Edinburgh Architecture

Edinburgh New Town

The Architects of The Enlightenment,
by Jane Boyd-Brent

The 18th Century was a great period in British Architecture, and this greatness is nowhere more apparent than in Scotland. The political union of Scotland and England in 1707 meant that Scottish politicians tended to spend most of their time in London where political decisions were then made; the tendency was that these individuals became very wealthy. For example, Sir William Dundas, involved in the financial and political structure of the Britain as a whole, consequently had sufficient wealth to build his own mansion north of the border.

The other result was the new political stability made possible by the Act of Union which allowed for greater prosperity in Scotland which led to a spate of new building, both public and private, during the whole of the 1700s and into the following century. There seemed to be in the Scottish national character a natural affinity with the Classical forms of ancient Greece and Rome. It is a fact, too often not acknowledged, that the most important British architects of this age, Colen Campbell, James Gibbs and Robert Adam were Scots, interpreting the first phase of Classicism in the Palladian form.

Moray Place

This infusion of Classical order and symmetry was given a significant and influential impetus by Robert Adam who, like many others at the time, embarked on a "Grand Tour" through Europe to Italy to discover for himself the wealth of Classical "architectural language" which had lain forgotten and ruined since the days of the Roman Empire. Gibbs and Campbell both produced books full of detailed drawings and plans of Classical Orders and ornamentation which could be used by others, and which served as an inspiration not only for builders but also for their clients. In fact the clients saw themselves as the heirs of the glories of Rome; they idolised Virgil, Pliny and Cicero, and sought to model their lives on such classical principals as virtue, wisdom and harmony, and consequently tried to reflect these qualities in their surroundings, in their houses and public buildings. It was this development of rationalism in philosophy and of regularity in music and poetry with the elevation of the Greek and Latin classics as models in literature and with the general tendency towards clear rules and principals that were the true concepts behind the actual architecture.

Edinburgh, in the later 1700s, was at the forefront of medical discoveries in Europe and this period was called the "Scottish Enlightenment" because of the esteem in which scientific, intellectual and aesthetic achievements were held. Amongst the many influential people who met together and exchanged ideas were the architect Robert Adam (1728-94), the philosopher David Hume (1711-76),the economist Adam Smith (1723-90), the historian William Robertson (1721-93), the painters Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Allan Ramsay (1713-84) and his pupil Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), the poets Robert Burns (1759-96) and, later, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

In this climate greater prosperity resulted in the expansion of Edinburgh to many times its original size. Now Edinburgh was alive with an enthusiasm to create a new city built on principals of aesthetics inherited from the Classical world of Greece and Rome. Throughout the 1700s thousands of classically conceived houses were built along roads and around squares which were all planned with an order and regularity which many saw as a return to a Golden Age of civilised urban living.

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