An Enlightening History

AN
ENLIGHTENING
HISTORY

The story of Charlotte Square is the story of the rebirth of Edinburgh. As a fundamental feature of the city’s New Town, the Square’s origin should be studied within the wider context of Edinburgh’s expansion in the mid-18th Century.

Up until this period, the city had been geographically confined to the ridge running down from the Castle, the area we now know as the Old Town. In 1766, as overcrowding reached crisis point, a radical solution was called for. A 22-year-old architect, James Craig, won a competition to prepare a plan for the new city. And so began a building programme that lasted from 1767 until the 1890s, resulting in the largest area of neo-classical eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture in the world. The vision for the new city was inspired by the Enlightenment movement sweeping Europe at this time, which was characterised by an explosion of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Scotland itself was a hub for this new renaissance, and by 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe. Architecture was a key aspect of this new outlook; Edinburgh and its elite wanted the world to sit up and admire their city and so the vision of the New Town became an expression of Edinburgh proving its worth to the world. This vision has certainly stood the test of time – in 1995 the New Town and Edinburgh’s Old Town were recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Craig’s plan proposed a classical geometric grid, reflecting the scientific and philosophical principles of the era. George Street is the main axis of the plan and the two monumental public squares define the eastern and western limits. St. Andrew Square, to the east, was completed in 1781, but it was deemed that the westerly Charlotte Square would be more marketable if designed as a single, unified architectural scheme. To this end, Robert Adam, Britain’s pre-eminent architect of the late eighteenth century, was commissioned to produce the grand vision for the Square. The magnificent neo-classical palace-style facades are his enduring legacy. Charlotte Square was finally completed in 1820, and with its central circular garden further upholding the geometric principles of the wider scheme, it was deemed the jewel in the crown of the New Town.

At first, Charlotte Square was occupied exclusively by families from a military or landed gentry background. By the 1850s, middle-class professionals from the legal and medical fields began to favour the location, with many of the city’s most distinguished practitioners located here. In the 1860s, the Square saw the arrival of a collegiate school for girls, a Young Ladies Institution and a hotel. Yet, even by the late nineteenth century, most of the properties were still residential. It was only after 1900 that legal and financial companies began to seek the prestige of the address. Almost all the properties were in commercial use by the 1950s, shaping Charlotte Square’s identity as the prime business location in Edinburgh for the next forty years.

Sadly, by the early 1990s, the commercial property market fell out of love with Charlotte Square as occupiers were lured away by larger developments in the city. Businesses that remained in the Square included Dickson Minto, Walter Scott and Partners, Cornelian Asset Management, Allied Irish Bank and Murray Capital, whilst Number 6 is the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister.

Today, in the form of  The Charlotte Square Collection, there is a positive movement to lift the Square back to its former glory as the beating financial heart of the city. With inspired design and state of the art technology at its core, the Square is experiencing its own renaissance.