Scotlands History

Edinburgh New Town

Edinburgh’s New Town has been called the Scottish Enlightenment in stone. This was to be ‘the Athens of the North’, a city enjoying its ‘Golden Age’, a suitable backcloth for the Scottish Enlightenment. The idea for a new town dates originated in the 1750s. It gained in strength as the cramped, cluttered and squalid state of the medieval Old Town continued to degenerate.

A competition was held to find a design for the New Town. It was won by a young architect named James Craig.

On the 26th of October the foundation stone of the first house in the new town of Edinburgh was laid, by Mr James Craig, architect, the gentleman to whom the premium was given for designing the best plan of the town.

Scots Magazine, Oct 1767 

Built largely on a green-field site to the north of the Old Town, the First New Town was a grid-plan, massive for its day, spectacularly overlooked by Edinburgh Castle. George Street was planned as its principal east-west thoroughfare, peppered with fine buildings including the Royal College of Physicians 1775; St Andrews Church 1785; and the Assembly Rooms 1787.

Two fine squares were created at either end; St Andrew Square and Charlotte Square. Running parallel to George Street, south and north were Princes Street and Queen Street. Queen Street Gardens was its northern open space, with Princes Street Gardens to its south.

There followed various 19th-century extensions: the Second New Town to the north of the First, sloped down to the Water of Leith. Developments to the east and west completed the grand plan.

The ensemble is unlike anything in Britain, though it has echoes in London and Bath. It remains the largest ‘Georgian’ city area in the world.

  • Photograph of Edinburgh New Town
  • Medal (obverse), commemorating laying of foundation stone of North Bridge, Edinburgh
Click on the image to view a larger version.
A colour map of Edinburgh New Town showing the castle

Mapping Edinburgh

Explore an interactive map of the New Town of Edinburgh.