Nestled almost in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town is a Georgian-era square more in keeping with the city's terraces and squares to the north of Princes Street Gardens than the narrow lanes of the medieval part of the city.
Today George Square is a bustling garden space surrounded by buildings managed by the University of Edinburgh, and in the summer becomes a haven for theatrics during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Built in the 1760s at around the same time as the New Town was taking shape, the surviving aspects of George Square show it to have been a handsome and well-appointed alternative to the squalid and overcrowded streets of the Old Town.
Ignore the unsightly intrusions of some of the modern university buildings (a hangover from the concrete-centric developments of the 1960s), and you can almost picture the square in its heyday, lit by gas lamps and with horses and carts clattering around its cobbles. The surviving buildings are notable for their decorative stonework, a feature known as cherry cocking, with smaller stones inserted into the masonry in the joints between larger bricks to strengthen the structure.
The construction of the square was overseen by architect James Brown, and it is said the development was named not for his king, George III (as George Street in the New Town was, for example) but for the architect's older brother. The houses here weren't as grand as the properties being built along Princes Street and the rest of the New Town, but they were two- and three-story townhouses that offered a luxurious alternative for grand families who could afford to move away from shared tenement buildings on the Cowgate and the High Street.
Famous occupants of the square include the family of the writer Walter Scott, who moved here in 1774, when the future writer was still a baby, and (much later) another writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been born on the other side of the city, in buildings long since demolished on Picardy Place.
George Square was also home to Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, whose monument dominates another of the city's squares, St Andrew Square in the New Town.
In 1792 George Square fell victim to attacks from an angry mob, rebelling against Dundas's efforts to obstruct the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. As well as Dundas's home, windows were smashed in surrounding properties on the square, and Dundas is broadly 'credited' with having the abolition of slavery blocked until nearly twenty years later.
George Square remained a popular area for wealthy occupants well into the nineteenth-century. Today the buildings around the square all belong to the University of Edinburgh, including the George Square Theatre and central university library, dominating the southern side of the square.
Explore George Square and other highlights of the Old Town with my private city walking tours!
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