The process of getting used to a new city has several stages and, 18 months on, I feel that I am slowly becoming familiar with Edinburgh. Taking buses was a challenge; as they all went to strange-sounding places like Penicuik or Prestonpans, or to familiar names but in a new situation, like Portobello (unlike Dublin, this one is by the sea). But you learn first your well-travelled routes, and with weekend perambulations, more and more aspects and peculiarities of the city’s streetscape. Finding coffee shops is one incentive (the baristas here are impressed with Dublin’s “scene”). But Edinburgh rewards at every turn, and of course by too much to summarise in one article. So here, I’ll write about one street, and an obvious selection for this blog is Dublin Street.
Welcome to New Town
Dublin St is on the north side of the city. That is to say it is in New Town. Edinburgh’s New Town began in the mid-eighteenth century and was developed in response to the overcrowded medieval streetscape of Old Town, to the south. The Act of Union (Scotland’s Union was a century earlier than Ireland, in 1707) meant that London was becoming a more attractive option to live. Building an appealing place for the city’s middle and upper classes to take up residence became of paramount importance to Edinburgh’s Town Council. James Craig’s plan for New Town was adopted and the agreed form that was executed is shown.
Craig’s plan envisions a New Town that is everything Old Town wasn’t. Arranged along an ordered grid with lots of space, there are three thoroughfares running East-West named Queen St, George St as the principal axis, and Princes St on the southern edge, and five North-South streets. George St is book-ended by two grand squares: St Andrew’s Square to the east and what was proposed as George Square at the west, but became Charlotte Square, after Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife. There’s no doubt that Craig wished to dedicate this New Town to the Royal family; two of the North-South streets are called Frederick St and Hanover St and Princes’ St itself was named on request of the King in honour of his two sons. (The text of the dedication of his plans to the King also make Craig’s loyalty clear!)
As a project, New Town was enormously successful. So much so that a second New Town was built further to the North of Craig’s original plans, shown above, extending his grid by many more streets, east-west, and north-south. It’s time now to meet Dublin St.
An Act of Union
Dublin St was part of this second phase of the development of New Town, and it continues the line north of Andrew St, itself stemming from St Andrew’s Square on Craig’s map. A map coincident with, or perhaps published just in advance of actual building captures the plans.
This map shows “Hibernia Street” meeting Anglia Street and Caledonia Street. The intention was that these street names would celebrate the recent Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain in Jan 1801. There are several layers of irony in this accolade, and one is left pondering about the fact that Scotland’s union led to the development of Edinburgh’s great Georgian city, while Ireland’s led to Dublin’s demise.
In any case Hibernia, Anglia, and Caledonia streets were actually named Dublin, London, and Scotland St; the latter now of course is very famous (note: there is no No. 44 – I’ve looked, several times).
It’s perhaps a mark of how much there is to say about this city that Dublin St barely manages a paragraph in my Pevsner Guide to Edinburgh. And the wonder of the city is that it is indeed a very ordinary street. A difference between Georgian architecture here and in Dublin is that tenement buildings are a feature of design, rather than retrospectively imposed on a building as they are in Dublin. A common approach is that the building looks like a single-house from the outside, but the door actually leads immediately to a stairwell, with tenement flats at each storey. In some cases the ground floor have own door access, so that the streetscape from the front looks on casual glance to be a series of doorways into individual houses; closer inspection means one has to solve the puzzle the tenement design imposes. It’s all very clever, and means there is a substantial capacity for accommodation. Dublin St has just one house in its own right; the rest being tenements. Of course in the grander parts of the city, Adams designed building fronts as if they were all part of one very grand palace, whereupon closer inspection, one finds entries to a series of individual houses. It’s all very organised.
New Town’s Pleasure Grounds
At the intersection of the “union streets” is Drummond Place. The spacious nature of Craig’s design and the subsequent developments to the north lead to another characteristic of the city: pleasure grounds. These gardens were associated with the wealthier squares and crescents, and offered a green space upon which the windows of a Georgian dining room on the ground floor and drawing room on the first floor could overlook.The areas of the gardens make up 10% of New Town, considerably ahead of other comparable cities. Most are still private for the residents that live around them and access and use was strictly guarded. Rules for Drummond Place from the 1820s for example go to great lengths to specify exactly who could and couldn’t use the garden. House owners could use them of course, but if they let out to a tenant, only one or other could have the key. Servants were not allowed under any circumstances, save for nannies tending to young children who lives on the Place. These children were required to stay on the gravel paths and grass, and boys couldn’t bring in companions who weren’t also residents. If any house on the place was used as a boarding house, guests there were not welcome; unless it was a boarding school for young ladies.
In reality the rules were probably not strictly adhered to, but the point about servant access has been used to raise an interesting point about Edinburgh generally. New Town was first conceived as a place for particular classes to get away from the filth and chaos of Old Town, and was spectacularly successful in its goal. But it introduced a social divide into the city that is arguably still present. It is home to both the highest concentration of affluence in Scotland and the third highest level of income deprivation.
A city of layers
Edinburgh is a city that isn’t afraid to go underground. Of course we didn’t live in caves!, our fantastic guide at the Real Mary King’s Close told us. Perhaps not, but this is a city where basement flats and indeed double basement flats are common. Another sign of their willingness to go down runs under Dublin St. The North-South line running from Scotland St through Dublin St and St Andrew’s Square has a subterranean layer, being home to a now disused railway tunnel. The “Scotland St tunnel” ran from Waverley Station along this line emerging at the north end of Scotland St, continuing north to the Port of Leith. Construction began in 1842 and the line opened completely 1847. It is an outstanding piece of engineering. One learns very quickly in Edinburgh about its hills, and the incline of Scotland St, and especially Dublin St is very steep. The Scotland St tunnel had a permanent mechanism in place to shift trains up the steep hill and into Waverley. The tunnel closed in the 1868 after an alternative overground line meant there was no longer any need for it, but the entry and exit points are still visible. The tunnel itself has since been home to mushroom farms and an outdoor laboratory for University of Edinburgh Physics Department.
This is a city with many layers, and many things yet to discover. I am looking forward to it.
- Connie Byrom (1995) The Pleasure Grounds of Edinburgh New Town, Garden History, 23(1), 67-90.
- Anna Feintuck (2017) Urban History, 44(1), 162-163.
- Christopher Fleet and Daniel MacCannell (2014) Edinburgh: Mapping the city, Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- John Gifford, Colin McWilliam, and David Walker (2003) The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh, Yale: London.
- National Library of Scotland Maps website: http://maps.nls.uk/. Maps shown here are CC-BY-NC-SA.
- Old and New Town of Edinburgh and Leith with the proposed docks (1804)
- Plan of Edinburgh and Leith with Suburbs Constructed for the Post Office Directory by John Bartholomew (1891-1892)
- P. J. G. Ransom (2007) Iron Road: The Railway in Scotland, Birlinn: Edinburgh.