Dean Bridge

Impressions of EDINBURGH   Ian Stuart Campbell

Old-ish New Town; New-ish Old Town; Edinburgh's ’yin and yang.’ Pre-1544 Edinburgh built of wood and clay, burned easily during conflicts. Only few ancient parts of the Castle, St Giles and Holyrood pre-date C16th Houses for: John Knox, Moubray, and Huntly on High Street; and Brodie's, North Gray's Closes, and Gladstones Land. 17th cent tenements fare best and carry forward Scottish vernacular as romantic historicism.


By contrast Edinburgh's Georgian New Town emerged as a sophisticated "grand project", requiring vision to realise James Craig's winning competition layout. Peppered with such fine buildings as: Royal College of Physicians 1775; St Andrews Church 1785; and Assembly Rooms 1787, Edinburgh produced a worthy home for "Scottish Enlightenment".


In 1772 the first North Bridge structure precariously linked Old and New Towns, but early public anxieties favoured a safer new 'earth bridge' (1781) using soil excavated from New Town building sites. "The Mound" later accommodated National Gallery of Scotland, Royal Scottish Academy, spires of New College, General Assembly Hall, and the extended Bank of Scotland HQ.

Dean Bridge 2

Dean Bridge - main entrance to the New Town from the West and North

Colonising hills south of the Old Town, University expansion further stimulating Edinburgh's unique urban bridge-scape. Work commenced on 19 stone arches spanning the Cowgate (1785) also offering space along “South Bridge” for shops. Tall tenement houses were built both sides of original arches, leaving only the Cowgate arch visible. Later, inserted floors and ceilings created dark, airless, vaulted chambers, for workshops, storage and slum dwellings. In 1985 Edinburgh Vaults were excavated revealing 120 compartments now primarily visited for ghost tours and Festival events.


The parallel George IV Bridge later spanned Cowgate accommodating National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh Central Library, Courts, and The former Martyrs' Free Church now a pub. The southern end of this 'elevated street' joins Candlemaker Row, and Chambers Street, at the National Museum of Scotland.


East/west approaches to the New Town also challenged design innovation. Tall four-arched Dean Bridge (Thomas Telford: 1833) crossed 400 foot Dean Gorge at the West End and though narrow still brings busy Queensferry traffic from the north.


Regent Bridge’s Greek Revival work by Archibald Elliot (1819) formed a fitting classical New Town entrance from England (A1). Triumphal arched screens link the classical facades of Waterloo Place spanning the 50 foot deep ravine at Low Calton.


Edinburgh retains fabulous architectural quality and interest but since the enlightenment, erudite critics leap to challenge change. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote scathingly on the arrival of villas, and Scotland’s luminary 'modernists' who designed post-war university expansion, and updated Princes Street, continue to be widely reviled, leaving anxious planners and developers quelling contemporary 'grande projetes'. Unfulfilled waterfront ambitions, peripheral Business Parks, and many central gap sites signify underlying uncertainty as to how Edinburgh’s new future can co-exist with ‘old futures’. 


Happily, however, this city built on innovative bridges has not hesitated in producing an innovative and elegant third Forth crossing beside the iconic emblems of two preceding centuries.

© stuart campbell 2017