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Edinburgh New Town - elegance, symmetry and nice shops

Why are the elegant 18th-century streets north of Edinburgh Castle called the ‘New Town’? How did Edinburgh’s best known street get its name anyway? Join us for a stroll around the restrained grandeur…well, apart from the shops on Princes Street.

Edinburgh New Town

On this page, we’ll take a look at some of the key Edinburgh city-centre streets. There is much more to the New Town of Edinburgh than the streets mentioned here.

But, even so, you’ll be covering ground. And as you’ll be walking quite a bit and I’ll be droning on about their history you’ll need some refreshment to keep you going. (I know I will.) So, I’ll mention a few shops, tea rooms and pubs and things…

(Actually, the most entertaining city tours of Edinburgh are those run by Rabbie’s.)

Why a New Town? Background

Arriving at Waverley Station or reaching the city centre by bus or tram, many visitors' first impressions of the New Town of Edinburgh will be of Princes Street. It is greatly altered these days from the way it was intended in the plan for the original New Town.

While the Old Town of Edinburgh is centred on the Royal Mile, the original Edinburgh New Town lies north of Princes Street in a symmetrical arrangement of streets - a symmetry not always noticed by first-time visitors.

The core of the first New Town of Edinburgh, bounded by Princes Street, was the realisation of a plan conceived by a young and then unknown architect called James Craig. His design won a competition initiated by the Lord Provost and the Town Council in 1766.

The Man with the Plan

The Lord Provost was George Drummond, arguably Edinburgh’s greatest ever citizen. He had already been instrumental in supporting a long pamphlet published in 1752 and ponderously called ‘Proposals for carrying on certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh’.

This document lamented the crowded and dilapidated state of the Old Town and suggested, basically, that the chief city of ‘North Britain’ got its act together and caught up with the rest of Europe’s capitals. 

‘The meanness of Edinburgh has been too long an obstruction to our improvement, and a reproach to Scotland.’ And the most extraordinary part about the document was that most of its recommendations were carried out. A fine New Town was actually created and at its core lay James Craig’s plan.

A few key Edinburgh New Town Streets

Princes Street

The unknown soldier who fired the last shot in anger from Edinburgh Castle fired his musket ball northwards towards an open broad ridge of grassland. He was aiming for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops as they passed eastwards, heading towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse during the last Jacobite uprising in 1745.

For all I know, that wee ball may be lying, never to be discovered, under the foundations of a building, say, in Thistle Street, behind Princes Street. However, that thought is speculative and distracting when I’m supposed to be saying something coherent about Princes Street.

Here’s a cropped version of James Craig’s plan. He was playing it safe. There’s nothing innovative here. But the arrangement works and the shape survives today.

Here’s a cropped version of James Craig’s plan. He was playing it safe. There’s nothing innovative here. But the arrangement works and the shape survives today.

Princes Street (appearing as Prince’s {sic} Street in Craig's original plan pictured here) was intended to be a broad avenue whose fine (originally residential) buildings faced over the valley that lay between it and the Castle.

But what about Jenners, The Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Next, the Apple Store, Debenhams, Lush Spa, Ben’s Cookies and that man that stands on the corner of Princes Street and Hanover Street with a huge sign that says GOLF SALE (with an arrow)? Nope. None of these are to be found in Craig’s prize-winning plan.

Craig and the city fathers originally envisioned a harmonious arrangement of classy new houses looking out to that wonderful vista of crag and spire. That’s what was intended when building of the New Town of Edinburgh got underway about three-quarters of the way through the 18th century.

However, creeping commercialisation was there from day one, gradually spreading from east to west. Shop-keepers, eh?

The poet Allan Ramsay's statue looks out from Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens on the tram service that links city centre and airport.

The poet Allan Ramsay's statue looks out from Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens on the tram service that links city centre and airport.

Jenners - an Edinburgh institution

Princes Street shopping offers mainly large department stores such as Marks and Spencers, Boots and Primark. The most interesting of these large stores is Jenners. Its Scottish Gift Hall sells quality food, tartans, tweeds, glass and ceramics.

Known as the “Harrods of the North” – Jenners first opened in 1838. The richly carved late Victorian building you see today dates from 1895. They have free wifi here plus a selection of coffee bars and restaurants.

South Side of Princes Street Legal Battle

Anyway, the original residents of Princes Street at least managed to stop an early proposal to build on the castle side (or south side) of the street – but the legal battle went all the way to the House of Lords in England.

So, while strolling on Princes Street today, if you can tear your eyes away from said Lush Spa et al, to view the magnificent craggy castle-topped panorama, you have to thank these far-off residents who at least preserved the open side of the street.

The Balmoral Hotel with North Bridge on the right connecting the Old Town with the Edinburgh New Town

The Balmoral Hotel with North Bridge on the right connecting the Old Town with the Edinburgh New Town

Royal Scottish Academy in thin autumn sunshine

Royal Scottish Academy in thin autumn sunshine

But, I hear you say, there is actually a small amount of building opposite the shops. Oh, yes, the Balmoral Hotel, originally the North British Railway Hotel of 1902.

Then there is that preposterous Gothic stone rocket they call the Scott Monument also on the south side. The foundation stone was laid in 1840 to a design conceived by a humble mason called George Meikle Kemp.

(He never saw the structure completed as he fell into a local canal in 1844, and drowned.)

And, wait, we’re not finished yet. There is also the Royal Scottish Academy, whose facade with its classical columns terminates the view down Hanover Street. 

This was built as the Royal Institution, a public building once shared by various learned societies. William Playfair, associated with many city neo-classical works, was its architect – and it is also of interest because he was allowed two chances, so to speak.

His first building, completed in 1823, was later enlarged and its splendidly proportioned honey-coloured neo-classical columns is a reminder of the oft-quoted description of Edinburgh as the ‘Athens of the North’. (Scotland also has a less well known ‘Egypt of the North’ as well.)

The ‘RSA’ is sometimes described as the home of contemporary art in Scotland and hosts many interesting exhibitions. Behind it, of course, are yet more columns, belonging to the Scottish National Gallery opened in 1859 – free entry – don’t miss it as it houses some of the finest art in the world! 

So, that’s the ambience of Princes Street – heritage and commerce hand in hand. Catch an art exhibition, enjoy the performing space beside the grand galleries or buy a ‘dine in for £10’ deal at Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall.

George Street

My earliest memories of George Street include a few grand bank branches, a stuffy school outfitters, a rather swish furniture and carpet shop and…well, all of these have gone now.

The axis of the original New Town is a happening place. At least, it certainly struck me that way when I used to sit cowering in the car waiting for my then-student daughter’s early-morning emergence from a nightclub, or was it a sophisticated diner or trendy lounge?

(Oh, and I want to clarify that I had been summoned by her…it wasn’t a curfew situation, OK? And I like to think of fathers, all over the world, nodding their heads in agreement.)

Anyway, transport waiting in George Street for the fine ladies is part of a tradition. The thoroughfare was deliberately built wide enough so that a coach-and-four could do a U-turn, or whatever the manoeuvre is called when you drive horses. (A neigh through road? I don't know.)

So, whether you are sitting in your car late at night, watching the revellers while waiting for family, or strolling its pavements/sidewalks, you are right at the centre of the original Edinburgh New Town.

Because – as said above – George Street is the axis on which James Craig’s symmetrical plan revolved. It is balanced by a square at each end — St Andrew and Charlotte Squares — and two parallel streets, each with buildings on one side only – Princes and Queen Street.

Like Princes Street is was planned as a residential street but has now become commercialised. It gradually was built up from 1780 onwards as a tide of building flowed westward from the St Andrew Square area.

Assembly Rooms, George Street, New Town of Edinburgh

Assembly Rooms, George Street, New Town of Edinburgh

(Pictured here) Looks like a queue outside the Assembly Rooms. Perhaps it’s Festival time, or it might just be a special event. The Assembly Rooms have been a venue for more than two centuries.

One of the surviving buildings from this earliest phase is the Assembly Rooms, built by public subscriptions as early as 1787.

It provided a venue for the social life of the New Town – which must have had the atmosphere of an exclusive club.

It was on one of these ‘glittering occasions‘ – a dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund in 1827 – that Sir Walter Scott first confirmed to his public that he was the author of the then hugely successful Waverley Novels.

Oh how they gasped as he announced ‘Aw, chiels, ken this, it wiz me aa the time.’ Or words to that effect. (To be accurate, Scott habitually only used the Scots language when representing the speech of the lower classes - as he saw them - in his works.) 

Between 1800-26 he lived just a short distance away at 39 North Castle Street – where many of the works were written.

Time for afternoon tea?

Amidst the mixture of later Victorian commercial architecture on George Street, the former Royal Bank of Scotland branch of 1847, opposite St Andrew’s Church, is perhaps the most noticeable – a mixture of Greek and Roman styles and an imposing portico.

It was designed by David Rhind who doubtless spins in his grave at the thought of the dignified Roman columns festooned by twirls of fairy lights each festive season.

This is because the former bank is now The Dome, a gallimaufry of bar, restaurant, corporate entertaining, night-life and even afternoon tea. (Do not confuse with a Scottish high tea.) Worth popping in for a look at the old banking hall.

King George IV directs traffic in the George Street / Hanover Street intersection. in Edinburgh's New Town

King George IV directs traffic in the George Street / Hanover Street intersection. in Edinburgh's New Town

(Pictured here) King George IV on the Hanover Street / George Street intersection. He is also the Prince referred to in Princes Street (as he was the Prince Regent when the street was built).

George Street also has quite conspicuous statues. King George IV watches over traffic on the Hanover Street intersection.

Frederick Street features William Pitt, while the trio is completed on the Castle Street crossover with the less well-known Thomas Chalmers who led the Disruption of the Church of Scotland.

(The what? Do we really need to record bickering religious factions?) 

Talking of which, the HQ of the Church of Scotland, that august body who formerly held sway over life in Scotland (especially on Sundays!), is just along the road from Chalmers, in a fine Venetian style building.

Oh, no, wait – half of the facade is now an Anta shop. Very tasteful Scottish stuff there. Nice designs.

Still, now we’ve strolled along a wide street, let’s look at the next one in parallel, back towards Princes Street. It’s narrower and has a much more commercial background.

Rose Street, Edinburgh - just behind Princes Street.

Rose Street, Edinburgh - just behind Princes Street.

(Pictured here) Rose Street, Edinburgh New Town. No sweeping vistas here, that’s not what the street was for. It’s still a vibrant part of the city.

We know that James Craig was keen to keep in with the monarchy of the day, so it isn’t a surprise to find a Rose Street in the plan, with a Thistle Street symmetrically placed nearby.

(Thistle, symbol of Scotland; rose, symbol of England etc.)

Both streets were intended to have the same function (and they do): rather than being architectural showpieces of the new progressive age like Princes, George and Queen Street, these were conceived as having a servicing and trade role.

Shopkeepers and tradesmen were to carry on their businesses there, the denizens of the grander streets around forming the clientele. And all that makes sense, long before the days of edge of town shopping malls.

Lanes, mews and the servicing of grand houses in the New Town of Edinburgh

The cleverest bit, which you’ll discover as you stroll along Rose Street is that a lane – called Rose Street Lane – runs between that lesser street and its grander parallel neighbours. That lane formerly serviced the discreet back entrances of the grand residencies, say, on Princes Street.

Nowadays, of course, the lane between Rose Street and Princes Street in particular is the haunt of delivery lorries and waste bins the size of buses - but you can still imagine the coachman stabling his horses and retiring to his little flat of an evening.

In fact, if you really explore this big grid of streets you’ll discover that lanes – or ‘mews’ - run off Thistle Street as well. Apparently, until well into the 19th century these little streets in the heart of the capital still had in some places, in addition to stabling, byres for cows providing fresh milk to the local residents.

Decades ago, Rose Street used to have the reputation for being rather wild of an evening. The ‘Rose Street Run’ was the legendary downing of a pint (or was it just a half-pint?) of beer during a night out in as many of the pubs as you could before you fell in a stupor at some point.

Ah yes, simple times…and a few historically interesting pubs do survive there. For example, the Edwardian decoration of The Abbotsford survives. It was once (1950/60s) associated (as was Milne’s Bar further along Rose St) with the literary clique known as the Rose Street poets, including figures such as Hugh Macdiarmid, Sorley McLean and Sydney Goodsir Smith. They serve traditional Scottish food here too.

Edinburgh New Town street names

Finally, a note about the names of the streets in Edinburgh's New Town. Clever chap, that James Craig, the man with the plan. He wanted to keep on the good side of the far-off monarch, down south, King George III.

In fact, he rather tactlessly sent a copy of his prize-winning plan to King George III himself , along with a toe-curlingly sycophantic dedication.

He even managed to avoid all reference to the Edinburgh Town Council and their unstinting efforts to improve the place, taking all the credit for himself. They were not best pleased with Craig when they found out. Especially as they’d just given him a gold medal.

Anyway, the names of the streets make numerous references to the United bit of the Kingdom. (In those days still a minor novelty perhaps.) Thistle and Rose Streets, symbols of Scotland and England, are as the original plan. St Andrew Square, now overlooked by Harvey Nichols Edinburgh Branch, lies, as intended, at the east end of the grid.

Oddly enough, the matching square at the west end was to be called St George’s Square (Scottish patron saint matching English patron saint). It even appears as such on Craig’s drawing - but the name was changed to Charlotte Square in 1786.

Charlotte was King George III’s queen and also his daughter’s name. (Is there no end of the kow-towing from Edinburgh folk when it comes to royalty? Maybe that’s why they fought to have the Royal Yacht Britannia down in Leith.)

Princes Street on the plan had that dreaded punctuation mark, the apostrophe, ie Prince's (sic) Street.  The prince in question was the son of – surprise, surprise – King George III.

On the original plan the most famous street in Edinburgh was to have been called St Giles Street but Georgie didn’t fancy the name as it reminded him of the St Giles district in London, England, at the time ‘always infamous for its low and disorderly inhabitants’.

So, Prince’s Street it became – referring to the Prince Regent – before adopting the appearance of a plural form and losing that goddam pesky apostrophe in 1848. (By the way, want a foolproof rule for using the apostrophe? We have it covered…)

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