St Andrew Square in Edinburgh's New Town is one of the city's finest public spaces, as well as being where the New Town began development in 1767. Both the monument in the centre of the square, and one of the buildings around its edge, share a connection with branches of the Dundas family, who in the eighteenth century were one of Scotland's most powerful dynasties.
Sir Lawrence Dundas emerged from the merchant branch of the Dundas family. His father had owned a cloth and drapery business in the Luckenbooths, in the heart of the Old Town's market area on the Royal Mile, but Lawrence left the family trade to rise through the social ranks to become a property developer, and later a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
In the 1760s, when James Craig was laying out his design for Edinburgh's New Town, the garden of St Andrew Square was intended to have a church to Scotland's patron saint built on the east side of the square. A parallel arrangement was planned for the west end of George Street, where St George Square (now Charlotte Square) would have a grand church built on its western side, creating a lateral symmetry across the New Town, with the two churches 'bookending' the grand central thoroughfare of George Street.
When the land was put up for purchase, the plot which had been set aside for the Church of Scotland was instead retained by Lawrence Dundas - he felt the site facing across the square would be better suited to his family home than a church, and he foiled Craig's plans for symmetry across the city.
The church dedicated to St Andrew was later built on George Street itself, where it remains today.
The grand villa that Lawrence Dundas made his family home - designed by the architect William Chambers, who also built Somerset House in London, as well as designing the solid gold state coach used at the coronation of Elizabeth II and Charles III - was bought by the Royal Bank of Scotland after Lawrence's death in 1781, and later became the world headquarters for the financial organisation.
The building remains in the RBS holdings today, and is open to the public as a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland - visitors to the grand banking hall can enjoy something of the splendour that Lawrence Dundas built for his family, in lieu of the church.
In the centre of St Andrew Square stands an impressive monument, which many (reasonably) assume to commemorate the patron saint of Scotland, for whom the square is named. In fact the monument was built for Henry Dundas, a wealthier, more powerful relative of Lawrence Dundas, who earned his own place in Edinburgh's 'rogues' gallery' for his own underhand activities.
Having trained as a lawyer, Dundas rose to be Lord Advocate of Scotland in the late eighteenth century, before entering politics as a member of parliament for Edinburgh.
For twenty years he was known in Scotland as Harry the Ninth, due to the amount of power he wielded over the country - he had been both Home Secretary, Lord of Trade and First Lord of the Admiralty, making him treasurer to the British Navy, as well as being the UK's first Minister for War.
In 1801 Dundas was investigated for claims of misappropriation of public finances, when the Royal Navy discovered a proportion of its cash wasn't in the coffers where it should be. At the time, Dundas was a member of the Houses of Parliament, and when the allegations of financial corruption emerged he was thrown out - he remains the last MP to be impeached (although he was later acquitted of the charges).
In 1792, Dundas sought to modify William Wilberforce's proposed bill to end Britain's use of the slave trade with a grandfathering amendment which would see slavery abolished more moderately than simply ceasing overnight.
In the time it took for the House of Lords to approve the slavery act, an estimated 500,000 more people were born into slavery in British-owned plantations that would otherwise have been the case. Slavery was finally outlawed in the UK and all its overseas colonies in 1833, forty years after the initial bill was put before parliament. Thus Dundas enjoys a complicated legacy, wherein he can be argued as both as advocate for the abolition of slavery, and a force which tried to block it.
The 150ft monument to Dundas was designed in 1821 by the architect William Burn, and paid for "by contributions from officers and men of the Royal Navy" - which could be considered a euphemism for the manner in which Dundas spent the money he is alleged to have embezzled from his former employer...
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