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Issue 43 - Edinburgh's NewTown: history and hostelries

Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009

 

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Edinburgh's NewTown: history and hostelries

Aileen Torrance takes us on a historic walk around Edinburgh's New Town.

Edinburgh’s elegant New Town was custom designed and built in the late 18th century. With a host of distinguished former residents, a walk through this beautiful district gives a real sense of Edinburgh’s history and Scotland’s rich cultural and literary heritage. As an added bonus, the New Town boasts an excellent and diverse selection of atmospheric traditional pubs in which to shelter from the vagaries of the weather, providing an opportunity to nourish the body as well as the mind.

The ‘old’ town of Edinburgh in the 1750s was a clutter of unsanitary tenements accessed through narrow closes and treacherous stairwells. The collapse of a sixstorey tenement, killing one of the occupants, finally forced the city council to take action.

The North Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) was drained. Next came the building of North Bridge, a massive structure almost 70 feet high, which opened up access to the land north of the existing city boundaries. Work on the ‘new’ town of Edinburgh could begin.

In 1766, the young architect James Craig won the competition launched by Lord Provost George Drummond for the new town’s design. It was a simple plan, with George Street forming the backbone, Queen Street and Princes Street (called St Giles Street in the original plan) running parallel on either side. Two leafy squares named for the patron saints of Scotland and England, Andrew and George, symbolised the union of the two parliaments which had taken place in 1707.

Charlotte Square (renamed from George Square in honour of George III’s queen) is the starting point of our walk.

Created by Robert Adam, who died without seeing it completed, Charlotte Square is one of the finest examples of his work, and the only part of the original New Town built to a unified design. The ‘palace’ fronts were intended to make each side of the square look like one building instead of a terrace of individual houses, lending it a unique grace and harmony.

Charlotte Square is peppered with famous ex-residents. Alexander Graham Bell was born at Number 16; Joseph Lister at Number 9; and the 1st Earl Haig at Number 34. Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, is at Number 6. Number 7 Charlotte Square was at one time the home of the Chief of the Lamont Clan. Now administered by the National Trust for Scotland, the interior has been preserved as a typical example of a Georgian town house.

If you’re already in need of sustenance, head for the atmospheric vaults of Whigham’s Wine Bar at the corner of Charlotte Square and Hope Street. To continue the walk, go down North Charlotte Street at the north east corner of the square, then turn right along Albyn Place. Take a left down Wemysss Place and turn right into Heriot Row.

Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was from his small bedroom at the top of this house that he watched ‘Leerie’, the lamplighter immortalised in his poem of that name, carry out his duties each night.

Our next recommended pit stop, the delightful Kay’s Bar is nearby. Turn left into India Street then right into Jamaica Street to find it. To continue, return to Heriot Row and turn left, keeping Queen Street Gardens on your right.

These gardens were once part of the town house belonging to the Earl of Wemyss on Queen Street, which runs parallel to Heriot Row. Professor James Simpson lived at 52 Queen Street. In 1847 he, and a few of his chosen assistants, fell asleep after inhaling chloroform through a napkin, an experiment which led him to pioneer its use in surgery, particularly his own specialist area of gynaecology. Queen Victoria was one of the early beneficiaries. Further along, at Number 8, the Royal College of Physicians incorporates another house designed by Robert Adam.

Returning to Heriot Row, pause at the top of Howe Street to take in the view of St Stephen’s Church in Stockbridge at the bottom of the hill, and beyond it the Firth of Forth with the Fife coast in the far distance.

From Heriot Row turn left into Dundas Street.

The third street down on the right is Cumberland Street, home to the Cumberland Bar, a classic Edwardian saloon.

Cumberland Street is named for King George III’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland. In 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie was hiding in the Highlands following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, as the Duke came to be known, ordered that no quarter be shown to Charlie’s supporters, and pursued the Prince remorselessly across the Highlands, encouraging his men to burn, pillage, rape and murder as they went.

To continue the walk, turn right as you leave the Cumberland Bar and walk up Dundonald Street, then turn left into Drummond Place.

Named for Lord Drummond, this is the most elegant part of the second phase of the New Town development. Sir Compton McKenzie, author of Whisky Galore, lived at Number 31 during the 1960s. Nearby in Great King Street,Thomas de Quincey spent four years at Number 9, swamped by debt and a slave to the drug which gave its name to his most famous work Confessions of an Opium Eater. JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, lived as a young man at Number 3.

At Drummond Place turn right, turn left up Dublin Street and continue up to the National Portrait Gallery on the corner of Queen Street.

The first purpose built gallery in the world, the façade statuary is a veritable roll-call of Scottish history, including William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Continue up North St Andrew Street to St Andrew’s Square in the direction of Princes Street.

There is little left of the original St Andrew’s Square save the façade of the town house built for Sir Laurence Dundas in 1776 and now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Sir Laurence, a member of parliament, ‘acquired’ the site originally intended for St Andrew’s Church, which was subsequently built on George Street instead. He allegedly gambled it away in a game of poker One of the New Town’s first residents was David Hume. His house no longer exists, but a plaque in nearby South St David Street commemorates the site. Hume was more revered in his lifetime for his History of England than for the philosophical works for which he is more famous today, and which earned him the nickname The Great Infidel.

On July 7th 1776, Hume summoned James Boswell to his New Town home: he was dying, and wished to say goodbye to his friends (in fact, he took another seven weeks before finally departing this life). Boswell, who was above all a voracious voyeur, recorded every detail of the evening’s conversation in his journal.

Back in St Andrew’s Square, just past the Royal Bank of Scotland, turn left into West Register Street for a final, and very well deserved refreshment in the Victorian splendour of the Café Royal Bar.

Edinburgh’s New Town repays the curious wanderer tenfold with beauty, history and culture galore. And a generous sprinkling of convivial hospitality for good measure.

Associated sites of interest
George Street, the other main artery of the original
New Town, joins up with St Andrew’s Square. Places
of interest here include: St Andrew’s (now St
Andrew’s and St George’s) Church at Number 13,
originally intended for St Andrew’s Square; and the
Assembly Rooms at Number 54.
In the Old Town, James’s Court off the High Street is
where James Boswell lived when Samuel Johnson
visited. Not far from there in Lady Stair’s Close is the
Writer’s Museum which has artefacts associated
with Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir
Walter Scott.
Greyfriar’s Kirk, immortalised by its association with
Greyfriar’s Bobby, is the final resting place for many
of the New Town residents, including James Craig
himself, and home to the Adams family crypt – that of
the famous Scottish architects I hasten to add,
before fans of the ghoulish American sit-com family
of the same name get too excited.

More about the pubs
WHIGHAMS
Hope Street
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 8674
Avaulted cellar wine bar on the corner of Charlotte
Square, and an Edinburgh institution, offering an
excellent selection of wines by the glass. There is a
large, light and airy restaurant serving fresh seafood,
but I prefer to stick to the bar, a dark, sawdust-strewn
room with romantic, cavern-like booths
KAY’S BAR
39 Jamaica Street
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 1858
One of Edinburgh’s hidden gems if you like
atmospheric, old-fashioned pubs, with a wide
selection of real ales and whisky served in the last
surviving early 19th Century house on the street.
It’s tiny, and at lunchtimes full of local businessmen,
but there’s a fire in winter, and a cosy little back
room or library where you can relax and soak up
the ambiance
CUMBERLAND BAR
1-3 Cumberland Street
Tel: +44 (0)131 558 3134
Despite its association with the murdering Duke, the
Cumberland is a delightful and welcoming pub. The
various interconnecting saloons and snugs are
sparsely but attractively decorated with lots of old
pub and whisky mirrors on display. Boasting an open
fire in winter and a leafy beer garden in summer, this
Edwardian gem is worth a visit any time of year
CAFÉ ROYAL OYSTER BAR
9West Register Street
Tel: +44 (0)131 556 4124
The Café Royal is a magnificent and opulently
decorated Victorian gin-palace with a stunning
Oyster Bar restaurant attached (take a peak through
the doors if you’re daunted by the rather
astronomical prices). Benjamin Franklyn is one of the
industrial pioneers commemorated on the antique
tiled walls, and if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll get
to sit in one of the comfiest leather banquettes in
town. Full to bursting in the evenings and at
weekends, mid-afternoon is the best time to fully
appreciate its charms

Key attractions
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
1 Queen Street
www.nationalgalleries.org
Open daily 10-5, Thursday 10-7.
Free entry, although there may be a charge for
special exhibitions
GEORGIAN HOUSE
6 Charlotte Square
www.nts.org.uk/property/56/
Open 1 to 31 March, daily 11-3; 1 Apr to 30 Jun, daily
10-5; 1 Jul to 31 Aug, daily 10-7; 1 Sep to 31 Oct,
daily 10-5; 1 to 30 Nov, daily 11-3. Entry £5