Tag Archives: New Town Edinburgh

History through Portraits : Introduction to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The first session of the course looked at the vision of the founding fathers of the SNPG and the building which reflects their ideas:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The vision:

The ideas of Thomas Carlyle heavily influenced the vision of the founding fathers of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  History was the history of great men, and the portrait a valuable means of recreating the great man.

Scottish National Portait Gallery, "Dedicated to the Illustration of Scottish History".

Scottish National Portait Gallery, “Dedicated to the Illustration of Scottish History”.

In 1854, Carlyle writing to David Laing, a former treasurer of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, described how, for an historian, it was “one of the most primary wants to secure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after”.  The quality of the portrait, Carlyle implied, need not be of the first importance.  It would be as a “small lighted candle” by which historical biographies could be read.  Indeed, in the gallery’s early years, portraiture was primarily seen as a means of illuminating the historical subject; the artist was metaphorically left in the shade, the labelling of the portraits heavily tilted towards a historical narrative. In the 1850s, a lack of ready finance put an effective stop to the realisation of an historical vision.

Design and embellishments:

???????????????????????????????The gallery was finally opened to the public in 1889. Its structure and style reflected the past.  The fashionable Edinburgh Architect Rowand Anderson, a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prominent Gothic revivalist, chose the pointed arch, the gable and the turret–an evocation of  the medieval in the heart of Edinburgh’s neo-classical New Town.  He left niches to be filled,” with the statutes of eminent Scotsman of times past”, in the words of the then Lord Justice General. Nowadays, a visitor to the Queen Street Gallery runs the risk of missing them:  the red sandstone of the statues is set against the red (Coreshill) sandstone of the building at first floor level. As ever in Edinburgh, one has to look up, but the visitor is well advised to do so. There are twenty eight historical statues embellishing the building, quite apart from the impressive decorations surrounding the main north facing door.  There is no sense of the steady historical progression represented in the Great Hall. Here, history takes a more random decorative form.  John Knox is conspicuous to the right hand side of the main entrance.  The portrait painter Henry Raeburn, pallet in hand, stands in the north east corner of the building. He looks, appropriately, in the direction of his studio in York Place,  now known as “OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARaeburn House” and marked with a pallet shaped memorial at OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfirst floor level.  Mary Queen of Scots, presiding over the new tram way and flanked by two courtiers, forms the centre piece of the eastern side This group was gifted by a local group who called themselves the Queen Mary Standing Committee, partly to thank the Editor of the Scotsman, John Ritchie Findlay, for his immense financial support for the new gallery but also in recognition of his efforts to secure the admission of women to the University of Edinburgh medical school.

The surround of the main door forms one integral design:  the figure of History is on the roofline; below, Scotia is flanked by Industry and religion; further down, three panels depict the fine Arts, the Sciences and the Ruder Arts; below, two roundels contain representations of War and Peace.  The two figures either side of the door are William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (with the Crown).  William Birnie Rhind was the designer and sculptor of the scheme.  The figure of History, originally the idea of the Earl of Bute, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhas been re designed by the contemporary sculptor Alexander Stoddart, an artist deeply imbued with ideas of history.   Stoddart’s Muse of History, unlike her predecessor, postdates the horror of the Great War; the sculptor has woven poppies into her laurels in remembrance of the war dead.  She has “new and terrible knowledge”.  There is a plaster cast model of Stoddart’s History in the ambulatory and a small exhibition on the second floor of the gallery.

Inside, a sense of  history through portraiture is inescapable.  A frieze of 155 historical figures, taking us from Stone Age man to Thomas Carlyle decorates the first floor balcony (beneath the ambulatory).  The starting point is on the northern side, with the central figure of Caledonia  unfurling  the procession.  The figures march anti-clockwise.  The luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment are prominent on the eastern side. The figure of Robert Stevenson, the engineer, holds a model lighthouse on the north; the artist, William Hole, designed the frieze at a time when Robert Louis Stevenson, the grandson of the engineer, was becoming a local and international celebrity.

Hole also designed the vast tapestry style murals which form the backdrop to the ambulatory.  They cover almost 1000 years of Scottish history, taking us from the Mission of St Columba to the Picts in 563 to the marriage of James IV to Margaret Tudor in 1503.  Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is on the individual within the march of history.  The Marriage of James to Margaret Tudor provides the perfect starting point to the portraits on the second floor of the gallery, and the time of Mary Queen of Scots.20150301_090429

                                                   History through Portraits, the Reformation, to follow:



History through Portraits – Source Material


Some notes on sources to accompany a five week course based at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and organised by the City of Edinburgh Council

Introductory Bibliography:A personal and highly selective choice:

  • Thomson, Duncan: History of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, 2011 – excellent on the founding fathers, the objectives and embellishments of the gallery, its later history and collecting policy. Thomson was for many years Director of the SNPG.
  • Macdonald, Murdo: Scottish Art, London, Thames and Hudson 2000. A good art historical/historical overview, the text refers to many portraits on display at the SNPG. MacDonald is Professor of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee.
  • MacLean Fitzroy, Scotland, A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, most recent edition 2012. This readable overview to Scottish history has been republished on a number of occasions; contains additional chapters contributed by Magnus Linklater.
  • Devine, Professor Sir Thomas: The Scottish Nation 1700-2007, Penguin, revised edition 2012. Devine is perhaps Scotland’s greatest living historian. His account of the last three hundred years of Scottish History is scholarly and readable.
  • Maclean Fitzroy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Edinburgh, Canongate, 1989.
  • Buchan:       The Marquis of Montrose, originally published 1913, republished, London, Prion 1996 – the first and shorter of Buchan’s two treatments.       Buchan was an unashamed admirer of Montrose.
  • Buchan:       The Lost Lady of Old Years, 1899, republished Edinburgh, Edinburgh Polygon 2011, with an introduction by James Robertson: a romantic work of fiction dwelling on the 1745 rebellion; contains a vivid portrait of the fickle Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat  (1667-1747)   (perhaps influenced by Hogarth’s etching  acquired by the portrait gallery in 1886?)

Biographical Material: An excellent starting point is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This is available online through the Edinburgh City Library.http://yourlibrary.edinburgh.gov.uk/oxfordreference You require to be a member of the city libraries (and have a membership number) in order to access this rich resource. At the foot of every individual entry in the ODNB, you will find a list of sources (typically biographies), liknenesses (portraits), archive material and wealth at time of death. There is a multi volume edition in hardcopy kept on the shelves of the General Reading Room at the National Library of Scotland. The online work is kept regularly up to date.imagesLYYYW2B3

Online collections: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/online-collection/The Scottish National Galleries’ online collection is a wonderful source which will enhance a visit to any of the national galleries and  provide a useful research tool. It’s linked to the NGS galleries home page and allows you to search for portraits by either artist or subject. Its range is considerable; it includes virtually all the paintings and engravings which we have seen during the course.

Alastair’sblog: https://alastairlearmont.wordpress.com/Alastair started this in 2012 for research purposes but quickly realised its educational potential as a means of supplying notes to students. Many of the entries relate to adult education courses. The majority are of Scottish( and of particularly Edinburgh) cultural or historical interest. . A weekly History through Portraiture blogs including  photos of the exterior of the gallery  begins week beginning 2 March. A Visit to the Mud Bridge

5:   Exhibitions etc: 

A visit to the Scottish National Museum in Chamber Street complements a visit to the SNPG eg discrete sections on the Jacobites (includes the Young Pretender’s sword and some magnificent costume) and the North Berwick Witches ( which links into James VI’s interest in the occult)

The National Library of Scotland’s winter exhibition is entitled “Game of Crowns” and relates to the 1715 Jacobite rising.   You can find some interesting online material at http://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/jacobites . The exhibition closes in May.

Edinburgh’s Upturned Telescope: The Nelson Monument

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Nelson Monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill has never been noted for its beauty.With its overtly classical backdrop, there is a gothic incongruity about the place but last Tuesday it looked and was absolutely magnificent

The distinguished editors of Buildings of Scotland consider it one of Edinburgh’s “odder things”. RLS, not a fan, compared it to a telescope and a butter churn. “This  strange elongated battlemented tower”  (pace Ian Lindsay, Georgian Edinburgh) is remarkable for its  “dubious architectural merit” (Youngson, The Making of Classical Edinburgh).  In July 2014, Visit Scotland generously increased the tower’s star rating from two to four stars in judicious recognition of customer care and range of facilities. Customer services and the clash of arms are unlikely bed fellows.  The monument is now rated “excellent”. On Trip Advisor, a visit to the tower is generally considered OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgood value for money in return for minimal physical effort but, despite gleaming lavatories and carefully crafted signage, there is still an enduring feeling of oddness about the place.

The monument, erected by the grateful citizens of Edinburgh, commemorates Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805.  Designed by the Edinburgh Architect Robert Burn, whose massive burial vault lies at the foot of the hill, the ungainly hundred foot tower was begun in 1807, but not finished until after the Napoleonic wars.  With the massive unfinished National Memorial as a backdrop, the Tower gives the impression of a neo gothic add-on but it was the Monument which was built first.  A glorious Edinburgh landscape painted by John Knox in the early 1820s and now hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shows an isolated Tower and just the faintest suggestion of scaffolding or something where the massive neo classical National Memorial now OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAstands. When the Regent Road, Edinburgh’s new eastern approach was blasted through the southern flanks of Calton Hill and the Old Cemetery rearranged – some of the dead transplanted to a newer cemetery further down the hill – it was only the Tower and the Old Observatory that looked down.  The cluttered hillside, which in Stevenson’s words, suggested reflections “on fame and on man’s injustice to the dead” was fully developed later:  the Playfair Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the National Memorial – the outstanding paraphernalia of Calton Hill.

At the top of the Nelson Monument, a time ball is lowered at one o’clock in the afternoon, a silent but visible signal to sea faring folk on the Firth of Forth, and a companion to the artillery blast from the Castle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARock.  As part of the original design, small apartments were built for disabled seaman at the foot of the monument, but  unsurprisingly a Tower on a hill failed to attract any  takers.  The apartments later became a restaurant where customers could eat and drink to the memory of the hero of Trafalgar.

On the 21st October 2014, the two hundred and ninth anniversary of Trafalgar, the Monument was bedecked with flags. England Expects.  A service had taken place in the morning to commemorate Nelson’s decisive victory.   For one glorious autumn afternoon this much maligned monument became the billowing mast of a sailing ship. For a day, withering aesthetic judgments and meaningless star ratings were, thank goodness, cast aside. Distracted and moved, I grabbed my camera.

Above the main entrance to the Nelson Monument, an inscription reads:

“To the memory of Vice Admiral HORATIO LORD VISCOUNT NELSON, of the great victory of Trafalgar, too dearly purchased with his blood, the Grateful Citizens of Edinburgh have erected this monument, not to express their unavailing sorrow for his death, nor yet to celebrate the matchless glories of his life, but by his noble example to teach their sons to emulate what they admire and,  like him, when duty requires it, to die for their country AD MDCCCV”


A Touch of Victoriana – Warriston: The First of Edinburgh’s Garden Cemeteries

The first part of this two part blog examines the cultural and historical background of one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful, and least discovered, cemeteries. Warriston Cemetery lies approximately a mile to the north of the City Centre, close to the city’s Botanical Gardens.


A feeling is now prevalent against burials in cities: London has its Kensal Green, Glasgow has is necropolis and these are but single instances of many new cemeteries which in these and other cities this feeling has called into existence.

Caledonian Mercury January 30th 1845

Edinburgh from Warriston Cemetery 1843

Edinburgh from Warriston Cemetery 1843

On 1st June 1843, the Directors of the Edinburgh Cemetery Company respectfully announced to the inhabitants of Edinburgh and Leith that the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston was open for the purpose of interments.     A print reproduced in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh based on an 1843 drawing by Daniel Wilson, evokes the scene. Elegantly dressed ladies and top hatted gentlemen, enjoy a setting of rural tranquillity. A bonneted child holds a parasol. There is a sense of open space and middle class domesticity. The Melville Monment and the recently erected Scott monument are clearly visible on the horizon. Further afield is the outline of St Giles cathedral in the Old Town of Edinburgh. The city is distant and far removed.

Edinburgh from Canonmills, (c 1825) John Knox (1778-1845)

Edinburgh from Canonmills, (c 1825) John Knox (1778-1845)


In the early 1840s, Edinburgh’s existing cemeteries and graveyards were overcrowded, unhealthy and dangerous. The business of death was unregulated. Fifteen years previously, body snatching had been common place. Robert Louis Stevenson describes how William Burke, the resurrection man,” infamous for so many murders at five shillings a head”, sat at a rear window in Candlemaker Row, with pipe and night cap, and observed burials taking place in nearby Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Watchtowers, mort coffins and mort safes were commonplace. A watch tower, overlooking the high walls of St Cuthbert’s Churchyard had been built as late as 1827. Human remains were frequently visible. In 1843, the directors of the new Warriston Cemetery declared that no human body would be disturbed after interment. Moreover, in an unambiguous reference to the state of the city cemeteries, “no remains of humanity will at any time unpleasantly meet the human eye”. Graves, they continued, would be six feet deep and in the case, of multiple burials at least 12 feet deep. The Anatomy Act of 1832 had effectively put an end to the practice of body snatching but disease continued to plague the City. There were serious outbreaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAks of cholera in the early 1830s and even as late as 1849 . The siting of Warriston, on the outskirts of Edinburgh was, therefore, significant. Removed from the crowded city centre, death could be both sanitised and beautified.   In a front page advertisement of the Caledonian Mercury and in their detailed prospectus, the directors declared that the New Edinburgh Cemetery was to mark an “improvement “on the present customs elsewhere.

The immediate inspiration for Warriston were London’s garden cemeteries of Kensal Green (1831), Norwood (1837) and Highgate (1839), which in turn had been influenced by European cemeteries including Pere Lachaise in Paris. The link between city and cemetery was consciously broken, as was the association between church and burial ground.   Curiously though, there was something of the new garden cemetery which evoked the tranquillity of a country churchyard:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

Where heaveOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAs the turf in many a mouldering heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep

Warriston was the first of Edinburgh’s “garden cemeteries”. The Dean, Dalry, Rosebank, the Grange and Newington cemeteries were to follow within the course of the decade.   Before the advent of cremation, the business of death was necessarily linked with space; the new cemeteries, funded by private investment, promised attractive returns.

The original nine acre site at Warriston was designed by David Cousin (1809-1878). An apprentice to the fashionable William Playfair, the young architect had tendered an unsuccessful entry for the design of a new monument to commemorate the life of Sir Walter Scott. In the 1840s, he became a specialist in the design of cemeteries, in the new garden style. During the course of Edinburgh’s sepulchral decade, Cousin went on to design the Dean (1845), Dalry (1846), Rosebank (1846) and Newington (1848) cemeteries, as well as a large number of Free Churches. Features included serpentine

Horatio McCulloch  (1805-1867) tomb - detail

Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867) tomb – detail

paths, gothic gates and lodges. At Warriston –and later at Dalry and Newington – a particular selling point was the catacombs which cut through the cemetery east to west. They are just visible in the right of Wilson’s drawing in the slight depression to the left hand side of the bridge. Cousin also made good use of the rural backdrop of existing country estates both at Warriston and the Dean. At the Dean cemetery, stone carvings from the original House of Dean, were imaginatively incorporated into the southern retaining wall overlooking the Water of Leith.

Rev James Peddie Memorial
Rev James Peddie Memorial

The 1843 tariff offered the public a wide range of burial and funeral “options”. The price of a standard 7 foot by 3 foot grave, varied , according to situation, from £ 2 .6s. and 8d. to £ 4. 13 s and 4 d. – “being at the rate of 20s. to 40 s. per square yard”. For another £ 6 and 14 shillings, a funeral could be arranged to include a hearse with four horses and two mourning coaches, with two horses apiece, “including every charge excepting the undertaker’s”. Other possibilities included a two horse hearse accompanied by two one horse morning coaches (an extra £ 3 and 14 shillings) or a hearse, drawn by one horse without coaches, “the company walking” (13 shillings a sixpence – “add price of one space of ground”). The tariff, couched in a language of choice familiar to the 21st century consumer, reminded potential customers that they were, “not required to use the

Company’s Hearses and Coaches for funerals in this cemetery unless they please. It is optional to them to use the necessary conveyances where they choose” In addition, simple “Shoulder” and “Spoke” funerals provided funerals at more affordable prices for the families of those who were less well off.

A “range of catacombs” was lovingly described in language as

Warriston Cemetery - The Catacombs

Warriston Cemetery – The Catacombs

appealing to the prospective house purchaser as the long term dead. The catacombs were “well lighted airy and dry…affording space for sepulchre to a large extent”: top of the range was an entire vault with enough space for 20 coffins, a mere snip at £ 120, whilst a single private catacomb for one (leaden) coffin retailed at a more modest £ 7.

By the beginning of November 1843, nearly 200 burials had taken place at the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston. The approach, from the west, was from Inverleith Row, almost opposite “but a little beyond”, the gates of the Botanical Gardens; from the east, access was by Easter Warriston Lane, nearly opposite the Gate of Easter Warriston House (now the site of Warriston Crematorium). By the autumn, the directors –with a view to facilitating “immediate and direct access from the city” – had almost completed a Carriage Drive, including a bridge, from Canonmills down the south side of the Water of Leith.

The advent of Edinburgh’s garden cemeteries coincided with the development of Edinburgh’s suburban rail network. In 1845, the new Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway spliced Warriston cemetery in two.


Next Blog: Further Development and a Visit to the Cemetery:

Selected background reading:

  • Brooks, Mortal Remains, the History and Present State of the Victorian and Edwardian Cemetery, London 1989 (good on the garden cemeteries, subsequent care and conservation)
  • Wilson, AN, The Victorians, London 2002
  • Gifford, McWilliam and Walker, “Edinburgh”, Buildings of Scotland, 1984

Goldenacre Revisited

“It’s the Golden Country – almost, “he murmured

“The Golden Country?”

“It’s nothing really.  A Landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream.”     George Orwell (1984)

Somebody in LoBus stop poissiblethian Region Transport’s timetable department has a subversive sense of humour, or has made a typographical – and somewhat thought provoking – error.  Perhaps they recognised the typo and, mischievously, let it stand.  If you don’t believe me, go down to the bottom of Dundas Street in the direction of Canonmills, and visit the LRT bus shelter, just beyond the turning into Henderson Row.  Inside are the usual bus time tables and route maps. Examine the no 23 route map, very carefully.  A couple of weeks ago, I did just that.  I looked at the route map and looked away. I  thought for a moment I’d misread something and looked again.

From north to south, the 23 bus route links the sea with the hills.  It is of one of Edinburgh’s great bus journeys. Beginning in sleepy, elegant Trinity, it breezes through Goldenacre – ah! how I remember that name – flashes past the Botanics and climbs steadily through the New Town to Morningide and beyond.  If a new tram system were to be conceived on a purely scenic basis, the 23 bus route, slicing the city in two from north to south, would be the obvious candidate.  The six times hourly 23, and her noble sister the 27, inherited their routes from the old tram system, which until the mid-1950s, was an uncontroversial feature of Edinburgh life.  ???????????????????????????????Nowadays, the 23 route extends  southwards towards Greenback and even as far as Napier University’s Craiglochart Campus, formerly Craiglochart Hydropathic, where the young Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon.  In Howard Place, close to the Botanics, it passes the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson, a literary landmark which tends to be missed by the more commercial class of tour bus. On George IV Bridge, the 23 cruises past the Advocates Library and the National Library of Scotland.  From the top deck, a more observant passenger may find himself looking into the Advocates Reading Room and receiving a rare insight into the Scottish Bar at leisure.  Further up the hill, it plunges through the Morningside of Miss Jean Brodie, now occupied by literary types who speak at book festivals.  A former Cabinet minister, turned enthusiast, would do well to present a television series based on the no 23 bus route.

Goldenacre lies to the south of Trinity just beyond Ferry Road.  The name has always appealed to my imagination.  At school, in Henderson Row, a stone’s throw from the bus shelter, I dreamed of ways of escape.  I longed for the hills and the sea.  During history lessons, I sat bored on the top floor of a grand New Town house. Here, my unhappy spirit roamed the Edinburgh skyline. Birdlike and free,  I soared hillward to George Street and seaward to the Botanical Gardens and Goldenacre.  Then, Goldenacre was just a name, somewhere beyond the Botanics, beyond the loneliness of New Field where, twice a week, I played rugby or cricket. Anything golden, though, had a shiny lustre to it:  Golden Age, Golden Valley, Golden Youth, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Golden Bough, GoldenEye, Golden Gun.  Goldenacre seemed innately precious. It could only be beautiful.  On Saturdays, I occasionally played rugby near Goldenacre, an unfailingly depressing experience.  In late 1980, unhappy and cold, I gazed from the playing fields towards where I imagined Goldenacre to be.  In the shadow of a grandstand,  dark umbrellas opened and closed repeatedly.  French flags fluttered over an Edinburgh skyline. What I  was watching was the filming of Chariots of Fire and this, the dramatic recreation of an athetics meeting between Scotland and France.  Its  hero, Eric Liddell trips, falls and, miraculously, storms to victory. Goldenacre.  A place of dreams. A place of miracles.

Two Saturdays ago, I was waiting for a 23 at the bus shelter just beyond the junction with Henderson Row.  My destination was  Trinity via the Botanics and Goldenacre.

Route planner croppedI looked at the route map, looked away, thought for a moment that  I’d misread something and then looked again, for what I’d read was not “Goldenacre” but “Goldenarce”.


How, I wondered, would Sir Sean Connery pronounce that?

Assembly Rooms to Princes Street: Literary Walk 18th November:


Our eighth literary walk took us from Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms in George Street –  geographically in the centre of the first New Town – to Princes Street, and tea at the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Assembly Rooms:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere had been Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh long before the present George Street premises first opened their doors for a Caledonian Hunt Ball, on 11th January 1787.

Robert Chambers, in his Traditions of Edinburgh, refers to Edinburgh’s first Assembly in the West Bow (c 1710). This, though, was a far more cramped affair than the building later built in James Craig’s expanding New Town.  Chambers describes a single wainscoted room with a carved oak ceiling with a small side room where the musicians retired to rosin their bows during the intervals of the performance. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the craze for Assembly Rooms swept the country, new Assembly Rooms were opened off the High Street, in “Old Assembly Close” and “New Assembly Close”.  There were also Assembly Rooms in Buccleuch Place, near fashionable George Square. These made such a lasting impression on the young Henry Cockburn that, later, writing his memoirs, he considered  that they threw the New Town piece of presumption entirely into the shade (!). Those in New Assembly Close – a site now occupied by the Faculty of Advocates– were established in 1748.  These were the immediate forerunners of the Assembly Rooms in George Street.  Space was nonetheless limited. The playwright Oliver Goldsmith, writing in 1753, described the set up in terms of the battle of the sexes:

…one end of it taken up by the ladies who sit dismally in a group by themselves.  On the other end stand their pensive partners that are to be; but no more intercourse between the sexes than the two countries of war.  The ladies may ogle and the women sigh, but an embargo is laid on closer commerce….

The historian, Hugh Arnot, remarked that the Assembly Rooms were neither elegant nor commodious, and described how smoke from torches  held by footmen at the main entrance, wafted into the dining area to create inconvenience if not havoc.  Something, insisted Arnot, had to be done:

As this inconveniency can only be remedied by building a new assembly house; so that can only be brought about by subscription, for the city of Edinburgh have no funds at present for carrying on such a work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe building of the New Town of Edinburgh did, however, provide an incentive for the construction of new public buildings.  In 1780, An Italian dancing master, by the name of Gallini, proposed to buy land for new Assembly Rooms.  The Town Council was supportive of the idea, on condition that the New Assembly Rooms held two charitable balls a year.  Further possibilities included the conversion of the new Royal College of Physicians building (a site now occupied by the Dome) towards the east end of George Street.  In the end, in December 1781, a competition was held for the design of a new building.  Entrants had one month to submit plans; the prize was a handsome 25 guineas.  A young architect, John Henderson, who had only been in practice for three years, won the competition.  He was heavily influenced by classical ideas, but the original appearance of the Assembly Rooms, fronted simply by plain doric pilasters and no portico  must have seemed rather oppressive.  Robert Adam suggested the addition of an elegant portico soon after the building opened, but it wasn’t until 1818 that the present portico was added by the Edinburgh architect, William Byrne.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Arnot had suggested, the funds for the new building were raised by subscription.  The initial budget was £ 5600 but a revised proposal for £ 6300 was submitted in December 1782.  Problems, though, arose shortly after work began, when the subscribers discovered that the unfortunate Henderson had only allowed for nine feet of headroom immediately beneath the ballroom.  The ball room floor required to be raised by eight feet and substantial further costs were incurred.   The young John Henderson died in 1786 and work was completed by his father David Henderson, who survived his son by one year.  When it was opened in January 1787 – still unfinished – the reporter in the Edinburgh Courant, was moved to write:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Assembly Room is the largest in Britain and except the Great room in Bath and is said to exceed it in elegance and just proportion.

On the opening night, the overwhelming impression was that of elegance and style:

….The dresses of the Ladies were in the highest stile of taste and elegance.  The gowns were chiefly of different coloured sattins (sic), covered with crape, and ornamented with flowers; the prevailing cap was the turban, decorated with feathers, and some few with pearls and diamonds.  Several ladies wore pink coloured Spanish hats, which had a very pretty elegance…

The Assembly Rooms were originally lit by candlelight but sadly this led to inevitable and occasionally serious mishaps.  In 1826, an account of a Royal Midlothian Ball recorded how:

Several persons had their clothes destroyed on Friday night by the unavoidable dripping of wax candles.

In 1834, gas lighting was introduced, and in 1896, electric lighting.  This made life generally less hazardous.

Assembly Rooms – Literary Links:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs it happened, the young Robert Burns spent the winter of 1786 to 1787 in Edinburgh.  Although he didn’t attend the opening Caledonian Hunt Ball, we do know that members of the Hunt subscribed to a hundred copes of Burns’ new Edinburgh Edition of poetry.  Later, on 23rd February 1827, Sir Walter Scott publicly revealed his authorship of the Waverley Novels at the Assembly Rooms, at a theatrical fund raising dinner. As his son in law and biographer, JG Lockhart, put it:  The sensation produced by this scene was, in newspaper phrase, “unprecedented.”

The Assembly Rooms, then as now, have served many different purposes.  A few years earlier, they were the sumptuous venue for a ball held in honour of King George IV, on the monarch’s famous visit to Scotland. It was recorded in meticulous detail in Robert Mudie’s three hundred page long “Historical Account of His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland”.  We are told that the King, a man not known for the slightness of his frame, did not dance.  However, no part of the entertainment amused his Majesty more than the reels which he stood upwards of half an hour to observe.

The novelist, Charles, Dickens, visited Edinburgh – and the Assembly Rooms – on several occasions.  In June 1841, at a dinner attended by over 300 guests, he received the freedom of the City of Edinburgh.   He was inspired to name one of his best known characters after Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, whose name he had seen on a Canongate gravestone.  Unfortunately, he mistook “meal man” for “mean man” and the rest, as they say, is history.  For a man who won a catering contract for of George IV’s to Scotland in 1822, the slur of parsimony on Scroggie is unfortunate.  For some background to the Scroggie/Scrooge story, have a look at:


Assembly Rooms Suggested Reading:

I am a great fan of:

  • E.F. Catford:  Edinburgh –The Story of a City, London, 1975, which is both readable and well researched, and, though out of print, is probably available on Amazon.  A more recent cultural historical title is:
  • Mary Cosh: Edinburgh, the Golden Age, Edinburgh, 2003, 181-195
  • Youngson A J:  Making of Classical Edinburgh 1750-1840, Edinburgh University Press, 1966, is, as ever, excellent on the building of the Edinburgh New Town.
  • Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, 1856, reprinted by James Thin 1988, is good on the Assembly Rooms in Buccleuch Place – and how to “get on” in polite society -during the latter part of the 18th century.

Assembly Rooms to Scott Monument:Princes Street

Our walk concluded with a brief walk from George Street to Princes Street, taking in the Allan Ramsay statue at the foot of the Mound, and the Scott Monument.  There are some marvellous Octavius Hill photographs of the construction of the Scott Monument taken in the early 1840s.  For more architectural background to the Scott Monument see:

•          Gifford and others, Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1992


Edinburgh’s Northern New Town: Literary Walk 11th November 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur seventh literary tour took us from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery via Drummond Place to Scotland Street  – we didn’t pass no 44  – and the northern entrance of the long blocked Scotland Street Tunnel.  We headed westwards along  Eyre Place to Henderson Row, and beginning our ascent in the lengthy shadows of St Stephens’s Church, climbed to  Heriot Row and Castle Street.  This horse shoe walk  took us almost as far as the Assembly Rooms,  where we shall meet next Monday.

From SNPG to Scotland Street:

In Picturesque  Notes (1878), Robert Louis Stevenson, expresses his views on the New Town of Edinburgh very plainly,  He was after all, a man, pre-eminently,  of the hills and sea.  By the time of Stevenson’s birth, in 1850, James Craig’s original New Town had mushroomed.  The construction of a northern new town,  planned by Reid and Sibbald, had begun in about 1813. with its first houses appearing  in Heriot Row.     By 1824, William Burn had  built a new classical academy on its northern perimeter, a school to  rival the High School, and a few years later William Playfair’s St Stephen’s Church opened at the foot of Howe Street.  For Stevenson, the New Town was inward looking.  He  couldn’t contain his displeasure at the expense of its “town bird” creator:

It cannot be denied that the original design was faulty and short sighted, and did not fully profit by the capabilities of the situation.  The architect was essentially a town bird. And he laid out the modern city with a view to street scenery, and to street scenery alone.  The country did not enter into his plan; he had never lifted his eyes unto the hills.  If he had so chosen, every street upon the northern slope might have been a noble terrace and commanded an extensive and beautiful view…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Drummond Place, at the eastern end of Great King Street, mirrored St Andrew Square and George Street to the south.  In more recent times, it was the home of Sir Compton Mackenzie and the poet and  “wit”  Sydney Goodsir- Smith.   Mackenzie lived at no 31 Drummond Place.  Before their marriage, his then sister in law, later his third wife, Lily, ran a hairdressing saloon from the basement of the house.

Although expressing  his dismay at the “draughty parallelograms” of the New Town, the young Stevenson, sought out its green places, its nooks and corners, with eagerness:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the effect of not one of them will compare with the discoverer’s joy, and the sense of old Time and his slow changes on the face of this earth, with which I explored such corners as Canonmills or water Lane, or the nugget of cottages at Broughton Market.  They were far more rural than the open country, and gave a greater impression of antiquity than the oldest land upon the High Street…

Stevenson, RL:  Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, Chapter 6, “Town and Country”, 1878

Youngson, AJ:  The Making of Classical Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1975

Canonmills AdvertScotland Street Tunnel:

As a sickly child, Stevenson was captivated by the excitement of rail travel.  The “subterranean  passage” of Scotland Street tunnel, emerging immediately beneath Drummond Place, was a place of profound excitement

The sight of the Scotland Street Station, the sight of the trains shooting out of its dark maw with the two guards upon the brake, the thought of its length and the many ponderous edifices and open thoroughfares above, were certainly things of paramount impressiveness to a young mind.  It was a subterranean passage, although of a larger bore than we were accustomed to in Ainsworth’s novels; and these two words, “subterranean passage”, were in themselves an irresistible attraction, and seemed to bring us nearer in spirit in to the heroes we loved and the black rascals we secretly aspired to imitate…

From a Railway Carriage Window

Faster than Fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and Houses, hedges and ditches;

And charging along like troops in a battle,

All through the meadows the horses and the cattle:

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as driving rain;

And ever again, in the wink of an eye,

Painted stations whistle by

Child’s Garden of Verses, XXXVII published 1885

Canonmills PhotoIn July 1865, at the instigation of businessman and philanthropist, John Cox, of Gorgie House,the former site of Canonmills Loch was transformed into the  Royal Patent Gymnasium.  Attractions included a giant see-saw with a leverage of 50 feet.

Henderson Row:

???????????????????????????????RLS attended the Edinburgh Academy from  1861-1863 where he was taught by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the “master” referred to in “Poem for a Class Re-union”.  In a letter written in January 1875, he recalls attending an annual dinner of Academy schoolfellows and describes how he read verses to his old school friends:  It is great fun: I always read verses, and in the vinous moment they always propose to have then printed…

Poem for a Class Re-Union:

Whether we like it, or don’t,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s a sort of bond in the fact

That we all by one master were taught,

By one master were bullied and whach’t.

And now all the more, when we see

Our class in so shrunken a state

And we, who were seventy-two,

Diminished to seven or eight….

RLS also celebrated the Thompson class re-union in Their Laureate to an Academy Class Dinner Club, a poem which he wrote in the Scots tongue.


The Stevenson family home was at 17 Heriot Row.   There are echoes of Heriot Row, transferred to Randolph Crescent in Stevenson’s semi auto-autobiographical short story, the  Misadventures of John Nicholson.

Suggested poems:

Windy Nights, IX, Child’s Garden of Verses

The Lamplighter, XXX, Child’s Garden of Verses

The Land of Counterpane, XVI, Child’s Garden of Verses

The Land of Nod

From breakfast on through all the day

At home among my friends I stay;

But every night I go abroad

Afar into the land of Nod….

Child’s Garden of Verses, XXXVII

Collected Poems of RLS, A Child’s Garden of Verses, edited Janet Adam Smith, London 1971

For Stevenson’s more bohemian, rebellious view of Edinburgh, read

My brain swims empty and light:

,..I walk the streets smoking my pipe

And I love the dallying shop girl

That leans with rounded stern to look at the fashions;

And I hate the bustling citizen,

The eager and hurrying man of affairs I hate,

Because he bears his intolerance writ on his face

And every movement and word of him tells me how much he hate me.

I love the night in the city,

The lighted streets and the swinging gaits of harlots.

I love cool pale morning,

In the empty bye-streets,

With only here and there a female figure,

A slavey with lifted dress and the key in her hand,

A girl or two at play at a corner of waste land

Tumbling and showing their legs and crying out to me loosely.

Poems 1869-1879,XXIV,  Collected Poems of RLS, edited Janet Adam Smith, London 1971

Sedan ChairNorth Castle Street:

Until his bankruptcy in 1826, Sir Walter Scott resided at 39 North Castle Street.  There was a sedan chair rank, further up the hill, at the junction with George Street.  In his novel, Waverley, expressing admiration at the strength of Fergus MacIvor’s Highland followers (as they lift and transport an injured Edward Waverley from the scene of a stag hunt), Scott remarks that it was not improbable that they may have been the ancestors of some of those sturdy Gael who now have the happiness to transport the belles of Edinburgh in their sedan chairs, to ten routes in one evening (Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol.II, Chapter 1)