Edinburgh's Princes Street is probably the most iconic of the original New Town streets, running parallel to the Old Town and with world-class views of the castle and other historic landmarks.
Originally a residential terrace of grand Georgian houses, it was later considered one of the great shopping streets of the UK. Today it's an oft-maligned thoroughfare along which locals reluctantly trudge, or down which visitors trundle their suitcases, dodging the trams, looking for their accommodation.
When the New Town was laid out by James Craig, this street of his grid system was purposely designed to only have houses along one side, creating the sense of space that the city enjoys today. Early suggestions for the name of the street were South Street (because of its location in terms of the New Town) and St Giles' Street, referencing the patron saint of Edinburgh.
That name was vetoed by George III, on the basis that St Giles Cripplegate in London was an especially poor, run-down, slum area at the time, and he didn't want the grand, modern, highly desirable New Town of Edinburgh to be mistaken for a slum district!
When the New Town scheme took street names which referenced the monarchy and the (relatively new) union with England, the street became Princes Street, for the sons of George III - two of whom would become king themselves.
Today it's hard to imagine Princes Street as the grand residential space it was originally - you have to look beyond the Apple Store, Marks and Spencer, Primark, the bargain book shops, and the tatty Scottish souvenir shops, mobile phone stores and fast food outlets...
Here's my brief exploration of some of the more notable highlights of Princes Street.
Starting at the west end of Princes Street, the Balmoral Hotel is one of the great architectural landmarks of the New Town, with its iconic clock tower standing over 190ft (58m) high above the street.
Opened in 1902, the hotel was designed by William Hamilton Beattie and remains one of the only buildings on the southern side of Princes Street. Originally it operated at the North British Railway hotel - look for the letters NBR in the stonework of the building - attached to the railway station in the valley behind it, which was originally run by the North British railway company. This historic connection with the railway explains why the clock is always a few minutes fast...
Adjacent to the Balmoral is the Princes Mall, a shopping centre which drops into the valley and was originally the Waverley Market, a Victorian-era market space.
Crossing Waverley Bridge, the tall monument which dominates the eastern section of Princes Street Gardens is the Scott Monument - but look in front of it for the more modest statue of David Livingston, a missionary and explorer.
This statue is the work of Amelia Hill, an artist and sculptor who also contributed several figures to the grander monument to Sir Walter Scott. Hill was the wife of David Octavius Hill, an early pioneer and developer of photography, although she was successful in her own right, and was still exhibiting work at the Royal Scottish Academy into her eighties.
Across Princes Street from the Scott Monument is the former Jenners department store, a true Edinburgh institution and at one time the oldest privately owned department store in the UK. The building (like the nearby Balmoral Hotel) was designed by William Hamilton Beattie - but Jenners had previously occupied two of the original houses which stood on the same site, from the 1830s.
Initially it was established by two men, Charles Kennington and Charles Jenner, who (it is said) were sacked from their jobs at one of Edinburgh's department stores, and so set up their own rival business! When the original premises were destroyed by fire in the 1890s, the new, purpose-built shop building by Beattie was created at the same location. It became an iconic fixture in Edinburgh's shopping landscape, notable in particular for its annual Christmas tree and associated displays.
Sadly Jenners closed in 2020 and the building is currently undergoing a renovation to create a combined hotel and shopping space in the old building.
The Mound was created from the spoil that was being excavated from the construction of the New Town, when over two million cartloads of earth were emptied into the valley between Princes Street and the Old Town. Still operating as a connection between the two sides of the city, the Mound today is the home to two gallery buildings - the Scottish National Gallery and, on Princes Street itself, the Royal Scottish Academy building.
The RSA was designed by William Henry Playfair in the 1820s, and atop the front portico is a statue of Queen Victoria, seated in a chair, by the artist Sir John Steell. The building is typical of Playfair's grecian-styled architecture, and helps explain Edinburgh's nickname in the nineteenth century of 'the Athens of the North'.
Across the Mound from the gallery building stands another Steell statue, of local librarian and wigmaker Allan Ramsay. Beneath him is the city's floral clock - the oldest in the world, having been planted every year since 1903.
Many of the original buildings along Princes Street from this point have been demolished and replaced with modern commercial properties. In the 1950s a plan to run a major motorway through the centre of Edinburgh would have necessitated the wholesale demolition of Princes Street, and much of the gardens.
Various visions of how the development might have looked can be found online, including models of elevated roads running along the sides of the valley and underground roads built under the line of Princes Street today. Thankfully none of them ever got sufficient support to be built, but we may have lost even more of Princes Street than we already have....
The prominent statue of a soldier mounted on a horse opposite Frederick Street represents members of the Royal Scots Greys regiment. The monument was originally created by the artist William Birnie Rhind to commemorate those who fought and died in the South African Boer War of 1899-1902. Later additions to the memorial record the regiment's involvement in both the First and Second World Wars.
The next statue is of Thomas Guthrie, a church minister and preacher who also established a network of 'Ragged Schools', intended to provide care and education to children from the poorer communities of the Old Town. Guthrie's original school was adjacent to the Camera Obscura building on the Royal Mile, and his model of education included not just formal instruction but also provided the children with meals, clothing and religious teachings.
The views of Edinburgh Castle from this section of Princes Street are impressive, and several of the shops have cafes which take advantage of the views - check out the cafe on the upper floor of the Waterstones bookshop...
Near the western-most entrance to the gardens is a statue of James Young Simpson, a medical pioneer who became the first person to be knighted for services to medicine. Queen Victoria had been particularly impressed by his development of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic during childbirth, and took advantage of its properties during the conclusion of several of her later pregnancies.
On the corner with Lothian Road is St John's Church, built originally by William Burn in 1818 at a cost of £18,000. The church is known for its political activism, and stages the Just Festival (also known as the Festival of Peace) every summer, along with its craft fair. In the graveyard of St John's is the only known grave in Edinburgh of a person born into slavery, that of Malvina Wells.
Finally, on the northern side of Princes Street at its extreme western end, is the former department store building which housed first Robert Maule and Sons, then Binns, which was later bought out by House of Fraser, until it was finally taken over most recently by the Johnny Walker whisky brand, who opened it as a visitor attraction in 2021.
On the corner of the building is the Binns clock, an ornate and decorative clock which still features a small troupe of mechanical bagpipers who march around periodically!
Princes Street is not often thought of so much as a destination, perhaps, as a means of getting to somewhere else in Edinburgh, but if you stop and look you will find more to see on this busy shopping street than you might expect.
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