Setting the Scene

The example set by the capital, the nation will soon follow.  The certain consequence is general wealth and prosperity; the number of useful people will increase; the rents of land rise; the public revenue improve; and in the room of sloth and poverty, will succeed industry and opulence.[1]

In Edinburgh, the access to men of parts is not only easy, but their conversation and the communication of their knowledge are at once imparted….with the utmost liberality.[2]

It is not a surprise that the painting was created in the 1790’s.  Edinburgh at that time was experiencing a remarkable transition from a medieval town largely confined within a city wall, recovering from financial depression and the after effects of the Jacobite rebellion to becoming a thriving, vibrant community at the height of what has been described as Edinburgh’s Golden Age. The painting encapsulates much of this excitement and prosperity. Around the Square stand the shops of jewellers, clockmakers and booksellers.  The Square is full of activity – lawyers, clergy and doctors engaged in conversation; soldiers, chimney sweeps, fishwives and beggars attending to their business and children playing. 

The Golden Age refers to the period extending from the 1760’s to the 1830’s during which a remarkable number of intellectual and talented individuals congregated in the city.  Outstanding among these eminent men are the philosophers David Hume and Dugald Stewart, the economist Adam Smith, the geologist James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, architects Robert Adam and William Playfair, poets and authors Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Henry MacKenzie, doctors William Cullen, John Gregory and Andrew Duncan, the engineer James Watt and many others in the fields of art, religion and law. The reason behind this extraordinary gathering of gifted people is endlessly debated and outside the scope of this study, but there is no doubt that they did much to establish the reputation of Edinburgh and bring the city to the attention of the world.

A much quoted remark of Mr Amyat, a visitor to Edinburgh, seems to capture the atmosphere of  the period:  ‘Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius and learning by the hand’.[3] The Market Cross then stood near the carriage entrance to Parliament Square, not far from its present location, so one can assume that the visitor could have found many of these ‘men of genius’ in the Square itself.  Among the figures which can be identified in the Key Painting, at least ten might have qualified for Amyat’s handshake – William Smellie, editor, and Andrew Bell, illustrator, of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the physicians Alexander Monro, James Hamilton and James Gregory, the jurists Islay Campbell and Alexander Maconochie, the clerics William Robertson and John Erskine, and the historian, Hugo Arnot.  These and the other characters in the Square are described.

The rebuilding of Edinburgh

Another related and important contribution to the reformation of Edinburgh was the physical reconstruction of the City which took place concurrently with its intellectual progress. In 1752, an influential Committee met to consider plans for Edinburgh’s future. It consisted of the Lord Provost, George Drummond and representatives from the Town Council, Lords of Session, Barons of the Exchequer, Faculty of Advocates and Clerks of the Signet.  The Committee’s report[4]drew attention to the many ways in which Edinburgh compared unfavourably with London, which was:

… unconfined… upon a large plain, gently shelving towards the Thames; …with which it is supplied with all the necessaries, and even luxuries of life. No less obvious are…the beauty and conveniency of its numerous streets and open squares…its large parks and extensive walks. When to these advantages we add its trade and navigation; the business of the exchange, of the two houses of parliament, and of the courts of justice; the magnificence of the court; the pleasures of the theatre, and other public entertainments: in a word, …we need no longer be astonished at that spirit of industry and improvement, …in the city of London…

….we need only contrast the delightful prospect which London affords, with that of ….Edinburgh, the metropolis of Scotland when a separate kingdom, and still the chief city of North Britain.  The healthfulness of its situation, and its neighbourhood to the Forth, must no doubt be admitted as very favourable circumstances.  But how greatly are these overbalanced by other disadvantages almost without number?  Placed upon the ridge of a hill, it admits but of one good street,… The narrow lanes leading to the north and south, by reason of their steepness narrowness, and dirtiness, can only be considered as so many unavoidable nuisances.  Confined by the small compass of the walls, and the narrow limits of the royalty, which scarcely extends beyond the wall, the houses stand more crouded (sic) than in any other town in Europe and are built to a height that is almost incredible.  Hence necessarily follows a great want of free air, light, cleanliness and every other comfortable accommodation.  Hence also many families, sometimes no less than ten or a dozen, are obliged to live overhead of each other in the same building; where, to all the other inconveniencies, is added that of a common stair, which is not other in effect than an upright street, constantly dark and dirty….the shambles are placed upon the side of the North-Loch, rendering what was originally an ornament to the town, a most insufferable nuisance.  No less observable is the great deficiency of public buildings….There is no exchange for our merchants; no safe repository for our public and private records; no place of meeting for our magistrates and town-council; …To these and such other reasons it must be imputed, that so few people of rank reside in this city; that it is rarely visited by strangers; and that so many local prejudices, and narrow notions, inconsistent with polished manners and growing wealth, are still so obstinately retained. To such reasons alone it must be imputed, that Edinburgh, which ought to have set the first example of industry and improvement, is the last of our trading cities that has shook off the unaccountable supineness which has so long and so fatally depressed the spirit of the nation.   

The Committee noted that things were improving – trade and manufactures were advancing rapidly.  The great spring ‘is that spirit, liberality and application, with which our nobility and landed gentlemen, have of late engaged in every useful project’. [5]  Despite this there was an urgent need for development.  Parts of the old city were decaying and needing to be pulled down which gave an opportunity for development.

A project for enlarging and beautifying this city could never surely have been suggested at a more proper juncture… As we have such powerful motives prompting us to undertake it; so chance has furnished us with the fairest opportunity of carrying it into execution….If this opportunity be neglected all hopes of remedying the inconveniences of this city are at an end’.[6]

The Committee made four proposals:

1 To build an exchange ‘upon the ruins on the north side of the high street’ which would provide merchants with proper accommodation in which to conduct their business.

2 To erect upon the ruins in the Parliament Close a large building for law courts, the town council, offices for clerks, registers and an advocate’s library. 

3 To obtain an act of parliament for extending the royalty; to enlarge and beautify the town, by opening new streets to the north and south, removing the markets and shambles, and turning the North Loch into a canal, with walks and terraces on each side.

4 That the expence (sic) of these public works should be defrayed by national contributions.  

Shortly after the Committee published its report, an anonymous pamphlet[7] was published which drew attention in a whimsical manner to another difference between London and Edinburgh.

Among the several causes to which the prosperity of a nation may be ascribed, the number, conveniency and elegance of its Houses of Office, are surely not the least considerable…’   London, being built along a river, was supplied with ‘houses of office’ and common sewers draining into the river.  It was ‘opulent and beautiful because it abounds in necessary-houses;  Edinburgh from being deprived of these conveniences, is poor and wallowing in mire….The call of nature must be obeyed; he who receives nourishment, must render up, or rather render down, the superfluous particles of food.’ The author hoped to hear the heralds proclaim ‘amidst the applause of wondering multitude, The Public Necessary-House of Edinburgh, and on the front of this noble building, let the following words, for the instruction of posterity be ingrained, Nobis Haec Otia Fecit [This puts us at ease]. 

At that time Edinburgh had no sewage drains.  The traditional custom, established over centuries, was to dump all household waste and excrement into the street at a certain hour in the evening and have it cleared up in the early morning by street sweepers who sold the ashes and human ordure to neighbouring farmers as a fertiliser.  This abhorrent practice was accepted by the inhabitants but was regarded with astonishment and horror by visitors to the city.   Boswell described the conditions during Samuel Johnson’s visit in 1773.[8]

Mr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street to my house in James Court; it was a dusky night, I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh….  The peril is much abated by the care with which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but, from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consists of many storeys in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues.

The Rev. Sidney Smith, one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review wrote, with reference to Edinburgh’s ‘total want of faecal propriety’:

Taste guides my eye, where’er new beauties spread,
While prudence whispers, ‘Look before your tread’. 

The New Town, as it developed, had sewers measuring 6 feet high and 3 feet wide under every street to which each house was connected.  They drained into the Water of Leith which became, as the Thames was then, an open sewer. It was not until the 19th century that sewers were constructed in the Old Town and piped water and toilets were introduced to the tenements.

Although the Committee for carrying on Public Works ignored the sewage problem, its proposals and many more improvements were carried out with great energy during the next fifty years.  George Drummond (1688-1766), a member of the committee, who was six times Lord Provost of Edinburgh between 1725-1764, was a powerful contributor.  Prior to his membership of the Committee, he had been chiefly responsible for establishing the new medical school in 1726, and had raised the funds and laid the founding stone of the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary in 1738.

His efforts to bring the Committee proposals into effect started with the draining of the Nor-Loch in 1759, preparing the ground for the building of the North Bridge.  He commissioned the building of the Royal Exchange in 1760.  The urgent need for the exchange building was due to the fact that;

Our merchants at present meet in the public street; where to the great interruption of business, they transact their affairs in the midst of that hurray, which continual passing of coaches and carriages, and of numbers of people, necessarily occasion.  A proper exchange will at once be a real advantage to our merchants and create an opinion of the importance of our trade. [9]

The Exchange was completed in 1767 but ‘whatever may be said of the elegance of the building,… it is certain that it has never answered the purposes for which it was designed; the inhabitants continuing to meet on the street, near the place where the cross stood, to transact their business as usual…’[10] The building was destined to become the City Chambers instead.

L The Royal Exchange (1831) by T H Shepherd. R The same building today – now the City Chambers

In the 1760’s Drummond was the driving force behind the development of the New Town on the north side of old city.  He was considered responsible for ‘…everything that can be denominated an improvement in Edinburgh’[11].  During his term of office, Parliamentary permission was obtained to extend the Royalty (ie enlarge the city limits) and the necessary land was purchased on which to build the New Town.  In 1763 he laid the foundation stone of the North Bridge which crossed the valley to the new development, linking the Old and New Towns.  Alas he did not live to see its fruition.  In 1788 the splendid Register House designed by the Adam brothers was opened in the New Town facing the North Bridge.  

Illustrations Register House and the North Bridge

Illustrations of the North Bridge linking the Old and New Towns crossing the valley previously occupied by the Nor’ Loch.

Drummond’s successor as Lord Provost, James Hunter Blair, was the motivator responsible for the building of the South Bridge which spanned the Cowgate valley to the south of the Old Town. The South Bridge was completed in 1788. It improved access to the Royal Infirmary and the University, which was in the process of being rebuilt, and prepared the way for development to the south of the city. The foundation stone of the new University quadrangle, designed by Robert Adam, was laid in 1789 but alas the building was interrupted for several years due to lack of money. Adam died before more funds became available and it was not completed until 1828 to a modified design by William Playfair.

The splendid new buildings of the New Town, inevitably attracted the wealthy and many of the shop owners to emigrate from their cramped and dirty quarters in the Old Town.  Sir Alexander Boswell described the scene:

The City grows and spreads on every side,
In all the honour of masonic pride.
From narrow lanes, where Pestilence was spent,
Now emigrate the Squire and thriving Gent.
To spacious mansions, elegant or neat,
Where sweeping breezes ventilate each street,
And where expanding, fanciful and free,
The rising City stretches to the Sea.[12]

The source of finance

A visitor, John Symonds, writing in 1790[13] commented that; 

I had heard much of the new city of Edinburgh….but it has much surpassed my expectation. ..Detached parts of London…might possibly be put together to equal them, but such a contrived mass of excellent buildings I never beheld…. The magistrates of Edinburgh have not been deficient in doing their utmost to improve the old part of the town by taking down whole streets, removing nuisances, & building noble bridges over the ravines’…You will naturally ask, whence could this expense be supplied? 

He goes on to detail Edinburgh’s industry and trade which he considered was entirely inadequate for financing the amount of building work which was being undertaken at that time. ‘The truth is, it is the consequence of Oriental wealth.  Numberless petty nabobs….have brought home from 40 to 70 to £80,000 during these last 30 years’. Drummond’s Committee had anticipated that if the proposed improvements were made ‘people of rank would hardly prefer an obscure life in London, to the splendour and influence with which they might reside at home’.  It appears that this prediction was fulfilled.

These major building developments and the progressive expansion of the New Town are evidence of the prosperity and pride of the Edinburgh citizens at that time which is reflected in the activity shown in the Key Painting.  The buildings around the Square itself, as shown in the painting, were to undergo major changes in the next fifty years. Whether these changes were to be regarded as improvements was to be the subject of debate.     

[1] Anon (1752) Proposals for carrying on certain Public Works in the city of Edinburgh Authorship attributed to Sir Gilbert Elliot (Lord Minto) p31

[2] Smellie, W (1800) Literary and characteristic lives of John Gregory, Lord Kames, David  Hume and Adam Smith p162

[3] Ibid., P 161

[4] Proposals  p6-9

[5] Ibid., p10

[6] Ibid., p24-5

[7] Anon, attributed to Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes).  Satire on Lord Minto’s Proposals

[8]  Boswell, J (1773) p11

[9] Proposals p26-27                                                                                                                                          

[10] Kincaid (1787) p153

[11] Ibid p93

[12] Boswell, A.  In  Edinburgh or the Ancient Royalty

[13] Letter of John Symonds quoted in Brown, I G (1997) Surpassing expectations: an east Anglian visitor’s Report of 1790. BOEC 4 p117