George Square is a leafy and bustling place at the heart of the University of Edinburgh’s campus, with students heading to the library or visitors to the Spielgeltent during the Festival Fringe in the summer.
The square was planned in 1766 by architect James Brown, and at the time represented the most ambitious new development yet attempted in the city. It was the first development outside the old city walls, and as a precursor to the New Town, offered an exclusive setting for Edinburgh’s professional classes. Sir Walter Scott's father, a prominent lawyer, was one of the first to have a house built there. His neighbours were a distinguished set, including the Countess of Sutherland, Lord Braxfield, the Justice-Clerk of the Court, and Henry Dundas, the future Lord Melville.
Before long George Square had its own Assembly Rooms at No’s14-16 for social gatherings, with a ballroom 92 feet long, lit by eleven crystal chandeliers. It was noted that people would stand on the High Street and shout loudly for a sedan chair to take them to George Square, ensuring that everyone in earshot would be suitably impressed.
Some of the original Georgian housing still exists and has very distinctive ‘cherrycock’ pointing, a line of small stones in the mortar joints between the blocks. Also look out for the plaques marking the homes of famous residents, including the authors Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the athlete Eric Liddell.
In 1914 the University of Edinburgh bought its first property in the square, and gradually increased its ownership until by the 1940s it owned the entire place. Then in 1949 a controversial programme of major development was planned, involving the demolition of much of the square.
Despite a huge public outcry the development started, but the destruction proved to be a turning point in focusing public attention on the plight of Edinburgh’s historic buildings. The western side of the square was saved and the remnants of many demolished houses were later used to repair buildings in the Georgian New Town.
Ironically, many of the new university buildings are themselves now protected. The David Hume Tower built in 1963 is a category A listed building, regarded as one of the key examples of Scottish Modernist architecture. It is amongst the very few buildings of the 1960s designed by Sir Robert Matthew, one of the most important British architects of the 20th century.
The architecture is of a very high standard of design with materials of exceptional quality, reflecting Matthew’s interest in a distinctively Scottish building. He used traditional slate roofing material cut into thick slabs as cladding for the tower, along with stone rubble on walls at lower levels. In 1967 the new University Library was built, designed by Sir Basil Spence and now seen as one of the finest buildings of its type in Europe.
George Square has changed dramatically since its beginnings as a quiet exclusive enclave. Today it represents not only the city’s success as a place of learning, but also a reminder of how close Edinburgh came to losing its losing its unique character.