Edinburgh New Town – elegance, symmetry and nice shops!

Edinburgh New Town takes in the elegant 18th-century streets north of Edinburgh Castle, starting with Princes Street. But how did Edinburgh’s best known street get its name anyway? Let’s go for a stroll around the restrained grandeur…well, apart from the shops on Princes Street.

On this page, we’ll take a look at some of the key Edinburgh city-centre streets. There is much more to the New Town of Edinburgh than the streets mentioned here.

But, even so, you’ll be covering ground. And as you’ll be walking quite a bit and I’ll be droning on about their history you’ll need some refreshment to keep you going. (I know I will.) So, I’ll mention a few shops, tea rooms and pubs and things…

Why a New Town? Background

Arriving at Waverley Station or reaching the city centre by bus or tram, many visitors’ first impressions of the New Town of Edinburgh will be of Princes Street. It is greatly altered these days from the way it was intended in the plan for the original New Town.

While the Old Town of Edinburgh is centred on the Royal Mile, the original Edinburgh New Town lies north of Princes Street in a symmetrical arrangement of streets – a symmetry not always noticed by first-time visitors.

The core of the first New Town of Edinburgh, bounded by Princes Street, was the realisation of a plan conceived by a young and then unknown architect called James Craig. His design won a competition initiated by the Lord Provost and the Town Council in 1766.

The Man With The Plan

The Lord Provost was George Drummond, arguably Edinburgh’s greatest ever citizen. He had already been instrumental in supporting a long pamphlet published in 1752 and ponderously called ‘Proposals for carrying on certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh’.

This document lamented the crowded and dilapidated state of the Old Town and suggested, basically, that the chief city of ‘North Britain’ got its act together and caught up with the rest of Europe’s capitals. 

‘The meanness of Edinburgh has been too long an obstruction to our improvement, and a reproach to Scotland.’

And the most extraordinary part about the document was that most of its recommendations were carried out. A fine New Town was actually created and at its core lay James Craig’s plan.

James Craig's New Town plan.
Here’s a cropped version of James Craig’s plan. He was playing it safe. There’s nothing innovative here. But the arrangement works and the shape survives today.

Princes Street (appearing as Prince’s {sic} Street in Craig’s original plan pictured here) was intended to be a broad avenue whose fine (originally residential) buildings faced over the valley that lay between it and the Castle.

But what about Jenners, The Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Next, the Apple Store, Debenhams, Lush Spa, Ben’s Cookies and that man that stands on the corner of Princes Street and Hanover Street with a huge sign that says GOLF SALE (with an arrow)?

Nope. None of these are to be found in Craig’s prize-winning plan.

Craig and the city fathers originally envisioned a harmonious arrangement of classy new houses looking out to that wonderful vista of crag and spire.

That’s what was intended when building of the New Town of Edinburgh got underway about three-quarters of the way through the 18th century.

However, creeping commercialisation was there from day one, gradually spreading from east to west. Shop-keepers, eh?

Edinburgh city-centre
The poet Allan Ramsay (statue of) looks down with approval from Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens on a passing Edinburgh tram. It’s a good way of getting to the airport from the city centre, but there is also a regular airport bus service.
Jenners – An Edinburgh Institution, once upon a time

Princes Street shopping offers mainly large department stores such as Marks and Spencers, Boots and Primark.

The most interesting of these large stores was Jenners – a former Edinburgh icon that was a byword for quality for generations of Edinburgh shoppers, though now no more.

Known as the “Harrods of the North” – Jenners first opened in 1838. The richly carved late Victorian building you see today dates from 1895.

But nothing lasts forever. Who knows what guise the building will take…?

Edinburgh New Town South Side Of Princes Street Legal Battle

Anyway, the original residents of Princes Street at least managed to stop an early proposal to build on the castle side (or south side) of the street – but the legal battle went all the way to the House of Lords in England.

So, while strolling on Princes Street today, if you can tear your eyes away from said Lush Spa et al, to view the magnificent craggy castle-topped panorama, you have to thank these far-off residents who at least preserved the open side of the street.

George IV Bridge links Old and New Towns
The Balmoral Hotel with North Bridge on the right connecting the Old Town with the Edinburgh New Town

But, I hear you say, there is actually a small amount of building opposite the shops. Oh, yes, the Balmoral Hotel (above), originally the North British Railway Hotel of 1902.

Then there is that preposterous Gothic stone rocket they call the Scott Monument also on the south side. The foundation stone was laid in 1840 to a design conceived by a humble mason called George Meikle Kemp.

(He never saw the structure completed as he fell into a local canal in 1844, and drowned.)

Scottish National Gallery (right) with Royal Scottish Academy.
Scottish National Gallery (right) with Royal Scottish Academy.

And, wait, we’re not finished yet. There is also the Royal Scottish Academy, whose facade with its classical columns terminates the view down Hanover Street. 

This was built as the Royal Institution, a public building once shared by various learned societies.

The Athens of the North

William Playfair, associated with many city neo-classical works, was its architect – and it is also of interest because he was allowed two chances, so to speak.

His first building, completed in 1823, was later enlarged and its splendidly proportioned honey-coloured neo-classical columns is a reminder of the oft-quoted description of Edinburgh as the ‘Athens of the North’.

(Scotland also has a less well known ‘Egypt of the North’ as well.)

The ‘RSA’ is sometimes described as the home of contemporary art in Scotland and hosts many interesting exhibitions.

Behind it, of course, are yet more columns, belonging to the Scottish National Gallery opened in 1859 – free entry – don’t miss it as it houses some of the finest art in the world! 

So, that’s the ambience of Princes Street – heritage and commerce hand in hand. Catch an art exhibition, enjoy the performing space beside the grand galleries or buy a ‘dine in for £10’ deal at Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall.

George Street

Earlier memories of George Street include a few grand bank branches, a stuffy school outfitters, a rather swish furniture and carpet shop and…well, all of these have gone now.

The axis of the original New Town is a happening place.

At least, it certainly struck me that way when I used to sit cowering in the car waiting for my then-student daughter’s early-morning emergence from a nightclub, or was it a sophisticated diner or trendy lounge?

(Oh, and I want to clarify that I had been summoned by her…it wasn’t a curfew situation, OK? And I like to think of fathers, all over the world, understanding and nodding their heads in agreement.)

Anyway, transport waiting in George Street for the fine ladies is part of a tradition.

The thoroughfare was deliberately built wide enough so that a coach-and-four could do a U-turn, or whatever the manoeuvre is called when you drive horses. (A neigh through road? I don’t know.)

George Street at the east end
George Street towards the east end.

So, whether you are sitting in your car late at night, watching the revellers while waiting for family, or strolling its pavements/sidewalks, you are right at the centre of the original Edinburgh New Town.

Because – as said above – George Street is the axis on which James Craig’s symmetrical plan revolved. It is balanced by a square at each end — St Andrew and Charlotte Squares — and two parallel streets, each with buildings on one side only – Princes and Queen Street.

Like Princes Street, George Street was planned as a residential street but has now become commercialised. It gradually was built up from 1780 onwards as a tide of building flowed westward from the St Andrew Square area.

Sir Walter Scott and the New Town

One of the surviving buildings from this earliest phase is the Assembly Rooms, built by public subscriptions as early as 1787.

It provided a venue for the social life of the New Town – which must have had the atmosphere of an exclusive club.

It was on one of these ‘glittering occasions‘ – a dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund in 1827 – that Sir Walter Scott first confirmed to his public that he was the author of the then hugely successful Waverley Novels.

Oh how they gasped as he announced ‘Aw, chiels, ken this, it wiz me aa the time.’ Or words to that effect. (To be accurate, Scott habitually only used the Scots language when representing the speech of the lower classes – as he saw them – in his works.) 

Between 1800-26 he lived just a short distance away at 39 North Castle Street – where many of the works were written.

Former bank in George Street
Former bank of 1847 in George Street, now The Dome.

Time For Afternoon Tea?

Amidst the mixture of later Victorian commercial architecture on George Street, the former Royal Bank of Scotland branch of 1847, opposite St Andrew’s Church, is perhaps the most noticeable – a mixture of Greek and Roman styles and an imposing portico.

It was designed by David Rhind who doubtless spins in his grave at the thought of the dignified Roman columns festooned by twirls of fairy lights each festive season.

This is because the former bank is now The Dome, a gallimaufry of bar, restaurant, corporate entertaining, night-life and even afternoon tea. (Do not confuse with a Scottish high tea.) Worth popping in for a look at the old banking hall.

King George IV statue in George Street
King George IV directs traffic in the George Street / Hanover Street intersection. in Edinburgh’s New Town

(Pictured here) King George IV on the Hanover Street / George Street intersection. He is also the Prince referred to in Princes Street (as he was the Prince Regent when the street was built).

George Street also has quite conspicuous statues. As well King George IV at the Hanover St crossing, there is William Pitt where Frederick Street crosses.

The trio is completed on the Castle Street crossover with the less well-known Thomas Chalmers who led the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. 

(The what? Do we really need to record bickering religious factions?) 

Talking of which, the HQ of the Church of Scotland, that august body who formerly held sway over life in Scotland (especially on Sundays!), is just along the road from Chalmers, in a fine Venetian-style building.

Oh, no, wait – half of the facade is now an Anta shop. Very tasteful Scottish stuff there. Nice designs.

Still, now we’ve strolled along a wide street, let’s look at the next one in parallel, back towards Princes Street. It’s narrower and has a much more commercial background.

Rose Street

We know that James Craig was keen to keep in with the monarchy of the day, so it isn’t a surprise to find a Rose Street in the plan, with a Thistle Street symmetrically placed nearby.

(Thistle, symbol of Scotland; rose, symbol of England etc.)

Both streets were intended to have the same function (and they do): rather than being architectural showpieces of the new progressive age like Princes, George and Queen Street, these were conceived as having a servicing and trade role.

Rose Street, Edinburgh - just behind Princes Street.
Rose Street, Edinburgh – just behind Princes Street.

Shopkeepers and tradesmen were to carry on their businesses there, the denizens of the grander streets around forming the clientele.

And all that makes sense, long before the days of edge of town shopping malls.

The cleverest bit, which you’ll discover as you stroll along Rose Street is that a lane – called Rose Street Lane – runs between that lesser street and its grander parallel neighbours.

Lanes, mews and the servicing of grand houses in the New Town of Edinburgh

Rose Street Lane formerly serviced the discreet back entrances of the grand residences, say, on Princes Street.

Nowadays, of course, the lane between Rose Street and Princes Street in particular is the haunt of delivery lorries and waste bins the size of buses – but you can still imagine the coachman stabling his horses and retiring to his little flat of an evening.

In fact, if you really explore this big grid of streets you’ll discover that lanes – or ‘mews’ – run off Thistle Street as well.

Apparently, until well into the 19th century these little streets in the heart of the capital, in addition to stabling, still had byres in some places, for the cows that provided fresh milk to the local residents.

A choice of pubs here
A choice of pubs on Rose Steet. This one is on the corner of one of the old servicing lanes, on the right.

Decades ago, Rose Street used to have the reputation for being rather wild of an evening.

The ‘Rose Street Run’ was the legendary downing of a pint (or was it just a half-pint?) of beer during a night out in as many of the pubs as you could before you fell in a stupor at some point. Ah, yes…simple times.

A few historically interesting pubs do survive there.

For example, the Edwardian decoration of The Abbotsford was once (1950/60s) associated (as was Milne’s Bar further along Rose St) with the literary clique known as the Rose Street poets.

These included figures such as Hugh Macdiarmid, Sorley McLean and Sydney Goodsir Smith.

The pub still serves traditional Scottish food here too. 

Edinburgh New Town street names

Finally, a note about the names of the streets in Edinburgh’s New Town. Clever chap, that James Craig, the man with the plan. He wanted to keep on the good side of the far-off monarch, down south, King George III.

In fact, he rather tactlessly sent a copy of his prize-winning plan to King George III himself , along with a toe-curlingly sycophantic dedication.

He even managed to avoid all reference to the Edinburgh Town Council and their unstinting efforts to improve the place, taking all the credit for himself.

The councillors were not best pleased with Craig when they found out. Especially as they’d just given him a gold medal.

New town façade
Edinburgh New Town façade
The Thistle and the Rose in Edinburgh New Town

Anyway, the names of the streets make numerous references to the United bit of the Kingdom. (In those days still a minor novelty perhaps.)

Thistle and Rose Streets, symbols of Scotland and England, are as the original plan. St Andrew Square, now overlooked by Harvey Nichols Edinburgh Branch, lies, as intended, at the east end of the grid.

Oddly enough, the matching square at the west end was to be called St George’s Square (Scottish patron saint matching English patron saint). It even appears as such on Craig’s drawing – but the name was changed to Charlotte Square in 1786.

Edinburgh folk kow-towing to the royals

Charlotte was King George III’s queen and also his daughter’s name. (Is there no end of the kow-towing from Edinburgh folk when it comes to royalty? Maybe that’s why they fought to have the Royal Yacht Britannia down in Leith.)

Princes Street on the plan had that dreaded punctuation mark, the apostrophe, ie Prince’s (sic) Street.  The prince in question was the son of – surprise, surprise – King George III.

On the original plan the most famous street in Edinburgh was to have been called St Giles Street.

However Georgie didn’t fancy the name as it reminded him of the St Giles district in London, England, at the time ‘always infamous for its low and disorderly inhabitants’.

So, Prince’s Street it became – referring to the Prince Regent – before adopting the appearance of a plural form and losing that goddam pesky apostrophe in 1848. (By the way, want a foolproof rule for using the apostrophe? We have it covered…)

Enough. Wait, though, are these visitor attractions in Edinburgh must-sees?

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