The New Town Plan
“…You, Mr Sommerville, are a young man and may probably live, though I will not, to see these fields covered with houses forming a splendid and magnificent city…” Lord Provost Drummond, 1763
At the end of the 1700s Edinburgh changed dramatically. The council had a vision to build a New Town to transform the city and rival London, Berlin, Venice and Turin. The New Town was to bring grandeur and prosperity to the city by attracting back to Edinburgh the aristocracy and ‘people of rank’.
In 1766 a competition was announced to design the New Town, and the winner was a relatively unknown young architect called James Craig. After some alterations a design was agreed, and on 29 July 1767 a final plan was formally adopted by the town council.
The plan seems elegantly simple but it took Edinburgh from being the medieval ‘Auld Reekie’ of the past to the grandeur and classical style of the city as ‘Athens of the North’.
Read the council's 1752 Proposal for Carrying Out Certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh.
The ingenious architect
Despite his importance to the history of the city we know relatively little about James Craig, and he was never able to exploit his success in winning the New Town competition.
Right: James Craig by David Allan, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Now on display in the Museum of Edinburgh.
Craig was born and bred in Edinburgh and served an apprenticeship as a mason. Winning the competition in 1767 to design the New Town was his first major success and more work soon followed, such as designing a new hall for the Royal College of Physicians, an observatory on Calton Hill and St. James’s Square.
However after 1781 his fortunes dwindled and it is clear that Craig had problems with money. In a letter of 1782 he even offers the gold medal and silver box he received for winning the New Town competition as security for a loan. He died in 1795 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
‘A hot bed of genius’
The New Town plan emerged at a time when Edinburgh was known as a ‘hot bed of genius’, being home to the leaders of a new wave of ideas known as the Scottish Enlightenment. City residents such as philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith, challenged long held beliefs and championed logic, experiment and observation as a way of improving the world.
The New Town plan with its ordered and formal layout matches Enlightenment ideas about progress and rationality. There is a clear hierarchy with a ‘Principal Street’ and ‘Back Streets’ and lanes to give access to the rear of buildings.
Capital of North Britain
The New Town plan was intended to assert Edinburgh’s importance. Feeling the loss of the Parliament after 1707, and threatened by the Jacobite rebellions, the city wanted to be seen as still the leading city in Scotland or ‘North Britain’.
Left: The adopted New Town plan of 1767. Download a larger image.
In December 1767 James Craig visited London to seek the approval of King George III for the plan. The main streets were then named Princes, George and Queen Streets, and the smaller lanes Rose and Thistle Streets after the symbols for England and Scotland. The squares at either end of the plan were known as St Andrew’s and St George’s, which was later re-named as Charlotte Square after the Queen.
The original New Town plan is on display in the Museum of Edinburgh...Read more.
1752 Proposals are published calling for a New Town to be built and other public buildings to enhance the city.
1766 A competition is announced to design the New Town.
1767 James Craig’s plan is announced as the winner but is changed on the advice of other architects and scholars.
1772 The North Bridge spanning the Nor’ Loch is finally finished giving access to the area where the New Town was to be built.
1787 The Assembly Rooms are opened on George Street and a new access to the Old Town known as the Mound, formed from the earth excavated in building the New Town.
1791 Architect Robert Adam designs Charlotte Square to complete Craig’s plan.