Chapter 42 – The North Bridge., pp.334-340.

The New Town projected by James VII. – The North Bridge and other Structures by the Earl of Mar, 1728 – Opposed in 1759 – Foundation Stone Laid – Erection Delayed till 1765 – Henderson’s Plan – William Mylne appointed Architect – Terms of the Contract – Fall of the Bridge – Repaired and Completed – The Upper and Lower Flesh-Markets – Old Post Office – Adam Black – Ann Street – The Ettrick Shepherd and the “Noctes” – The Bridge Widened.


ONE of the most important events in the annals of Edinburgh was the erection of the North Bridge, by means of which, in spite of years of opposition, the long-suggested plan for having a new and enlarged city, beyond the walls and barriers of the old one, was eventually and successfully developed to an extent far beyond what its enthusiastic and patriotic projectors could have foreseen; we say king-suggested, for, though not carried out till the early years of George III.’s reign, it had been projected in the latter end of the reign of Charles II.

The idea was first suggested when James VII., as Duke of Albany and York, was resident Royal Commissioner at Holyrood, in the zenith of the only popularity he ever had in Scotland. Vast numbers of the Scottish nobility and gentry flocked around him, and the old people of the middle of the eighteenth century used to recall with delight the magnificence and brilliance of the court he gathered in the long-deserted palace, and the general air of satisfaction which pervaded the entire city.

Chapter 42

Despite the recent turmoils and sufferings consequent on the barbarous severity with which the Covenanters had been treated, Edinburgh was prosperous, and its magistrates bestowed noble presents upon their royal guest; but the best proof of the city’s prosperity was the new and then startling idea of having an extended royalty and a North Bridge, and this idea the Duke of Albany warmly patronised and encouraged, and towards it gave the citizens a grant in the following terms:-

“That, when they should have occasion to enlarge their city by purchasing ground without the town, or to build bridges or arches for the accomplishing of the same, not only were the proprietors of such lands obliged to part with the same on reasonable terms, but when in possession thereof, they are to be erected into a regality in favour of the citizens; and after finishing the Canongate church, the city is to have the surplus of the 20,000 merks given by Thomas Moodie, in the year 1649, with the interest thereof; and as all public streets belong to the king, the vaults and cellars under those of Edinburgh being forfeited to the Crown, by their being built without leave or consent of his majesty, he granted all the said vaults or cellars to the town, together with a power to oblige the proprietors of houses, to lay before their respective tenements large flat stones for the conveniency of walking.”

James VII. Had fully at heart the good of Edinburgh, and but for the events of the Revolution the improvements of the city would have commenced seventy-two years sooner than they did, but the neglect of subsequent monarchs fell heavily alike on the capital and the kingdom. “Unfortunately,” says Robert Chambers, “the advantages which Edinburgh enjoyed under this system of things were destined to be of short duration. Her royal guest departed, with all his family and retinue, in May, 1682. In six years more he was lost both to Edinburgh and Britain; and ‘a stranger filled the Stuart’s throne,’ under whose dynasty Scotland pined long in undeserved reprobation.”

The desertion of the city consequent on the Union made all prospect of progress seem hopeless, yet some there were who never forgot the cherished idea of an extended royalty. Among various plans, the most remarkable for its foresight was that of John eighteenth Lord Erskine and eleventh Earl of Mar, who was exiled for his share in the insurrection of 1715.

His sole amusement during the years of the long exile in which he died at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1732 was to draw plans and designs for the good of his beloved native country and its capital; and the paper to which we refer is one written by him in 1728, and mentioned in vol. 8 of the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland,” published in 1793.

“All ways of improving Edinburgh should be thought on: as in particular, making a large bridge of three arches, over the ground betwixt the North Loch and Physic Gardens, from the High Street at Liberton’s Wynd to the Multersey Hill, where many fine streets might be built, as the inhabitants increased. The access to them would be easy on all hands, and the situation would be agreeable and convenient, having a noble prospect of all the fine ground towards the sea, the Firth of Forth, and coast of Fife. One long street in a straight line, where the Long Gate is now (Princes Street?); on one side of it would be a fine opportunity for gardens down to the North Loch, and one, on the other side, towards Broughton. No houses to be on the bridge, the breadth of the North Loch; but selling the places or the ends for houses, and the vaults and arches below for warehouses and cellars, the charge of the bridge might be defrayed.

Another bridge might also be made on the other side of the town, and almost as useful and commodious as that on the north. The place where it could most easily be made is St. Mary’s Wynd, and the Pleasance. The hollow there is not so deep, as where the other bridge is proposed, so that it is thought that two storeys of arches might raise it near the level with the street at the head of St. Mary’s Wynd. Betwixt the south end of the Pleasance and the Potter-row, and from thence to Bristo Street, and by the back of the wall at Heriot’s Hospital, are fine situations for houses and gardens. There would be fine avenues to the town, and outlets for airing and walking by these bridges; and Edinburgh, from being a bad incommodious situation, would become a very beneficial and convenient one; and to make it still more so, a branch of that river, called the Water of Leith, might, it is thought, be brought from somewhere about Coltbridge, to fill and run through the North Loch, which would be of great advantage to the convenience, beauty, cleanliness, and healthiness of the town.”

In the next paragraph this far-seeing nobleman suggests the canal between the Forth and Clyde; but all that he projected for Edinburgh, by means of his bridges, has been accomplished to the full, and more than he could ever have dreamt of.

The North Bridge, as a preliminary to the formation of the New Town, was first planned by Sir William Bruce of Kinross, architect to Charles II., and his design “is supposed to be now lying in the Exchequer,” wrote Kincaid in 1794; but another plan would seem to have been prepared in 1752, yet no steps were taken for furthering the execution of it till 1759, when the magistrates applied for a Bill to extend the royalty over the ground on which the New Town stands, but were defeated by the vigorous opposition of the landholders of the county,

After four years’ delay the city was obliged to set about building the bridge without having any Bill for it. By the patriotic exertions of Provost Drummond a portion of the loch was drained in 1763, and a proper foundation sought for the erection, which, however, is only indicated by two dotted parallel lines in Edgar’s plan of the city, dated 1765, which “shew ye road along ye intended bridge,” which was always spoken of as simply a new way to Leith.

The first stone was deposited on the 1st of October, 1763, and Kincaid relates that in 1794 “some people vary lately, if not yet alive, have positively asserted that Provost Drummond declared to them that he only began to execute what the Duke, afterwards James VII., proposed.”

This auspicious event was conducted with all the pomp and ceremony the city at that time afforded. George Drummond, the Lord Provost, was appointed, as being the only former Grand-Master present to act in this position, in the absence of the then Grand-Master, the Earl of Elgin. The various lodges of the Freemasons assembled in the Parliament House at two in the afternoon; from thence, escorted by the City Guard and two companies of militia, they marched three abreast, with all their insignia, the junior lodges going first, down Leith Wynd, from the foot of which they turned westward along the north bank of the old loch, to the excavation where the stone lay. As they proceeded a “band of the fraternity,” says the Edinburgh Museum for 1763, “accompanied with French horns and other instrumental music, sung several fine airs, marches, &c. The Grand-Master, surrounded by about 600 brethren, and in view of an infinite crowd of spectators, after having applied severally the square, the plumb, level, compass, and the mallet, and used other ceremonies and symbols common on such occasions, laid the stone, amid the acclamation and applause of all present.”

There were placed in the cavity of the stone three medals struck for the occasion. On one was an elevation of the intended bridge, on another a profile of George III. The last one bore a repetition of the inscription, which is cut on the stone in large capital letters.

By five o’clock the ceremony was over, and the brethren marched in procession to the Assembly Hall, where they passed the evening “with that social cheerfulness for which the society is so eminently distinguished.”

Still the bridge was not proceeded with, and there would seem to have been some indecision as to who was to be the architect thereof, as in the Edinburgh Advertiser of 19th February, 1765, we read that “the committee appointed to judge of the several plans given in for erecting a bridge over the North Loch, determined in favour of No. 5. This turns out to be the performance of Mr. David Henderson, mason and architect at Sauchie, near Alloa, who lately published proposals for printing a book of architecture. On account of his plan he is entitled to the reward of thirty guineas.”

Henderson’s design, however, was not adopted. It had been forwarded in consequence of the following advertisement, which appeared in the Scottish papers in the January of that year:-

“The Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council of Edinburgh, being sensible of the great advantage which will accrue to this city and to the public in general from having a proper communication between the High Street and the fields on the north, have unanimously resolved to follow out the design of making one, and have appointed a committee of their number for carrying the scheme into execution.
“This public notice is therefore made, inviting all architects and others to give in plans and elevations for making a communication, by bridge or otherwise, from the Cap-and-Feather Close, in a straight line to the opposite side, leading to the Multer’s Hill, with an equal declivity of one foot in eighteen to one in seventeen. Such persons as intend to give in plans and elevations must send them sealed, addressed to the Lord Provost, to the care of Mr. James Tait, or Mr. Alexander Duncan, Depute Town Clerks, at the Council Chamber, on or before the first day of February next. Within the plan, upon a separate piece of paper, sealed up, the person offering the plan will write his name, the seal of which paper is not to be broke [sic] up, unless the plan it belongs to is approven.
“The person whose plan is approved of will receive thirty guineas, or a medal of that value… It is expected that the plans to be given in will be done in such a manner as that estimates of expense may be made from them; and it is required that the breadth of the bridge betwixt the parapets be 40 feet” (Edinburgh Advertiser, vol. iii, p. 22).

On the 1st of August, 1765, the contract for the erection of the bridge was signed, the parties being the magistrates of Edinburgh on the one hand, and on the other William Mylne, architect, descendant of the hereditary Master Masons of Scotland, and brother of Robert Mylne. The work was to be completed by Martinmas, 1769, and to be upheld for ten years, for the sum of £10,140; but of the great sum which it is said to have cost, viz., £28,000, after selling the areas, on the east, west, and at the south end, which drew about £3,000, there remained £25,000 of nett expenditure.

By the contract, the bridge was to consist of five arches, three of 27 feet span, and two of 20 each; the four piers to be 13 feet 6 inches thick in the body. There were to be two abutments, 8 feet thick, with wing walls and parapets; those on the west to terminate at Mylne’s Square; those on the east to be carried no farther than Shearer’s Land. The length from the north to the south pedestal on the west side to be 1,134 feet, with 40 feet between the parapets; but 50 to be between them from the north end of the south abutment to the north end of Mylne’s Square. This difference is apparent on the bridge to the present day.

“The earth to be dug out at the charge of Mr. Mylne, and to be by him moved to such places as shall be necessary to fill up any part of the spaces over the arches. The foundations to be sunk to the rock, or natural earth, which has never been moved; or if the natural foundation be bad, it is to be properly assisted and made good by art.”

So actively and diligently did Mr. Mylne set about his work, that by the midsummer of 1769 the arches were all completed, the keystone of the first of the three larger ones “was struck on Saturday, May 21, 1768.”

An unforeseen difficulty occurred, however, in the course of the work. As the north part of the hill on which the old city stands is extremely steep, it had been found convenient in early times to throw the earth dug from the foundations of the ancient wynds and closes towards the North Loch; thus the whole mass then consisted almost entirely of travelled earth. Unaware of this, to some extent, Mylne ceased to dig at a place where there were no less than eight feet of this loose earth between his shovels and the natural solid clay. Another error seems to have been committed in not raising the piers to a sufficient height; and to remedy this he raised about eight feet of earth upon the vaults and arches at the south end, causing thereby a regular, but still unsightly slope.

The result of all this was that on the 3rd of August, 1769, this portion gave way, by the mass of earth having been swollen by recent rains. The abutments burst, the vaults yielded to the pressure, and five persons were buried in the ruins, out of which they were dug at different times.

This event caused the greatest excitement in the city, and had it happened half an hour sooner might have proved very calamitous, as a vast multitude of persons of every religious denomination was assembled in Orphan Hospital Park, northward of the Trinity College church, to hear a sermon preached by Mr. Townsend, an Episcopal clergyman; and after it was over some would have had to cross the bridge, and others pass beneath it, to their homes. Three of four scattered houses were already erected in the New Town; but after this event it was some time before people took courage to erect more.

The bridge was repaired by pulling down the side walls, rebuilding them with chain bars, removing the vast masses of earth, and supplying its place with hollow arches, and by raising the walls that crossed the bridge, so that the vaults which sprang from them might bring the road to a proper elevation. Strong buttresses and counterforts were added to the south end, and on these are erected the present North Bridge Street. At the north end there is only one counterfort on the east side; but ere all this was done there had been a plea in law between the contracting parties before the Court of Session, and an appeal to the House of Lords, in both of which Mr. Mylne was unfortunate. The expense of completion amounted to £17,354. The height of the great arches from the top of the parapet to the base is 68 feet.

The bridge was first passable in 1772; but the balustrades being open, a complaint was made publicly in 17833 that “passengers continue to be blown from the pavement into the mud in the middle of the bridge.” Those at the south end were closed in 1782, thus screening the eyes “of passengers from the blood and slaughter,” in the markets below, according to the appendix to Arnot’s “History;” and regarding the tempests of wind, to which Edinburgh is so subject, elsewhere he tells us that in 1778 “the Leith Guard, consisting of a sergeant and twelve men of the 70th Regiment, were all there blown off the Castle Hill, and some of them sorely hurt.”

In 1774 the magistrates proclaimed that all beggars found in the streets would be imprisoned in the dark vaults beneath the North Bridge, and there fed on bread and water.

From the then new buildings erected on the south-west end of the bridge, a flight of steps upward gives access to Mylne’s Court; and two flights downward lead to the old market at the foot of the Fleshmarket Close.

In Edgar’s plan, 1765, the Upper and Lower Fleshmarkets are both shown as being in this quarter, and also that the bridge had run through a great portion of the ancient Greenmarket. Kincaid thus describes them in his time (1794 as consisting of three divisions forming oblong squares. “The uppermost is allotted for the veal market, and as yet only finished on the north side; the middlemost is occupied by the incorporation of fleshers, and is neatly fitted and arched all round, and each division numbered; the other, called the Low Market, is likewise arched round, but not numbered, and allotted for those that are not of the incorporation. Few cities in Britain are better supplied with butcher meat of all kinds than this city, and instance of which occurred in 1781. Admiral Parker, with a fleet of 15 sail of the line, 9 frigates, and 600 merchantmen, lay nearly two months in Leith Roads, and was supplied with every kind of provisions, and the markets were not raised one farthing, although there could not be less than 20,000 men for nearly seven weeks. Merchants from different parts of Britain who, either from motives of humanity, or esteeming it a profitable adventure, had sent four transports with fresh provisions to the fleet, had them returned without breaking bulk.” The market is now much more complete and perfect than in the days referred to, and smaller town markets than the central suite are open in other quarters.

In the block of buildings next the north market stair the General Post Office for Scotland was established, after its removal from Lord Covington’s house; after which, in 1821, it was transferred to a new edifice on the Regent Bridge, at which period, we are told, the despatch of the mails was conducted in an apartment about thirty feet square, and purposely kept as dark as possible, in order to derive the full advantage of artificial light employed in the process of examining letters, to see whether they contained enclosures or not. At this time James Earl of Caithness was Deputy Postmaster-General for Scotland.

The same edifice was latterly, and until their removal in 1850 to a handsome and more spacious one, built in a kind of old Scoto-English style of architecture, on the opposite side, and on the site of a portion of Halkerston’s Wynd, and numbered as 6 in the street, the establishment of the old and well-known firm of publishers, Adam and Charles Black. The former, long a leading citizen, magistrate, and member of the city, was born in 1784, and died on the 24th of January, 1874.

Educated at the High School and University of his native city Edinburgh, though but the son of a humble builder, Adam Black raised himself to affluence, and is said to have more than once declined the honour of knighthood. After serving his apprenticeship, he started in business as a bookseller, and among other important works brought out the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” under the joint conduct of Professor Macvey Napier and James Browne, LL.D.; and to this his own pen contributed many articles. From the beginning of his career he took an active part in the politics if the city, and in the early part of the present [19th] century was among the boldest of the slender band of Liberals who stood up for burgh reform, as the preliminary to the great measure of a Parliamentary one.

When the other well-known firm of Constable and Co. failed, the publication of The Edinburgh Review passed into the hands of Adam Black, and thus drew the Liberal party more closely by his side. He was Provost of the city from 1843 to 1848, and filled his trust so much to the satisfaction of the citizens, that they subscribed to have his portrait painted to ornament the walls of the Council Room. He was proprietor, by purchase, of the copyright of “The Waverley Novels,” and many other works by Sir Walter Scott. It was when he was beyond his seventieth year that he was returned to the House of Commons as member for the city, in succession to Lord Macaulay; and being a member of the Independent body, he was ever an advocate for unsectarian education, absolute freedom of trade, and the most complete toleration in religion; but the cradle of his fortunes was that little shop which till 1821 was, as we said, deemed ample enough for the postal establishment and requirements of all Scotland.

The new buildings along the west side of the North Bridge, from Princes Street to the first open arch, were erected between 1817 and 1819, with a range of shops then deemed magnificent, but far outshone by hundreds erected since in their vicinity. These buildings are twice the height in rear that they are to the bridge front, and their erection intercepted a grand view from Waterloo Place south-westward to the Castle, and thus roused a spirited, but, as it eventually proved, futile resistance, on the part of Cockburn and Cranston, Professor Playfair, Henry Mackenzie, James Stuart of Dunearn, and others, who spent about £1,000 in the work of opposition.

Chapter 42a

Their erection led to the demolition of a small edificed thoroughfare named Ann Street, which once contained the house of a well-known literary citizen, John Grieve, who gave free quarters to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, when the latter arrived in Edinburgh in 1810, and published a little volume of poems entitled “The Forest Minstrel,” from which he derived no pecuniary benefit. Poverty was pressing sorely on Hogg, “but,” says a biographer, “he found kind and steady friends in Messrs. Grieve and Scott, hatters, whose well-timed benevolence supplied all his wants.”

While he was still in obscurity, John Grieve obtained him introductions to Professor Wilson and other local literati, which ultimately led to his becoming a contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine. Mr. Grieve is referred to in the quarrel between the Shepherd and the Blackwoods concerning the famous Noctes Ambrosianæ. He ceased to contribute, whereupon Wilson wrote thus to Grieve on the subject:-

“If Mr. Hogg puts his return to ‘Maga’ on the ground that ‘Maga’ suffers from his absence from her pages, and that Mr. B. must be very desirous of his re-assistance, that will be at once a stumbling-block in the way of settlement; for Mr. B., whether rightly or wrongly, will not make the admission. No doubt Mr. H.’s articles were often excellent, and no doubt ‘Noctes’ were very popular, but the magazine, however much many readers must have missed Mr. Hogg and the ‘Noctes,’ has been gradually increasing in sale, and therefore Mr. B. will never give in to that view of the subject.

“Mr. Hogg in his letter to me, and in a long conversation I had with him in my own house yesterday after dinner, sticks to his proposal of £100 settled on him, on condition of writing, and becoming again the hero of the ‘Noctes’ as before. I see many difficulties in the way of such an arrangement, and I know that Mr. Blackwood will never agree to it in any shape, for it might eventually prove degrading and disgraceful to both parties, appearing to the public to be a bribe given and taken dishonourably.”

“My father,” adds Mrs. Gordon, whose life of the Professor we quote, “never wrote another ‘Noctes’ after the Shepherd’s death, which took place in 1835.”

In consequence of the increase of population and traffic by its vicinity to the railway termini, after numerous schemes and suggestions, the North Bridge was widened in 1873, after designs by Messrs. Stevenson. The average number of foot-passengers traversing this bridge daily is said to be considerably in excess of 90,000, and the number of wheeled vehicles upwards of 2,000.

The ground at the north-east end of the bridge has been so variously occupied in succession by an edifice named Dingwall’s Castle, by Shakespeare Square, and the old Theatre Royal, with its thousand memories of the drama in Edinburgh, and latterly by the new General Post Office for Scotland, that we must devote a chapter or two to that portion of it alone.