Capital’s New Town was ‘built for social cleansing’

Architect James Craig created a place only nice people could afford. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Architect James Craig created a place only nice people could afford. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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It is regarded as the finest example of Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe, feted by urban planners for its elegant expansion of Scotland’s capital at a time when its cramped wynds suffered from severe overcrowding.

But a new documentary about the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town suggests it was as much as exercise in “social cleansing” as a means of reasserting the city’s status.

It is 250 years since the city’s fathers launched a design competition to find a modern layout on what was at the time a cluster of fields.

The contest was won by James Craig, a 26-year-old architect, who envisaged a grid system of handsome buildings in stark contrast to the labyrinthine Old Town.

The documentary, New Town, reveals that despite the high-profile nature of the commission, Craig’s original plans have been lost.

Featuring contributions from leading architects, the programme points out that unlike the Old Town, where people from different social classes lived in the same buildings, the extension sought to demarcate the well-off from the poor.

Heritage consultant Kirsten Carter McKee points out: “It was social cleansing. If we built a place that only nice people can afford to go into, then we remove all the problems. But actually, the problems of poverty, disease and unemployment stay. You just don’t have it on your front doorstep.”

Architect and writer Ed Hollis said the basic elements of the New Town’s design aimed to section one class from another.

“In order to get into a Georgian house,” he said, “what you first had to do is negotiate a row of railings with spiked tops, and on the other side, there is a large pit.

“How do you get across this pit and through these railings? There are two ways. If you are a tradesman, you carry your heavy load down the very small, winding staircase; or if you are a social visitor, you’re allowed in the front door.

“The ladies look down from the drawing room on the first floor, properly defended from the oiks below.”

The documentary, which reconstructs the creation of the New Town using computerised graphics, also addresses what became of Craig’s original plans.

Although his victory in the competition was widely publicised, his design was never published. To this day, its whereabouts remain a mystery. Although his submission was reviewed behind closed doors by a committee which included Robert Adam’s brother, John, no one knows what Craig’s original vision looked like.

Architect Simon Laird points out there was a “fascinating” map produced in late 1766 by cartographer John Laurie, which shows a plan of the New Town in the form of a Union Jack.

“He was well connected with the council and there is speculation that he had seen this plan that they were trying to keep secret,” said Laird.

Architect James Simpson, however doubts whether such a “grossly impractical plan” could have won the competition.”

New Town will be shown on BBC Two Scotland at 9pm on Tuesday.