were lost to the wrecking ball.
Princes Street remains one of the most badly developed of the city's streets, as decades of commercialisation have built successive generations of shopping structures on the site of what previously had been grand housing.
The 1950s and '60s were especially traumatic for the city, as concrete edifices were built where Georgian style had once existed, and there were even plans to run a motorway along the route of Princes Street, demolishing the city structures entirely in an effort to provide improved transport routes across the from east coast. We must be grateful such wanton cultural vandalism never came to pass, and Princes Street retains a few vestiges of its original style despite the efforts of high street stores to claim the territory for their own.
Edinburgh only got its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995 - far more recently than many people realise - and the protection afforded by this status extends to all the structures standing at the time... which is why many of those remarkably awful developments of the 1950s and '60s not only survive today, but are protected from demolition alongside the more 'historic' buildings that people tend to associate with heritage protection!
And the UNESCO protection has actually led to developers being forced to work collaboratively with the old structures in their development, creating interesting contrasts of style and structure that I think can show off the very best of Edinburgh as a modern historic city.
On Advocate's Close, the development of the Old Town Chambers in 2014 was designated as Scotland's best new building, despite some of the foundations and internal structures of the property dating back, in parts, to around 1500...
Similarly at Holyrood where the modern Scottish Parliament building won handfuls of prestigious architecture awards, despite many locals being both appalled and outraged by its visual styling.
But the wholesale renovation of this former industrial area saw buildings such as this pizza restaurant occupying a renovated brewery building, and a modern glass structure to its right enhancing the original brick warehouse, bringing life and style back to buildings that could easily have been lost. Forcing developers to utilise structures like this invites a creative engagement with the city's heritage, and results in intriguing combinations of old and new.
One of the very best examples of this combination of Old and New, I think, can be found at Quartermile, a development in the Old Town of the 1870s Royal Infirmary buildings. When the hospital moved out to modern premises in 2005, the former buildings were sold for development and are continuing to be updated into a combination of residential and commercial spaces, the mix of old and new styles creating a stunning visual effect that I think serves as a fantastic metaphor for Edinburgh as a whole.
Many buildings - including a lot of churches which passed out of function - have been reinvented as other structures with different purposes, and the combination of styles can be quite visually arresting when done well.
This city has presented to developers for centuries, and the contemporary drive to convert and renovate and expand and improve is not significantly different from the efforts to modify and develop the city over the past four centuries or so.
Without efforts to maintain Edinburgh as a functioning, contemporary city, we would risk turning into a museum city that is preserved in aspic or trapped behind glass, lifeless and ill-suited to the needs of the modern world. Successful development demonstrates that history and heritage need not be sacrificed for the sake of commercial enterprise.
Whilst not every attempt to modify and develop is necessarily successful, being open to the possibilities that exist - and the efforts made to preserve, protect whilst in the process of development - is essential in order to prevent Edinburgh becoming a city only of the past, and not of the future.
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Robert Stodart Lorimer was born in Edinburgh on 4 November 1864.
His name isn't as well known as some of the architects like Robert Adam or William Playfair, but Lorimer was active across the UK and further afield during the early twentieth century, and found a reliable supply of work after the First World War as a designer of graves, monuments and war memorials. He also worked extensively in domestic settings, creating not the grand public buildings of better known architects, but contributing to his clients' domestic experience instead.
He was a notoriously frugal figure who never had more than four people working in his architecture practice, and resented having to buy coal to heat the offices during the winter months. He could also be a difficult man to work with, and lost several commissions because of his lack of tact or his insistence on features and elements that his clients didn't like.
One of his chief draughtsmen once commented that Lorimer was "terrible with clients", and remembered that during one argument with a client was heard to say, "'This house will be remembered because I designed it, not because you paid for it"...!
But some of Lorimer's greatest works were public buildings and features in Edinburgh. Here are some highlights.
THISTLE CHAPEL, ST GILES' CATHEDRAL
Lorimer produced several memorials and commemorative features in St Giles' Cathedral, but his most significant early contribution to the church building was the Thistle Chapel, designed in 1909.
This octagonal feature on the south-east corner of the building is filled with incredibly ornate decoration, with every surface covered in carved wooden panels with the crests of major Scottish figures around the space. It is in the Thistle Chapel that the Queen awards the chivalric title of Order of the Thistle, a historic royal honour dating back to the seventeenth century.
It's a small space, and not always open to the public (which is why I don't have photos of it!) but is worth visiting if you can get access during a visit - it is in the Thistle Chapel that you'll find the famous carving of an angel playing bagpipes! See if you can spot it amongst all the other decorations and carvings.
WALLACE AND BRUCE MONUMENTS, EDINBURGH CASTLE
The gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle was (only) built in the 1870s, but modifications were made in 1929 by Lorimer, for this grand entranceway to accommodate two statues of two of Scotland's historic heroes.
King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace stand on either side of the drawbridge entrance into the castle, cast by the sculptor Alexander Carrick.
But it's inside the castle itself that Lorimer's greatest work is visited by thousands of visitors a year...
Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle
Designed and planned in the aftermath of World War One, Lorimer's building honouring the Scottish soldiers who lost their lives during that war was opened in 1927 and today honours all those Scots who have lost their lives in conflict since 1914.
Lorimer utilised a part of an existing barracks block on the site at the top of Edinburgh Castle for his plans, which today are a quiet and peaceful place of reverence and respect.
Rolls of the names of the dead are kept in books for visitors to trace family and loved ones, and even in the middle of the summer when the castle is at its busiest, the Scottish National War Memorial remains a place of remembrance.
A number of other war memorial from Lorimer can be found in the city. Look for the memorial inside Old College, part of the University of Edinburgh, along with the memorial outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile.
Another of the University of Edinburgh campuses is King's Buildings, a collection of science and technology departments a little way from the city centre. Lorimer's architectural firm, which he ran with John Fraser Matthew, was responsible for several of the buildings on the site, including the building which originally housed the university's zoology department
Lorimer died in 1929, so it's likely that the bulk of the zoology building from 1928 was designed and overseen by Matthew, but it's an intriguing structure that always catches my eye on my frequent trips past it to do my weekly supermarket shop...
The building features reliefs of a variety of animals, a fun and creative addition to what could otherwise have been a very sombre and imposing 1920s structure!
Here's an aardvark, but you might also see crocodiles, an elephant, a kangaroo and many more cast in the building's stone...
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The architecture of Edinburgh is one of the constant delights of the city - no matter how many times I walk these streets (and I've walked them A LOT!) I'm always seeing new details or new features that I never noticed before.
But there are several instances in the city of architects dying before their buildings could be finished, and even (in one notable example) of a building being abandoned before it could be completed.
So here's a brief introduction to some of Edinburgh's unfinished architectural business...
GEORGE MEIKLE KEMP
Not an especially well known name amongst Edinburgh's architectural luminaries, Kemp was a joiner and carpenter by trade, but was also a self-taught architect who created one of the city's most significant structures.
In 1836, shortly after the death of the writer Sir Walter Scott, a public competition was launched to design a monument which would adequately celebrate this incredibly popular and influential figure. The top three designs would each win a prize of 50 guineas, and one of the designs would be built.
Kemp had no formal architectural training, and although he was a gifted draughtsman and had an eye for the detail of gothic structures of the Borders abbeys and Rosslyn Chapel, which he'd seen as a child, he'd never actually attained a design qualification. He submitted an entry to the competition under a pseudonym, and was thrilled when his design was chosen as one of the three winning entries.
Edinburgh was a city full of master builders and designers at that time, and his success (despite his lack of qualification) made him an unpopular figure in the architecture community. Nevertheless his design for a monument to Walter Scott commenced construction in 1840, and quickly took the 'gothic rocket' shape by which it is popularly known today.
In 1844, as the construction was nearing completion, tragedy struck. Kemp never made it home one evening, and his body was discovered floating in the canal near Fountainbridge a few days later. Suicide was ruled out, but whether it was foul play or accident which led to his drowning was never proven.
Kemp was buried in the St Cuthbert's kirkyard, and his ten-year-old son laid the final top stone of the monument to complete its construction six months after his father's death. Kemp never saw the finished monument which stands on Princes Street today.
Remembered as the architect who created the classical style of Edinburgh's New Town, Robert Adam came from a family of architects, and was such a notable figure in the late eighteenth century that on his death in 1792 he was afforded a burial plot within Westminster Abbey in London, lying alongside historical luminaries such as Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Drawin and (more recently) Stephen Hawking.
Adam's work across Scotland and the rest of the UK was extensive, but there were two major projects in Edinburgh which were left unfinished at the time of his death.
Most notably, perhaps, was the development of the University of Edinburgh's Old College, which Adam had designed as a double quad structure housing some of the university's prime teaching spaces. Construction began in 1788, but came to a halt four years later at the time of Adam's death.
Funding at this time was also a challenge, and so the building was left unfinished for nearly thirty years, until Adam's plans were passed to a luminary of the next generation of Edinburgh architects, William Playfair. Playfair made several major modifications to the plans - reducing the double quad to a single open space, for example, which reduced the cost of the construction significantly - and oversaw the development to its completion.
Adam would never see the finished Old College building, one of the most beautiful features in the Old Town, but neither would he see the completion of the site which would perhaps have the greatest impact and influence on the city as a whole.
The New Town of Edinburgh had been growing and developing steadily since 1767, with structures built westwards along George Street in sequence. The initial houses were all designed by different architects and developers, and the patchwork effect of styles and designs came to be considered unattractive, and ill-fitting with the highly stylised plans for the city.
Adam was commissioned to design all of the buildings around Charlotte Square, the western extent of the original New Town development, to create a harmonised sense of architectural style, and his plans started development in 1791, a year before his death.
Today, the style of Adam's Charlotte Square properties is reflected and reproduced right through the New Town, being taken on by later architects and developers and creating a unified sense of classicism which marks Edinburgh's New Town as a gem of Georgian style. Alas, Adam would never see Charlotte Square completed, nor would he know how influential his style and vision would be.
Another figure associated with the New Town would also never see the finished product. James Craig was the young architect whose grid-system plan for the New Town was revolutionary in the 1760s when he proposed it - three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was a vision that was clean, classical, and in complete contrast to the narrow, winding lanes of the Old Town, and created an entirely different sense of space for the city's new era of expansion.
Although he died before the New Town with finished, Craig did perhaps have some sense of its impact and importance, as he came to resent the demands upon him for commissions that replicated his early grid system, and wrote to a friend complaining of the "monotony of the straight line" that developers sought from him.
Craig died in 1795, a quarter of a century before the first phase of the New Town was completed, and was buried in what was, for a long time, an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Playfair was the neo-classical architect of the nineteenth century who followed Robert Adam's lead in creating distinctive styles of work which continue to populate Edinburgh's city centre. Almost any building with Grecian-style columns can reliably be claimed as either built or inspired by Playfair, but there is one specific structure which remained unfinished not just during Playfair's lifetime, but right up to the modern day.
On the top of Calton Hill, overlooking both the Old and New Town areas of Edinburgh, stands a distinctive range of columns that helped to give Edinburgh one of its nicknames, 'the Athens of the north'. This structure was original intended as a full scale recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, a Grecian temple structure that would serve as a war memorial to the dead and wounded Scottish soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.
The foundation stone for Playfair's design was laid in 1822 during the historic visit of King George IV, and fundraising efforts began to raise the estimated £42,000 that would be needed to complete the monument.
The first round of public subscriptions raised £16,000, and construction work began on the columns.
Then, the fundraising dried up, the public stopped donating, and money for the project became scarce. Various suggestions have been made for why the public lost interest in the project - partly the Napoleonic Wars were considered a dim and distant series of conflicts that the people of Scotland didn't have an immediate or visible connection to, and so their interest in commemorating them waned steadily. One other factor was the death of Walter Scott, and the subsequent fundraising for George Meikle Kemp's monument in his honour - as an immensely popular writer and social figure, it's plausible that where people had money spare to donate to a public monument, they favoured the celebration of Scott over the commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars.
Either way, a decision was made that Playfair's monument would remain unfinished, and construction stopped after the range of twelve columns which adorn the top of Calton Hill today. What was originally to be known as the National Monument is today better known as Edinburgh's Shame or Edinburgh's Disgrace, becase of the decision to leave it unfinished.
The last notable architect who never saw his work completed was the Catalan architect Enric Miralles. He was just 45 years old when he died of a brain tumor in July 2000.
The project that Miralles was working on at that time was considered to be the greatest of the buildings he designed during his career, and it can be found at the bottom end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the Palace of Holryoodhouse.
The modern Scottish Parliament Building is a controversial structure for several reasons, but the style and vision which Miralles brought to this previously neglected area of the city is the factor which visitors continue to find challenging. The building resists easy definition or understanding, and instead is a whole collection of symbolic references to Scottish culture, history, landscape and people - it's a truly eye-opening structure which was awarded the UK's highest architectural honour, the Stirling Prize, on its completion in 2004.
The building itself evolved over its construction, which may help to account for its variety of styles and features, but the most significant influence on its development was Miralles' death, which occurred just a year into the build and before the final vision of the parliament complex had been completed on the drawing board.
The project, suddenly without its lead architect, had to be taken over by another figure - and it was to be Miralles' wife, an Italian architect named Benedetta Tagliabue. She brought her own vision to Miralles' magnum opus, and saw it through to its completion.
Today the parliament is a highlight of the city, and deserves to be seen even if its style is considered to be challenging or ugly. The inside of the building is an incredible feat of light, space and style, and is worth exploring. Whilst he avoided much of the later controversy that came with the parliament, it's a shame Miralles didn't live long enough to see his intriguing building completed.
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