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Chapter 16 – The New Town, pp.114-119.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

The Site before the Streets – The Lang Dykes – Wood’s Farm – Drumsheugh House – Bearford’s Parks – The Houses of Easter and Wester Coates – Gabriel’s Road – Craig’s Plan of the New Town – John Young builds the First House Therein – Extension of the Town Westward. 

   LOOKING at the site of the New Town now, it requires an effort to think that there were thatched cottages there once, and farms, where corn was sown and reaped, where pigs grunted in styes or roamed in the yard; where fowls laid eggs and clucked over them, and ducks drove their broods into the North Loch, where the trap caught eels and the otter and water-rat lurked amid the sedges, and where cattle browsed on the upland slopes that were crested by the line of the Lang Dykes; and where the gudeman and his sons left the plough in the furrow, and betook them to steel bonnets and plate sleeves, to jack and Scottish spear, when the bale-fire, flaming out on the Castle towers, announced that “our ancient enemies of England had crossed the Tweed.” 

   Such, little more than one hundred years ago, was the site of “the Modern Athens.” 

   Along the line now occupied by Princes Street lay a straight country road, the Lang Dykes – called the Lang Gait in the “Memorie of the Somervilles,” in 1640 – the way by which Claverhouse and his troopers rode westward on that eventful day in 1689, and where in 1763, we read in the Edinburgh Museum for January of two gentlemen on horseback being stopped by a robber, armed with a pistol, whom they struck down by the butt end of a whip, but failed to secure, “as they heard somebody whistle several times behind the dykes,” and were apprehensive that he might have confederates. 

   The district was intersected by other lonely roads, such as the Kirk Loan, which led north from St. Cuthbert’s Church to the wooden, or Stokebridge, and the ford on the Leith at the back of the present Malta Terrace, where it joined Gabriel’s Road, a path that came from the east end of the Lang Dykes; by the old Queensferry Road that descended into the deep hollow, where Bell’s Mills lie, and by Broughton Loan at the other end of the northern ridge. 

   Bearford’s Parks on the west, and Wood’s Farm on the east, formed the bulk of this portion of the site; St. George’s Church is now in the centre of the former, and Wemyss Place of the latter. The hamlet and manor house of Moultray’s Hill are now occupied by the Register House; and where the Royal Bank stands was a cottage called “Peace and Plenty,” from its signboard near Gabriel’s Road, “where ambulative citizens regaled themselves with curds and cream,” and Broughton was deemed so far afield that people went there for the summer months under the belief that they were some distance from town, just as people used to go to Powburn and Tipperlinn fifty years later. 

   Henry Mackenzie, author of “The Man of Feeling,” who died in 1831, remembered shooting snipes, hares, and partridges upon Wood’s Farm. The latter was a tract of ground extending from Canon Mills on the north, to Bearford’s Parks on the south, and was long in possession of Mr. Wood, of Warriston, and in the house thereon, his son, the famous “Lang Sandy Wood,” was born in 1725. It stood on the area between where Queen Street and Heriot Row are now, and “many still alive,” says Chambers, writing in 1824, “remember of the fields bearing as fair and rich a crop of wheat as they may now be said to bear houses. Game used to be plentiful upon these grounds – in particular partridges and hares… Woodcocks and snipe were to be had in all the damp and low-lying situations, such as the Well-house Tower, the Hunter’s Bog, and the borders of Canon Mills Loch. Wild ducks were frequently shot in the meadows, where in winter they are sometimes yet to be found. Bruntsfield Links, and the ground towards the Braid Hills abounded in hares.” 

   In the list of Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons, Alexander Wood and his brother Thomas are recorded, under date 1756 and 1775 respectively, as the sons of “Thomas Wood, farmer on the north side of Edinburgh, Stockbridge Road,” now called Church Lane. 

   A tradition exists, that about 1730 the magistrates offered to a residenter in Canon Mills all the ground between Gabriel’s Road and the Gallowlee, in perpetual fee, at the annual rent of a crown bowl of punch; but so worthless was the land then, producing only whins and heather, that the offer was rejected. (“Old Houses in Edinburgh.”)  

   The land referred to is now worth more than £15,000 per annum. 

   Prior to the commencement of the new town, the only other edifices on the site were the Kirkbraehead House, Drumsheugh House, near the old Ferry Road, and the Manor House of Coates. 

   Drumsheugh House, of which nothing now remains but its ancient rookery in Randolph Crescent, was removed recently. Therein the famous Chevalier Johnstone, Assistant A.D.C. to Prince Charles, was concealed for a time by Lady Jane Douglas, after the battle of Culloden, till he escaped to England, in the disguise of a pedlar. 

   Alexander Lord Colville of Culross, a distinguished Admiral of the White, resided there subsequently. He served at Carthagena in 1741, at Quebec and Louisbourg in the days of Wolfe, and died at Drumsheugh on the 21st of May, 1770. His widow, Lady Elizabeth Erskine, daughter of Alexander Earl of Kellie, resided there for some years after, together with her brother, the Honourable Andrew Erskine, an officer of the old 71st, disbanded in 1763, an eccentric character, who figures among Kay’s Portraits, and who in 1793 was drowned in the Forth, opposite Caroline Park. Lady Colville died at Drumsheugh in the following year, when the house and lands thereof reverted to her brother-in-law, John Lord Colville of Culross. And so lately as 1811 the mansion was occupied by James Erskine, Esq., of Cambus. 

   Southward of Drumsheugh lay Bearford’s Parks, mentioned as “Terras de Barfurd” in an Act in favour of Lord Newbattle in 1587, named from Hepburn of Bearford in Haddingtonshire. 

   In 1767 the Earl of Morton proposed to have a wooden bridge thrown across the North Loch from these parks to the foot of Warriston’s Close, but the magistrates objected, on the plea that the property at the close foot was worth £20,000. The proposed bridge was to be on a line with “the highest level ground of Robertson’s and Wood’s Farms.” In the Edinburgh Advertiser for 1783 the magistrates announced that Hallow Fair was to be “held in the Middle Bearford’s Park.” 

   Lord Fountainhall, under dates 1693 and 1695, records a dispute between Robert Hepburn of Bearford and the administrators of Heriot’s hospital, concerning “the mortified annual rents acclaimed out of his tenement in Edinburgh, called the Black Turnpike,” and again in 1710, of an action he raised against the Duchess of Buccleuch, in which Sir Robert Hepburn of Bearford, in 1633, is referred to, all probably of the same family. 

   The lands and houses of Easter and Wester Coates lay westward of Bearford’s Parks and the old Ferry Road. The former edifice, a picturesque old mansion, with turrets, dormer windows, and crowstepped gables, in the Scoto-French style, still remains unchanged among its changed surroundings as when it was built, probably about 1611, by Sir John Byres of Coates, whose town residence was in Byres’ Close, in the High Street, and over the door of which he inscribed the usual pious legend, “Blissit be God in al his giftis,” with the initials of himself and his lady. This lintel was removed by the late Sir Patrick Walker, who had succeeded to the estate, and was rebuilt by him into the present ancient house, which is destined long to survive as the deanery of St. Mary’s cathedral. Into the walls of the same house were built some fragments of sculpture from a mansion in the Cowgate, traditionally known as the residence of the French embassy in Mary’s time. They are now in the north wing. 

   On the eastern side of the mansion of Coates are two ancient lintels, one dated 1600, with the initials C. C. I. and K. H. The other bears the same initials with the legend, 



   On the west a dormer gable bears the date 1615, with the initials J. B. and M. B., and a stone built above the western door bears in large letters the word IEHOVA, with the city motto and the date 1614. 

   According to the inscription on the tomb of “the truly good and excellent citizen John Byres of Coites,” in the Greyfriars churchyard, as given by Monteith, it would appear that he was two years city bailie, two years a surburban bailie, six years Dean of Guild, and that he died on the 24th of November, 1629, in his sixtieth year. 

   Prior to the time of the Byres the property had belonged to the Lindsays, as in the ratification by Parliament to Lord Lindsay, in 1592, are mentioned “the landis of Dene, but the mylnes and mure thereof, and their pertenents lyand within the Sherifdom of Edinburgh, the manes of Drym, the lands of Drymhill, the landis of Coittis and Coitakirs, &c.” (Acta Pari., Jacobi VI.) 

   The mansion of Wester Coates, advertised in the Edinburgh papers of 1783 as “the House of Coates, or White House, belonging to the heirs of the deceased James Finlay of Walliford, and as lately possessed by Lord Covington, situated on the highway leading to Coltbridge,” was removed in 1869 to make way for Grosvenor Street, in excavating the foundation of which a number of ancient bronze Caledonian swords were found – the relics of some pre-historic strife. One was specially remarkable for having the hilt and pommel of bronze cast in one piece with the blade – a form very rare, there being only one other Scottish example known – one from Tarves, in Aberdeenshire, and now in the British Museum. 

   The few houses enumerated alone occupied the lonely site of the New Town when Gabriel’s Road, latterly a mean, narrow alley, was a delightful country path, “along which,” says Wilson, in 1847, “some venerable citizens still remember to have wended their way between green hedges that skirted the pleasant meadows and cornfields of Wood’s Farm, and which was in days of yore a favourite trysting place for lovers, where they breathed out their tender tale of passion beneath the fragrant hawthorn.” 

   It ran in an oblique direction through the ancient hamlet of Silvermills, and its course is yet indicated by the irregular slant of the garden walls that separate the little plots behind Duke Street from the East Queen Street Gardens at the lower end. 

   The plan of the proposed new city was prepared by James Craig, an eminent architect, nephew of the poet Thomson, and who engraved thereon the following appropriate lines from his uncle’s poem:- 

“August, around, what public works I see! 

Lo, stately streets! lo, squares that court the breeze! 

See long canals and deepened rivers join 

Each part with each, and with the circling main, 

The whole entwined isle.” 

   The names given to the streets and squares – the formal array of parallelograms drawn by Craig – were taken from the royal family chiefly, and the tutelary saints of the island. The first thoroughfare, now a magnificent terrace, was called St. Giles Street, after the ancient patron of the city; but on the plan being shown to George III. for his approval, he exclaimed, “Hey, hey! – what, what! – St. Giles Street! – never do, never do!” And so, to escape from a vulgar London association of ideas, it was named Princes Street, after the future George IV. and the Duke of York. 

   Craig survived to see his plans only partially carried out, as he died in 1795, in his fifty-fifth year. He was the son of Robert Craig, merchant, and grandson of Robert Craig, who in the beginning of that century had been a magistrate of Edinburgh. His mother was Mary, youngest daughter of James Thomson, minister of Ednam, and sister of the author of “The Seasons.” 

   So difficult was it to induce people to build in a spot so sequestered and far apart from the mass of the ancient city, that a premium of £20 was publicly offered by the magistrates to him who should raise the first house; but great delays ensued. The magistrates complimented Mr. James Craig on his plan for the New Town, which was selected from several. He received a gold medal and the freedom of the city in a silver box; and by the end of July, 1767, notice was given that “the plan was to lie open at the Council Chamber for a month from the 3rd of August, for the inspection of such as inclined to become feuars, where also were to be seen the terms on which feus would be granted.” 

   At last a Mr. John Young took courage, and gained the premium by erecting a mansion in Rose Court, George Street – the first edifice of New Edinburgh; and the foundation of it was laid by James Craig, the architect, in person, on the 26th of October, 1767. (Chambers’s “Traditions,” p. 18.) 

   An exemption from all burghal taxes was also granted to Mr. John Neale, a silk mercer, for an elegant mansion built by him, the first in the line of Princes Street (latterly occupied as the Crown Hotel), and wherein his son-in-law, Archibald Constable, afterwards resided. “These now appear whimsical circumstances,” says Robert Chambers: “so it does that a Mr. Shadrach Moyes, on ordering a house to be built for himself in Princes Street, in 1769, held the builder bound to run another farther along, to shield him from the west wind. Other quaint particulars are remembered, as for instance, Mr. Wight, an eminent lawyer, who planted himself in St. Andrew Square, finding that he was in danger of having his view of St. Giles’s clock shut up by the advancing line of Princes Street, built the intervening house himself, that he might have it in his power to keep the roof low, for the sake of the view in question; important to him, he said, as enabling him to regulate his movements in the morning, when it was necessary that he should be punctual in his attendance at the Parliament House.” 

   By 1790 the New Town had extended westward to Castle Street, and by 1800 the necessity for a second plan farther to the north was felt, and soon acted upon, and great changes rapidly came over the customs, manners, and habits of the people. With the enlarged mansions of the new city, they were compelled to live more expensively, and more for show. A family that had long moved in genteel or aristocratic society in Blackfriars Wynd, or Lady Stair’s Close, maintaining a round of quiet tea-drinkings with their neighbour up the adjoining turnpike stair, and who might converse with lords, ladies, and landed gentry, by merely opening their respective windows, found all this homely kindness changed when they emigrated beyond the North Loch. There heavy dinners took the place of tea-parties, and routs superseded the festive suppers of the closes and wynds, and those who felt themselves great folk when dwelling therein, appeared small enough in George Street or Charlotte Square. 

   The New Town kept pace with the growing prosperity of Scotland, and the Old, if unchanged in aspect, changed thoroughly as respects the character of its population. Nobles and gentlemen, men of nearly all professions, deserted one by one, and a flood of the lower, the humbler, and the plebeian classes took their places in close and wynd; and many a gentleman in middle life, living then perhaps in Princes Street, looked back with wonder and amusement to the squalid common stair in which he and his forefathers had been born, and where he had spent the earliest years of his life. 

   Originally the houses of Craig’s new city were all of one plain and intensely monotonous plan and elevation – three storeys in height, with a sunk area in front, enclosed by iron railings, with link extinguishers; and they only differed by the stone being more finely polished, as the streets crept westward. But during a number of years prior to 1840, the dull uniformity of the streets over the western half of the town had disappeared. 

   Most of the edifices, all constructed as elegant and commodious dwelling-houses, are now enlarged, re-built, or turned into large hotels, shops, club-houses, insurance-offices, warehouses, and new banks, and scarcely an original house remains unchanged in Princes Street or George Street. 

   And this brings us now to the Edinburgh of modern intellect, power, and wealth. “At no period of her history did Edinburgh better deserve her complimentary title of the modern Athens than the last ten years of the eighteenth and the first ten years of the nineteenth century,” says an English writer. “She was then, not only nominally, but actually, the capital of Scotland, the city in which was collected all the intellectual life and vigour of the country. London then occupied a position of much less importance in relation to the distant parts of the empire than is now the case. Many causes have contributed to bring about the change, of which the most prominent are the increased facilities for locomotion which have been introduced… various causes which contributed to increase the importance of provincial towns were combined in the case of Edinburgh. She was the titular capital of Scotland, and as such, was looked up to with pride and veneration by the nation at large. She was then the residence of many of the old Scottish nobility, and the exclusion of the British from the Continent, during a long, protracted war, made her, either for business, society, or education, the favourite resort of strangers. She was the head-quarters of the legal profession at a time when both the Scottish bench and bar were rendered illustrious by a number of men celebrated for their learning, eloquence, and wit. She was the head-quarters of the Scottish Church, whose pulpits and General Assembly were adorned by divines of great eminence and piety. Lastly, she was the chief seat of scholarship, and the chosen home of literature and science north of the Tweed.” 

   With the Edinburgh of those days and of the present we have now to deal. 

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