Who Designed Edinburgh's New Town?

Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland | © Gary Ullah / Flickr
Deborah Chu

Walking along the wide and graceful boulevards of historic New Town today, you’d be forgiven for thinking such masterful town planning has always been part of Edinburgh’s rich tapestry. In fact, however, it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that the elite of Edinburgh society began to seriously lay the foundation for an extension of their city across the Nor Loch.

Capital View (North)

‘Auld Reekie’

Prior to this period, the entirety of Edinburgh lay within the confines of medieval stone walls, a neighbourhood that is now called Old Town. As the population rapidly expanded through the 1700s, spurred on by a prospering linen industry and increased transatlantic travel, Edinburgh became desperately overcrowded. Hemmed in by walls, the city could not sufficiently expand to provide adequate housing for residents.

Moreover, the city began to smell terrible, due to the thick coal smoke that permeated the streets and a lack of a proper sewage system, which led to citizens depositing their waste straight into the Nor Loch. Edinburgh thus gained the dubious moniker ‘Auld Reekie,’ and it is a nickname that continues to this day (though said with more affection than truth now, thankfully).

Edinburgh Old Town

The Unqualified Architect

In a twist to the patronage system that was typical of this period, the governing council announced a Scotland-wide design competition. Of the six submissions, the panel of judges selected one by a young man named James Craig. His unorthodox background made him a controversial choice: though he had been apprenticed to the city’s leading masons from the age of 16, he had abandoned his apprenticeship during his 20s, and established himself as an architect without formal qualifications when he submitted his design for Edinburgh’s New Town.

Despite this, he was a prodigious draughtsman, and had made a thorough study of classical design and the latest ideas in urban planning. Unlike the labyrinthine turns of Old Town and its dark granite buildings, his vision of New Town’s gridiron shape, constructed from wide boulevards and white sandstone, reflected Enlightenment ideals of symmetry, balance and order. Craig’s plan for New Town reflected what Edinburgh would become during the Scottish Enlightenment – from Auld Reekie to the Athens of the North, a leading European city for scientific research and philosophical debate.

Calton Hill

A Forgotten Legacy

As soon as New Town was constructed, the upper crust of Edinburgh society immediately flocked across the Nor Loch. A strong middle-class began to flourish, and intellectual societies and social clubs soon sprang up. Craig himself, however, would reap very little benefit from his own creation. He had minimal involvement with the actual construction of New Town, as the majority of his design was executed by architects who had better connections to the council. When he died of consumption in 1795, his sketches were sold to pay off his debtors. And as the years passed, Craig became largely forgotten by history. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Saltire Society erected a gravestone over the unmarked plot where he was buried.

Despite this lack of recognition, Craig’s ideas live on in his greatest achievement. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of New Town as Craig originally envisioned remains intact, and continues to be heralded as one of the most exemplary urban spaces in the United Kingdom.

Old and New Towns of Edinburgh
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article