Things to see in Edinburgh, Scotland : The Georgian Architecture of Charlotte Square

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Things to see in Edinburgh, Scotland : The Georgian Architecture of Charlotte Square

Regarded as perhaps the finest example of a city square of Georgian architecture anywhere in the world this is one of the jewels of Edinburgh New Town.

Charlotte Square was commissioned in the late 18th century by the Edinburgh authorities and the project was placed in the expert hands of Robert Adam. He was one of the most respected and requested architects in that era.

Unfortunately Adam died in 1792 before completing the designs. Therefore although the principal elevations are to his design there are additions and interiors by his assistant Robert Reid. Here is a description of the layout, buildings and attractions of one of Edinburgh's finest areas. It is located just off the western end of Princes Street in the centre of the city.

The private gardens

In the centre of the square are the private gardens which are the sole preserve of the residents and owners of the surrounding buildings. For an annual fee towards its upkeep they enjoy privileged access to the gardens. An exception to this rule is during the Edinburgh International Festival in August when a book fair is held here and the gardens are open to all the public.

Prince Albert statue

In the centre of the gardens is an impressive equestrian statue of Prince Albert who was the Consort to Queen Victoria.

Prince Albert came from the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld in the Rhineland.

In fact the square itself is named after Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strehlitz who had been the wife of King George III in the 18th century.

Therefore there is a strong German connection to the square although no influence architecturally.

Prince Albert died of typhus in 1861 at the age of 62 and sculptor John Steell was commissioned to create a statue in his honour.

The Prince Consort is dressed as a Field Marshall atop his horse with statues of ordinary people surrounding the pediment below. Queen Victoria loved the statue so much that she immediately decided to confer a knighthood upon the sculptor and he therefore became Sir John Steell.

The Roxburgh Hotel

Here comes the bride

Let us consider the various buildings and houses that surround the square commencing at the corner of George Street and South Charlotte Street and rotating clockwise.

The first building is the Roxburgh Hotel which introduces us to the fine Georgian architecture of the square and which is ubiquitous in the Edinburgh New Town area. Note the ashlar stone of the facade and the floor to roof windows that enable as much light as possible to enter. This large glazing will help you espy a romantic wedding reception as the hotel is a popular venue for newlyweds.

The building has the typically wide-doors of the Georgian period which were built to accommodate the sedan chairs of the higher classes. And above are the decorative fan-shaped window panes that were often distinctive to each household. You will also find old-fashioned bell-pulls for summoning a doorman back in those olden times or alternatively you could utilise the unusual feature of the rectangular door knocker.

Engraving to Graham Bell

Ringing the changes

Crossing over South Charlotte Street we come to No.16 which is now a business premises but was once the house in which Alexander Graham Bell was born.

Bell became famous for securing the patent for the telephone in Boston in 1876 after initially emigrating to Canada in 1870.

But he began life here in Edinburgh in 1847 as Alexander Bell although because his two brothers had middle names he pleaded with his father to have one too. Therefore on his 11th birthday he was allowed to adopt 'Graham' as his middle name.

Although he patented the telephone and gave his name to the Bell Telephone Company the actual invention of the instrument was disputed for many years. Several researchers were working on ideas for telephone communication including Johann Philip Reis of Germany, Charles Bourseul of Belgium and Elisha Gray of the USA among others across the world. However in 2002 the US Congress restrospectively accorded official credit for the invention to the Italian Antonio Meucci. Nonetheless it was undoubtedly Bell who established the telephone commercially.

The house of Earl Haig on the corner

Engraving to Earl Haig

The building above on the corner is No.24 Charlotte Square.

This was once the house of Field Marshall Douglas Haig who was born there in 1861.

A controversial figure in military history as he was the Commander of the British forces during World War One

There the soldiers experienced the horrors of The Somme and numerous other deadly battles such as Flanders, Verdun and Paschendale in the 1914-18 conflict.

After the war Haig helped set up the British Legion charity for the ex-services community and adopted the poppy in 1921 as a symbol of remembrance for the fallen of the battlefields. The Legion organises the remembrance poppy appeal each year and millions are produced in the run up to Remembrance Sunday in November. Many are made locally in a small factory in the north of Edinburgh.

West Register House

That sinking feeling

The western side of the square is dominated by the former Church of St George which is now West Register House.

This building contains the criminal records of Edinburgh and was purchased by the City council in the 1960s.

This acquisition came about because the old church was sinking slowly into the ground.

The building was of an original design by Adam but after his death Reid added many embellishments including the large dome.

The work was completed in 1814 but the additions by Reid eventually proved too much over the decades. By the 1960s the church was listing to one side as the weight pressed it down into the ground. Delicate engineering work had to be conducted to shore up the building and put it right. The Church could not afford the cost and so the building was sold to the council who opened it up as the archival depository which it is today.

Modern buildings in the old style

Continuing around the North-west corner you may see exquisite chandeliers through the windows in the buildings after West Register House. You will certainly see the bright cream-coloured sandstone of the corner buildings. Designed by Robert Reid these were only built in the 1990s. Originally the land belonged to a merchant who had a workyard there and for years steadfastly refused to sell the property. Eventually in older age he relented and gathered a tidy nest egg for himself.

Dusting down the old plans by Reid the architects constructed these fine new buildings faithfully to blend in with the rest of the square. That is in design only however as the clean new facade does stand out among the grime-covered original buildings. The latter have been discoloured by the pollution of the many chimney pots of old Edinburgh over many years.

The Georgian House Musuem

Over on the north side of the square at No.8 you will find the house where Lord Joseph Lister lived when he was working in Edinburgh at the Royal Infirmary. Although an Englishman his pioneering breakthroughs on antiseptic surgical techniques were conducted in Scotland. He also worked at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. His name lives on today in products such as 'Listerine' and 'Listermint' which are well known items in shops.

Georgian House door

Next door is No.7 which now contains the Georgian House Museum owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

For an entrance fee you can experience what life would have been like for people who lived in these buildings in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The best advice is to first go down to the basement and watch the introductory video and then continue through the floors to view the exhibits and the fixtures and fittings.

Bute House

At the centre of this palatial frontage is No.6 otherwise known as Bute House the home of the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. Previous incumbents of this grace and favour residence have been the late Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, who were all leaders of the Labour Party. Currently the First Minister is Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party.

The northern facade of the square

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This is the Scottish equivalent of No.10 Downing Street which is where the UK Prime Minister resides. However a major difference is that Bute House is not enclosed by the modern security gates, guards and oppressive security of its counterpart in London. This is certainly the case at the time of writing and hopefully will continue as it is something of which the Scots are justifiably proud.

The whole stretch of this row of buildings is a fine example of how Robert Adam wished to incorporate all the houses into a coherent whole that resemble a palace. With the more ornate centrepiece of Bute House the symmetry of the facade is emphasised.

The Georgian character

Note that throughout the square there are interesting little vignettes of design that add character and reveal daily life among the Georgian Edinburgh populace. The pavement has a graduated slope towards the road thereby allowing horse-driven carriages easier access. Periodically along the edge are metal plates that when opened will reveal the old coal cellars. A practical route for the delivery of the fuel that bypassed the front passage of the house and ensured that no dirt would be trailed through the house.

Bootscrapers and snufters

For the people alighting from the carriages there are flagstones interrupting the slope at each address.

This allowed them to step off onto the pavement safely.

If they arrived by foot and it was inclement weather then handy little iron mud-scrapers are available to the side of the front door steps.

Still useful even today in the wet Scottish conditions although much less mud around the paved streets of modern Edinburgh.

Along the ornate black-coloured ironwork of the railings are decorated lamp-posts also made of iron.

They would now be operated by electricity but originally they were powered by gas and lamplighters would ignite them.

At the base of the post you will observe odd-shaped objects that resemble little trumpets moulded to the framework.

These were in fact called 'snufters' and were used by lamplighters to extinguish the flames of their torches.

The gas lamps themselves could provide a useful social function as an aid to communication. If the lamp was lit then neighbours or friends and family knew you were at home and could approach the door. If the lamp was out, irrespective of whether you were at home or not, then you would be discouraging anyone from paying you a visit. It was a kind of Georgian 'Do not disturb' sign if you please.

The Oxford Bar

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An Inspector calls

Turning around the corner we come almost to the end of our brief tour of Charlotte Square.

However there are still a couple of things to mentions such as an offshoot to the square.

This is Young Street although it is more of a wide lane and which contains the famous Oxford Bar.

This bar was made well known in literary circles by Edinburgh author Ian Rankin as it is the setting of the favourite haunt of his character Inspector Rebus. He is the protagonist of many of the crime novels by Rankin which are set in Edinburgh. The author himself is known to attend the pub on occasion. Incidentally the street also has a Cambridge Bar just to even up the academic score.

Pitt's Portraits

Daylight Robbery

Walking back round to George Street we complete our 360 degree tour of Charlotte Square.

That is save only for pointing out a little architectural oddity that is common around the New Town of Edinburgh.

In fact they are a relic of an earlier time that you will find around Britain.

On either side of the end of George Street at the square you will see these painted windows as shown in the photograph.

These are bricked-up windows that have been painted black with additional white lines depicting the fenestration of a window.

There could be mundane reasons for this such as interior alterations leading to the window being closed over. It could also be for aesthetic reasons to maintain the symmetry of the Georgian style.

However in the time of William of Orange in the 1690's a window tax was introduced in England and Wales to raise revenue. The simply logic dictated that the more windows a person had then the bigger house they must have and therefore they had the wealth to afford to provide some of their high income to the treasury coffers. In Scotland it was introduced in 1748 and any house with over six windows incurred the tax. However in order to avoid paying the tax many people simply bricked up their extra windows.

William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister (officially entitled the First Lord of the Treasury) in 1796 and continued this tax. Therefore these false windows with the painted fenestration were nicknamed 'Pitt's Portraits' in his name. They also gave rise to the expression 'daylight robbery' as the government were accused of stealing the daylight from people's homes.

And that completes our virtual walking tour of Charlotte Square which has incorporated the most interesting facets of the area. Buildings of architectural splendour, distinguished people of history and also the everyday life for the Edinburgh people who once lived in the Georgian streets of the New Town of Scotland's capital. If you ever visit the city then a stroll around is recommended for those interested in the history of the area.

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Comments 2 comments

Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 5 years ago from Scotland Author

Cheers Gordon

I'm a newbie to the city having lived in Glasgow all my life. Edinburgh is a marvellous city. Cheap bar prices can be found as well LOL.

All the best


Gordon Hamilton profile image

Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

Hello, Shinkicker

I am amazed that I have never found you on Hub Pages before. I have lived in different parts of Edinburgh and have known it since childhood, though it's about three years I think since I was last there. I remember Charlotte Square very well - and most particularly the prices of the drinks in the Roxburgh Hotel, the last time I was in it...!! :(

Great Hub and brings back memories of a truly beautiful and wonderful city.

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