One night in September 1751, a six-storey tenement in Edinburgh’s city centre collapsed without warning. Such events were by no means unusual in the Scottish capital, but in this case the building was no slum —it had stood on one of the city’s grandest streets, and the fatalities were from some of Scotland’s most prestigious families.

Surveys were ordered, and many other buildings found to be in a similarly precarious condition; they were pulled down, leaving much of the centre in ruins. The city needed to be comprehensively rebuilt, and rethought. How it went on to do this would have profound consequences— not just for Edinburgh and Scotland, but for our very conception of what a city should be.

The story of how Edinburgh New Town came to be is a modern one. 18th-century Europe was a period of rapid expansion as towns and ports prospered through trade, business and empire. It was during these years that Saint Petersburg was erected upon the marshes of the Baltic coast, and Lisbon resurrected from its earthquake of 1755.

But in contrast to these epic projects, the crown had nothing to do with the New Town. Scotland hadn’t had a Royal Court since James VI had decamped to England in 1603, and even by the 1750s, the London-Edinburgh stagecoach could still take up to ten days. The transformation of Edinburgh would have to be done by the city itself.

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The need was certainly acute, and not just because of its dilapidated housing. Nowadays the historic city centre around Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town, is a bewildering delight of winding passages and cobbled lanes, full of pubs, restaurants, boutique shops and arts venues. But in the 18th century it represented the very worst in medieval squalor. Prone to fires, repeatedly ravaged by disease, it was notorious for its drunkenness, malevolent ghosts and violent crime. The fifty thousand residents and freely wandering livestock were trapped in its narrow streets, defensive walls, steep ravines and tottering tenements.

With increased transatlantic commerce and a growing linen industry, people were flocking to a medieval city which was not only beset by social problems, but had also run out of space. There were marshlands to the south, while to its immediate north was the North Loch – a foul lake flooded in the 15th century to bolster the city’s defences, but for three hundred years a repository for sewage and household waste.

Edinburgh’s governing council was an unpromising vehicle for municipal improvement of the scale required. A permanent oligarchy of twenty-five or so men appointed from a handful of trade guilds, it had limited finances, was hobbled by sectarian divisions, and conducted most of its meetings in taverns. But in George Drummond (Lord Provost and “the founder of modern Edinburgh”), they had a leader with the energy and talent to drive through the transformation of the city.

Born in 1688, Drummond was an early instance of the tireless urban administrator. Born into neither wealth nor nobility, Drummond attended the Edinburgh High School and rose to become city treasurer by the age of twenty-nine. 

Drummond dedicated his life and career to improving the city. Following the disaster of 1751 and the space it provided, Drummond immediately launched a public subscription for the construction of a Royal Exchange. He could sense there was a new spirit in Edinburgh and was determined to make the most of it. But even with his prodigious talent for fundraising, it would take Drummond ten years before he had marshalled the necessary finances via all the mechanisms at his disposal: custom revenues, duties on ale, public loans and seized assets.

The choice of design was not made on the usual basis of patronage. Instead, the council ran a competition, inviting submissions from across Scotland. As with pretty much every architecture competition ever run since, the process was a controversial one. The judging panel established a familiar pattern in selecting a proposal by James Craig to be the best of the six received, awarding him a medal for his efforts and then deeming it unsuitable for construction. It would take another year of wrangling, negotiation and redesign before a scheme was finally agreed and work could actually start – just after Drummond’s death at the age of seventy-eight.

Craig was an unlikely choice for chief designer. Apprenticed to one of the city’s leading masons from the age of sixteen, he displayed notable draughtsman skills. Abandoning his apprenticeship in his early 20s, he set himself up as an architect without qualifications, and immediately entered the council’s competition. His vision for New Town reflected his deep study of classical architecture, along with the latest thinking in urban design. Beginning with Princes Street, the wide boulevard running along the far shore of the North Loch, the New Town of Edinburgh was intended to be just that: not a continuous extension of the city centre but constructed apart, to an entirely different design, philosophy and layout.

The buildings themselves adhered to classical orders, were solidly constructed and broad rather than tall. There would be no more tottering tenements or narrow passages; instead, the New Town would be defined by its generous space, open views, light and order.

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Although built for Edinburgh’s wealthy middle classes, the elegant squares, gleaming terraces and fine gardens were much more than residential ornaments. The New Town provided both the setting and inspiration for the greatest period of Edinburgh’s history —the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in these decades that the city transformed itself from "auld reekie" into the “Athens of the North”; Europe’s leading centre for philosophical inquiry, scientific experiment and debate .

Philosopher David Hume moved there at the earliest opportunity, and it was at his dinner parties that some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals such as Adam Smith would gather. Social clubs sprang up, and institutions were founded to promote learning and debate. No less a figure than Voltaire was forced to begrudgingly acknowledge: “Today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts.”

As Edinburgh grew in fame and wealth, so it did in size. Edinburgh’s wealthiest residents had almost entirely deserted the Old for the New Town. Today, the social geography of Edinburgh remains much the same. Designated a Unesco world heritage site, the New Town stands with the Georgian crescents of Bath and the Victorian villas of Hampstead as one of Britain’s most celebrated urban residential areas.

The Scottish government has expressed its determination for Edinburgh to spearhead a bright and prosperous future. The vision is laudable but, as well as looking outward, Edinburgh’s leaders would do well to draw inspiration from its own history: from the harmonious plans of its architects, the wisdom of its political philosophers, and the tireless energy of its administrators who, out of disorder and poverty, constructed one of the world’s great cities.  

Published in The Guardian on March 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.