Although I've written about a lot of figures who I class as local heroes in Edinburgh, when I look back at the names that crop up most often they tend to be writers or architects (or even criminals...) who have left their mark on the city in some way.
I've only written about one former lord provost of the city previously, and that was William Chambers - but there's another man who was significant for Edinburgh's development through his role as lord provost, and I'm ashamed to say that I don't think I've ever mentioned him on a tour! Not even once - in the more than ten years that I've been talking to people about Edinburgh...
So in order to make up for that heinous oversight here's a whole blog dedicated to George Drummond - who was lord provost of Edinburgh not once, or twice, but for a total of SIX terms between 1725 and 1764.
George Drummond was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, and he wasn't born in Edinburgh but in Perth. He came to Edinburgh to study at the Royal High School, and by 1707 - at the time of the Act of Union with England - he was engaged as an accountant, helping to make the financial case for the political union. (Following the disastrous Darien Expedition, Scotland was essentially bankrupt and was drawn into the union with England partly to ease the desperate financial state in the nation.)
By 1716 Drummond was active in Edinburgh Council, and one of his first major contributions to the city was to help raise funds for the establishment of the first Royal Infirmary, on what is today Infirmary Street in the Old Town.
This institution had been championed by Alexander Monro, head of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh's school, who had been campaigning for a hospital to serve the needs of the sick and the poor of Edinburgh in the early 1720s.
The hospital opened in 1729, and by 1738 was already in need of a larger building to support its expansion - Drummond led the fundraising, and the new hospital building was designed by William Adam, father to Robert Adam. A later surgical hospital building by David Bryce still stands on the site today, which is accessed via Drummond Street, one of two roads in the city named for George Drummond.
After the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Drummond's next influential commission was the intended Royal Exchange building, which would be used by market traders to take business off the High Street and create a more formal, indoor market space.
The building, by John and Robert Adam, was opened by George Drummond in his role as Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1760 - but sadly the building proved to be unpopular with the traders and merchants for whom it had been designed. They preferred to conduct business at the nearby mercat cross, as they had done for generations, and instead the building became occupied by the city council itself, and survives today as the City Chambers.
Around this time the population of Edinburgh has grown to above 50,000 people, all crammed into the area of the Old Town, or approximately half a square mile of space. Living conditions in the city were abject in the extreme, and George Drummond began to make the case for a 'new' town to be developed, to ease the overcrowding of what was still, at that time, essentially a medieval city.
In 1766 Drummond announced a public competition to design a layout for this putative New Town - a competition that was won by a young man named James Craig, whose vision for the city's expansion proved to be revolutionary in terms of town planning.
Drummond also set in motion the draining of the Nor Loch, the artificial lake that occupied the valley where Princes Street Gardens are today, in order to provide access to the New Town, and for the ease of allowing its development. Draining the loch proved to be a longer and more problematic task than had been anticipated, and although Drummond laid the foundation for the original North Bridge to cross the valley in 1763, disaster struck in 1769 when the bridge collapsed due to its foundations proving not to be substantial enough, killing five people. The second bridge opened in 1772, and the structure which crosses the valley today is the 1890s replacement, built by Robert Morham.
Drummond would never live to see the New Town that he had campaigned for. He died in December 1766, the year before construction would begin in what became St Andrew Square.
However, he had already been living on land to the north of the city, on his estate near Bellevue, adjacent to the village of Broughton - the place where he had his house (long since demolished but which stood in the centre of what remains a private garden today) is now called Drummond Place.
Throughout his life Drummond had been an active Freemason, inducted into the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1 in1722 and serving as Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in the 1750s.
He was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, in a church that had been built the year he was born. His grave is rather difficult to view today, inaccessible behind a considerable amount of vegetation, adjacent to the wall of the Canongate Tolbooth.
All in all, George Drummond's life was a remarkable one, and his legacy to the city is undeniable. From having direct involvement in major moments of British history (like the union between Scotland and England, and some of the later Jacobite Uprisings) to his impact on Edinburgh itself, Drummond was important because of his sense of vision - he was able to cast forward into the future and make decisions (or argue for developments) based on the versions of the world that emerged through his imagination.
I would argue that this visionary capacity is something that we perhaps lack, as a society, today - the idea that we make decisions now for a future we may never see ('When old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit,' as the old proverb has it) is a notion slightly alien to us. Or a notion we find it hard to act upon, maybe.
So: George Drummond - I'm sorry I haven't mentioned you on tours before, but I promise to do so from now on!
Discover more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours...
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!