Victoria Street in the Old Town has to be one of the most photographed locations in the city. Its gentle curve and colourful shopfronts making it favourite spot for tourist photos, postcards and TV adverts.
Victoria Street was built between 1829-34 as part of a series of improvements to the Old Town, with the aim of improving access around the city. Previously, access from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was via the West Bow, a very steeply sloped and narrow lane. The new street was planned to demolish much of the old West Bow, and provide a broad sweeping link to the newly built George IV Bridge.
It was designed by architect Thomas Hamilton, one of the leading lights in transforming the city with neo-classical buildings and much influenced by the architecture of ancient Greece. However it was stipulated that the buildings associated with the new street should be ‘Old Flemish’ in style, and draw inspiration from the details on Heriot’s Hospital.
The building at the top of the street is a good example, built for the Highland Society’s Agricultural Museum. Here the latest in farming technology was displayed, with the aim of improving agriculture throughout the country. If you look up you can still see the society’s coat of arms on the building – the figure of Caledonia on a pedestal, supported by a kilted Highland reaper and a ploughboy.
Further down is India Buildings, built in 1864 by architect David Cousins and designed in the fashionable Scots Baronial style of the time. Look out for the ‘bartizan’ at the top of the building, a small turret inspired by medieval battlements. It was intended as office space, and among the first occupants were the British Linen Bank, the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture and the Geological Survey of Scotland. In more recent years many Edinburgh citizens will remember the building as housing the city’s Registry Office. At the moment the building is unused, but it does come alive during the Festival Fringe as a venue. This is a great opportunity to see the building’s dramatic interior, a long corridor-staircase leading through a series of arches to a domed and balconied rotunda.
On the north side of the street a terrace was built, with a series of arches underneath which were later filled with shops. Undoubtedly the most famous business in the street was Robert Cresser’s brush shop, first established in 1873 and finally closing in 2004. The shop barely changed in all those years, with a dark Dickensian atmosphere inside with a wooden counter and bare floor. Brushes of all shapes and descriptions were displayed outside, as well as hanging from the ceiling and stuffed on to shelves. In the unlikely event that a brush required was not available, it could even be made to order.
Today the street is a charming corner of the Old Town, but recent speculation suggests that a relic of its darker past may still exist. This was the location of Major Weir’s house, a man notorious as ‘the Wizard of the West Bow’, who was executed for witchcraft in 1670. It was thought that his house was completely demolished when Victoria Street was built, but it now seems that some parts may still exist, hidden in the Quaker Meeting House on the upper terrace. An intriguing thought for those visiting to shop, dine or looking for the unexpected.