As Edinburgh grew off the rock of the Old Town in the 1760s, the New Town took shape as a grand, high status residential district for wealthy families who could afford to live there.
Built to a grid plan modified from a vision laid out by the architect James Craig, the original New Town development was relatively modest in scale to a modern eye - just three streets running east-west, with a large private garden at each end, and bisected with smaller streets running north-south. Princes Street was the southern boundary of this new city, and Queen Street was its reflected parallel to the north. In the middle, the grandest street in its original scope, was George Street.
Today this first phase of the New Town project is largely commercialised, and many visitors (as well as locals) overlook it as a source of historical interest. So here's my brief guide to some of the features that can be found on George Street itself, as we traverse the length of the original New Town from St Andrew Square in the east to Charlotte Square at the west...
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Seated in the central reservation of the road is one of the most significant and influential figures of British science. James Clerk Maxwell was a progidious polymath, and made discoveries and innovations in a variety of fields during his lifetime.
In 1861 he took the world's first colour photograph in Edinburgh, demonstrating his knowledge of the different frequencies of light creating different colours of the spectrum. He also used pure maths to prove that the rings of Saturn was comprised of small particles of rock and dust - today one of the gaps between Saturn's rings is called the Maxwell Gap.
Albert Einstein considered Maxwell a more influential figure on his own work than Isaac Newton - without Maxwell we may never have had Einstein! Not bad considering as a young boy Maxwell was nicknamed 'dafty'...
The statue of Maxwell was created by Alexander Stoddart, and features one of Edinburgh's many representations of dogs in statue...
It is possible to pick out the original house structures which were built along George Street - each of the home was just three windows wide, but other than that they weren't built to any conspicuous plan or design. They are often subtly different in height, have their windows at different levels, and don't have the same decorations in the stonework.
That's because the New Town was initially developed by each family buying their own plot of land and commissioning their own architect to build their property - there was no attempt to make them match. The architectural unity that we often associate with the New Town style only came into effect towards the end of the building of the first phase of the New Town, when Charlotte Square was designed by Robert Adam (and later phases in which one architect would be responsible for designing an entire street).
Although shop fronts have been built out at street level, the buildings here still give an indication of what George Street would have looked like as a residential street.
At the junction of George Street and Hanover Street stands a statue of King George IV, by most accounts one of the worst kings Britain ever endured... He's celebrated here because he came to visit Edinburgh in 1822, at that time the first state visit by a monarch to Scotland for nearly two centuries.
But most of the New Town was built and planned during the reign of his father, George III, who was regarded as one of our best kings - much of this new city was named for him, and to celebrate the new union between Scotland and England which was only 60 years old when construction began. Hence George Street, Hanover Street (George's family name), Frederick Street (for George III's father), Queen Street and Charlotte Square (for his wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz). Other national ties are referenced with Rose Street and Thistle Street, the national flowers of Scotland and England.
THE ASSEMBLY ROOMS
Built as a meeting place for the hosting of parties and balls, the Assembly Rooms was a major project funded by public subscription (at a cost of over £6,000, a fortune in the 1780s) and opened in 1787. It was here that George IV was hosted during his momentous 1822 visit.
The builing was subsequently developed and added to several times, including by architects William Burn and David Bryce, and continues to host major events including use as as venue during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
A YOUNG PRIME MINISTER
The statue at the next junction as we move westwards along George Street is that of William Pitt the Younger, the second-longest serving Prime Minister in history, who became PM at the age of just 24 years old. He served under George III and his name distinguishes him from his father, William Pitt the Elder, who was also Prime Minister in the decade prior.
Pitt's time in parliament saw a huge shift in the political landscape across Britain, and he is credited with introducing the cabinet system of governance (where ministers each take a portfolio of specific responsibilities to manage), as well as bringing in a number of taxes which had an impact on Britain.
The window tax, an oft-cited example of Pitt's financial interventions (which he didn't introduce but the rate of which he increased), wasn't either the most dramatic or the longest lasting of his his taxes - the income tax he brought in as a temporary measure in 1799 continues to be levied over two centuries later...
Above the entrance to 84 George Street is a small model of a lighthouses which, if you keep an eye on it, will be seen to flash periodically. It marks the offices of the Northern Lighthouse Board, the organisation which oversees the management and maintenance of the lighthouses around the northern coast of Scotland. At one time each lighthouse required individual keepers to operate them, but with modern technology the function of these essential safety beacons are managed remotely.
A little further along the street is the grand facade of the headquarters of freemasonary in Scotland, and home to the Grand Lodge of Scotland. The oldest lodge records in Scotland (indeed the world) belong to Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) Lodge No. 1, which date back to 1599 - and its building is a short walk away from George Street itself.
The statue in the next intersection is Thomas Chalmers, a church minister who led the 'Great Diaruption' of 1843 when a group of church leaders broke away from the central Church of Scotland organisation to establish the Free Church of Scotland - a church which wasn't tied and regulated by same strictures which they felt had limited the spiritual independence of the church's operations.
Ministers and elders met at St Andrew's Church - which we came past earlier on George Street - in May 1843, and announced their protest, leading a march out of the building and down to Canonmills, north of the city centre, to hold the first meeting of their Free Church.
Chalmers was the first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, and his statue on George Street was sculpted by Sir John Steell.
CHURCH OF SCOTLAND OFFICES
Within a stone's throw of Thomas Chalmers are the central administrative offices of the Church of Scotland today. The building itself has an off-centre quality to it, with the entrance positioned awkwardly a third of the way from one end, creating an imbalanced appearance that seems at odds with the New Town's symmetry and style.
In fact, the church offices were originally built in 1909-11 with a symmetrical, balanced front, with the doorway in the centre of the building. Then, two decades later, in the 1930s, an extension was added to the eastern side of the building, creating additional space - on the front oft he building, if you look at the stonework, you can see how this additional third which was added to the original structure was integrated on the outer surface.
A TONTINE HOTEL
The building across the road from the Church of Scotland offices, at 120 George Street, was built originally as an hotel in the late 18th century. It was established as part of a form of investment and development known as a Tontine, and Scotland still has several hotels which bear this original name of their form of funding.
This type of scheme is named after an Italian banker named Lorenzo di Tonti, and operates in a curious way. All the investors in the building contribute the same initial sum as part of the investment, and each of them derive an equal share from the profits generated by the business. But those shares cannot be transferred or passed on to other people, such as children or spouses - when an original investor dies, their share gets split equally between the surviving investors, increasing their respective stakes.
By this means, original investors become wealthier from their investment as time goes on and fewer investors remain. And doubtless you've already spotted the fundamental flaw in this system of funding, which leaves it open to abuse...!
Today the original Tontine hotel on George Street has been converted into office space.
Look up to the two windows nearest the end of the row on both sides of George Street and you'll see the windows have been bricked up and painted over with the illusion of window panes - these so-called 'dummy windows' or 'blind windows' are a common feature of New Town buildings as a result of William Pitt the Younger's raising of the rate of window tax.
Levied in Scotland between 1748 and 1851, the window tax was designed to target wealthy families with large houses (who could therefore afford a higher tax burden), and was charged on a per window basis for houses with over a certain number of windows. If a property owner didn't wish to pay the tax, all they had to do was not have the window - so excess windows would be bricked up, and in cities like Edinburgh where the visual style of street was a paramount concern the illusion of a window would be painted on, becoming known as 'Pitt portraits'.
However, not all blind windows were as a result of the window tax - because these buildings often had to have fireplaces or staircases on the inside of these outer walls, there was often no physical window ever installed, with the window recess being included to preserve the symmetrical patterning of the street. The stone was usually cut to create the illusion of two sash panes, one hanging over the other.
One way to get a sense of whether the bricked up window is a result of the window tax or an internal feature it to look directly above the blind window to the roof - if there's a chimney stack aligned with the window recess, that's the indication that it may never have been a window at all...
And so we arrive at Charlotte Square - originally to have been named St George Square (to parallel with St Andrew Square at the east end of the city), it took the original developers nearly fifty years to get as far as this point in the New Town - at which time there had already been another development in the Old Town named George Square... So St George Square was renamed for the wife of George III.
And that concludes our stroll along George Street! I always try to feature a little of New Town in my customised walking tours, as far as possible, because - as I always say - if you only focus on Old Town you're only getting one half of Edinburgh's story...
Discover more of the New Town with my fixed-route walking tour, or a customised tour option!
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