Imaginary Edinburgh

If you go to Edinburgh’s New Town and stand at the corner of George Street and Hanover Street, looking south towards The Mound, you will be duly rewarded with a compelling piece of architectural symmetry. The weighty columns of the stubbornly Greek Royal Academy building greet the eye first, their thick rotundity rooted resolutely to the earth. Behind that, the belligerent pinnacles of the Elizabethan-style New College bristle just above the skyline. Farther off still, the spire of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall (now ‘The Hub’), a Pugin-esque soot-blackened needle, looms malevolently over its neighbours. If you are standing in the right place – dead in the middle of Hanover Street – you will see these buildings line up spectacularly, as though each had sprouted out of the one before it (I made a poor attempt to photograph this spectacle about a year and a half ago, the results of which are below).

edinburgh symmetry

I owe this observation to a lecturer, speaking at the Scottish National Gallery, whose name and even occupation I have utterly forgotten (my apologies, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this). This nameless speaker made a comparison between the aforementioned architectural assemblage and the genre of painting, popular between the 17th and 19th centuries, known as Capriccio, in which an artist places together numerous buildings – often imaginary, often historically disparate – in a kind of sublime, fantastical vision. This genre was taken to its heady extremes in the 19th century by artists such as Charles Robert Cockerell and Thomas Cole. Our speaker even suggested that his Hanover Street assemblage had been deliberately constructed as a tangible manifestation of this artistic genre.


‘The Professor’s Dream’ (1848) by C. R. Cockerell


‘The Architect’s Dream’ (1840) by Thomas Cole

altitude comparison

‘Altitude Comparison’ (1840), by C. R. Cockerell

The existence of such a thing in Edinburgh points to some of the city’s wider architectural qualities. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid once described Edinburgh as “a mad god’s dream”. Mad gods aside, he was right: Edinburgh is a dream. Or, more accurately, Edinburgh is a vision – that is, Edinburgh is a city which, far more than most cities, has been consciously shaped, sculpted, pressed into service.

The two dominant architectural styles in Edinburgh are wildly divergent, something which serves to emphasise its artificial qualities. On the one hand (and the one side of the railway, often enough), stern but harmonious neoclassicism. On the other, the deadly serious whimsy of the Scots Baronial style (arrayed both throughout and around the city are innumerable rows of 19th century tenement buildings, which seem able to veer from one idiom to the other without any noticeable stylistic break, a considerable architectural feat, and one of the myriad reasons why many of Edinburgh’s Victorian tenement buildings deserve to be thought of as examples of some of the best domestic architecture in Europe – but that’s another blog post altogether). Edinburgh’s twin styles are reminders of its dual character – ‘The Athens of the North’ to some, ‘Auld Reekie’ to others.

In the 18th century, the Nor’ Loch – now the site of Princes Street Gardens – was drained, and on its northern banks construction of the New Town began. Everything about this project was classical – it emphasised proportion, harmony, good taste and good manners. Thus Edinburgh’s first real reincarnation began: no longer a cluster of vernacular buildings grouped around a defensive structure, Edinburgh (or at least part of Edinburgh) became a seat of the Enlightenment, all columns, pediments, friezes and rusticated ground floors. “Men of genius and learning” (Hume’s words) could live in elegantly proportioned houses, amble down perfectly straight thoroughfares, into precisely measured squares (or rather, agoras).

Of course, the architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town served a political purpose as much as an intellectual or aesthetic one. In many ways it was a built reflection of Britain’s ascent to imperial and economic power during the 18th century, which was contemporary with the ascent of the House of Hanover to the British throne. Evidence can be found in its street names, reflecting this new monarchical order – George Street, Hanover Street, Charlotte Square, Frederick Street. Even the names of its principal mews tout the rising power of the (relatively) newly formed union between England and Scotland – Thistle Street and Rose Street. Indeed, an early plan for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town took the form of a Union Flag. The aim was to show that Edinburgh’s political elite, in its embrace of a precise, strictly ordered, technologically impressive architectural idiom, considered itself an inextricable part of the rising power of Great Britain. This was a new, fearless, confident architecture for a patriotic, aggressive, expansionist era.


Edinburgh’s second reinvention was borne of patriotism just as much as its first, only this form of patriotism had a different focus. To be extremely reductive: during the period between the last few decades of the 18th and the first few decades of the 19th centuries, through its success in industrial and imperial ventures (including the slave trade, it should not be forgotten), Scotland experienced an influx of new wealth and status. An intense interest in Scottish identity and the question of Scottishness followed. The social and cultural strands leading to up to this phenomenon are far older and more complex than is generally assumed, dating back at least to the mid-18th century, with such cultural objects as James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, and having its roots both in Enlightenment thinking and in Romanticism, as well as numerous other intellectual, artistic and social trends. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a newly wealthy and prominent Scotland took very seriously the question of establishing Scottishness, and the task of propagating it. The twin forces of radical insurrectionism and Jacobite resentment were genuine fears for the Scottish establishment at the time (events such as the Radical War of 1820 suggest their fears were not entirely unfounded). By uniting the people of Scotland under a new banner of ‘Scottishness’, it was hoped, dissident elements would be quashed amid a resurgence of popular patriotism. The most striking manifestation of this project was the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822, in which the patron saint of Scottish myth-making, Walter Scott, played a leading role. His Royal Highness, dressed in entirely invented ‘Highland dress’ (see below), the guest of Scott and his newly created Celtic Society of Edinburgh, was touted as a ‘Jacobite monarch’ with ironclad Stuart heritage, in an attempt to quell his Jacobite critics. Traditions were invented, pageantry displayed, and ‘ancient orders’ created out of aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs.


The architectural manifestation of this movement – which persisted right across the 19th century, reaching its zenith from the 1860s to the 1890s, establishing itself across the globe wherever a Scottish diaspora existed – was, of course, the Scots Baronial style. Anyone resident in Edinburgh for more than a few hours will be familiar with it: turrets with pointed conical roofs, small windows, crow-stepped gables, crenellation, battlements. Bourgeois houses made to look like miniature castles and tenement blocks with arrow slits. This style and its offshoots produced some very good work and some very bad work, but the fact remains that it is everywhere in Edinburgh, and indeed is probably one of the reasons why tourists often speak of Edinburgh as being so ‘magical’ or so palpably ‘historical’. Scots Baronial is fantasy on a grand scale, an act of architectural dress-up – it wants you to believe in a world of noble lairds rather than feudal overlords, of honourable battles rather than pointless internecine conflicts, of Walter Scottishness rather than just Scottishness.


A typical example of Scots Baronial architecture: St Leonard’s Hall, Edinburgh (1869-1870)

In this way Edinburgh was remade again, a city heaped upon a city, put to work as a piece of propaganda – a showpiece for an ascendant political order. The Edinburgh that exists today – or at least, ‘old Edinburgh’ as it exists today – might thus come to be seen as an accumulation of political visions – ideology in brick and stone. Not that other cities are necessarily free from such qualities, rather ‘old Edinburgh’ seems uniquely and overwhelmingly created, conjured up by successive generations of illusionists in service to their political paymasters. This process is ongoing, in newer and perhaps more pernicious forms (the replacement of the decades-old Old Town Bookshop by a vaguely Harry Potter themed tat shop gives some indication of the nature of the current trend), and shows no signs of abatement.

This is not to indict Edinburgh on the charge of dishonesty, or to condemn it as a kind of Caledonian Disneyland – Edinburgh’s propagandists and theatrics have created some thrilling buildings and landscapes over the centuries. It is simply to point to the fact that there is more of pageantry and pomp in Edinburgh than there is of tradition and custom, more of illusion than there is of solidity, and more of statecraft than there is of spontaneity.


About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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