Lost Edinburgh: The North British & Mercantile Insurance Company building

The North British & Mercantile Insurance Co Office at 64 Princes Street. Now British Home Stores.

The North British & Mercantile Insurance Co Office at 64 Princes Street. Now British Home Stores.


THIS magnificent Italian palazzo style building once proudly stood for over half a century at Nº64 Princes Street. The structure was confined to the history books in 1966 after its new owners British Home Stores controversially deemed the premises unfit for purpose.

Constructed in the early 1900s, the North British & Mercantile building, was a new home for an existing business. Its impressive frontage and grand, formal interior were a stunning reflection of the company’s reputation at the time as a highly successful insurance firm who were in the process of expansion. For more than 60 years, Scotland’s principle thoroughfare, was treated to an architectural style reminiscent of its traditionally more dignified neighbour, George Street.

Elements of the design harked back to the classical era, with various arches, columns and curved pediments all on display across the building’s four stories. The initial simplistic, but elegant, design at ground level gave way to more elaborate window framework and sculpted detailing on the first, second and third floors. Elsewhere, the intricately adorned ledges and central colonnade further added to the exquisite beauty and skilled artistry on show. Its interior displayed an elegant and gentrified environment that spared no expense on extravagant furnishings and sophisticated plaster work and wall fittings. An office space fit for kings.

In 1959, North British & Mercantile forged a subsidiary agreement with the Commercial Union Assurance Company. Within 4 years the company relocated to Nº26 George Street and the former headquarters were put up for sale. The building’s Princes Street address ensured that the company wouldn’t have to wait too long before a buyer was found. In 1964 retail giants British Home Stores stepped in and purchased the site. However, the lavish Edwardian interior posed a problem in that it failed to provide the adequate space that a modern department store required. British Home Stores were quick to resolve the issue and in 1966, despite considerable opposition, the building was demolished.

British Home Stores’ redevelopment of the site was not an isolated incident on Princes Street during the 1960s; the infamous Princes Street Panel had, for a number of years, been keen to see wholesale change across the entire length of the street. Numerous plans had been afoot since the 1950s to demolish the existing properties on Princes Street and replace them with modern commercial-friendly equivalents which would be connected by upper-level pedestrianised walkways. The plans would have effectively doubled the available retail space and there are a handful of examples visible on Princes Street today, including the BHS store, which are a testament to the aforementioned model.

In a world where the preservation of civic heritage and historic architecture is of huge importance, it is easy to criticise and difficult to understand the mindsets of the planners during the 20th century. Of course, the need for progression must be acknowledged, but it’s hard not to be thankful that the rather extreme proposals stopped where they did. Despite a few notable casualties, Princes Street still boasts some of the very best architecture the city has to offer.




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