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Edinburgh's New Town

When Edinburgh's "New Town" was freshly completed, it was a showcase of Georgian architecture, remarkable residents and graceful parks...and in some ways, it's even more compelling today.


My history lesson began the moment Forbes McNaughton, resplendent in his tartan kilt, met me at the guesthouse on a drizzly morning. By the time we had hiked to the bus stop, climbed the double-decker, disembarked alongside the Princes Street Gardens and sprinted breathlessly up to Charlotte Square, I had had an in-depth course in Scottish history and the beginnings of a pretty good grip on how Edinburgh's New Town came to be. Now we were ready to explore this logically laid-out section of Edinburgh, a place too often missed by visitors who justifiably fill their time with the wonders of Old Town.

At this point in the oral tutorial, it was April of 1746 and the Hanoverian army had decisively defeated the Jacobites at Culloden. Neither Prince Charlie nor any royalty would ever return to Edinburgh. If the powerful capital city, burgeoning with wealth and birthing the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, were to hold on to its aristocracy and its influence, it would have to change its image.

By this time, around 24,000 people lived cheek by jowl in Edinburgh's medieval city. Noblemen and laborers, criminals and bankers, fine ladies and street urchins were all packed into the ancient jumble of narrow winding streets and alleyways. Noted for filth, rats and bad smells, its only possibility for growth had been skyward, resulting in tall tenements, possibly the world's first skyscrapers. Edinburgh was bursting at the seams.

While life became more and more grueling, ideas had been forming for a "new" Edinburgh, where the educated and well-to-do might live in a healthy environment and present to the world a city as significant as London. It would be the centre not only of commerce, arts and learning but also of refined, elegant living

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2009 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Shetland Islands Homecoming by Keith Aitken.

Photos (left to right): © Craig Brown/Scottish Viewpoint; © P. Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint; © VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint