The foundation stone for Edinburgh’s North Bridge was laid on the 21st of October, 1763.
Hills feature a lot in Scotland’s capital city. Edinburgh stands on three hills, running east to west or west to east if you like, with the central hill being the location of the castle and the ancient part of the city – the Old Town. Around the city are more hills; Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and Calton Hill on the east, the Hills of Braid and the Pentland Hills to the south, and Corstorphine Hill in the west. In the mid-18th Century, Scotland’s capital hadn’t spread out to anything near the extent it covers in the 21st Century, with Corstorphine Hill being described as late as 1825 as “a beautiful eminence rearing its summit in the west.” Back in the 1760s, the Old Town was Edinburgh, sprawling below the castle, with the principle street extending east along the ridge of the hill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
At times, that main street was known as the High Street or Market Street, off of which, like the bones of a fish, were the steeply descending (or ascending if you were unlucky) narrow closes and wider wynds, which latter were broad enough to “admit of a carriage.” From what became known as Castle Hill, folks like William Mylne, Surveyor to the City, from his home in Halkerston’s Wynd, were able to stroll down the Lawnmarket, below where the street assumed the name of Luckenbooths, to the High Street proper; the widest part. From there on down to the Palace, the street was called the Canongate, named after its former owners; the canons regular of the Abbey Church of Holyroodhouse. To the north, in the valley below the castle rock upon which stood Edwinesburch of the Saxons (Edwinesburg in the time of David I, when it was first granted royal burgh status), lay the Nor’ Loch. To the east of the Loch, in the declivity below Calton Hill, lay the fishmarket and the fleshmarket. Beyond the Loch stretched the ground upon which the New Town was to be built.
The Nor’ Loch was initially an area of marsh, of which good use had been made as part of the natural defences of Edinburgh Castle. James III had it flooded in order to improve the castle’s defences and from mediaeval times, it had become increasingly polluted – by more than one kind of human waste. Apart from the obvious, something like 300 dead bodies must have ended up in the Loch as a result of the judicial drowning of witches. In macabre fact, if the accused drowned during a witch dunking, she (some men were also dunked), that meant she was no witch. Scant consolation, eh? The Nor’ Loch was first drained in 1763, the same year work began on the North Bridge, but it wasn’t until the construction of the North Bridge railway station (now absorbed by Edinburgh Waverly) in 1845/6 that anybody noticed human bones. Earlier, in the 1820s, Princes Street Gardens were created, creating a landscape in stark contrast to the area’s former grim and grisly past.
The North Bridge was designed as part of the great civic improvement scheme initiated by Lord Provost George Drummond and reflected Edinburgh’s ‘Enlightenment’ aspirations. The bridge’s construction helped to bring about the city’s northwards expansion and the creation of the ‘scientifically designed’ New Town. The bridge was to link the High Street with what has become Princes Street. The design for the 1134 feet (346m) long North Bridge, which consisted of three stone arches, although much of the length was solid abutment, was the work of architect William Mylne, a member of the Incorporation of St Mary’s Chapel, the Edinburgh guild of masons and carpenters.
Mylne had won a competition against two other famous architects; James Craig (who some years later, in 1767, designed the New Town) and David Henderson. According to the fourth edition (1825) of J. Stark’s ‘Picture of Edinburgh: containing a description of the city and its environs’, although the erection of the bridge was resolved upon in 1763, the contract for building the bridge was not signed until the 21st of August, 1765, when the plans were agreed by the Council. The contract between Mylne and Edinburgh Town Council was for the sum of £10,140 Sterling; with the work to be guaranteed for ten years and completed within four; by Martinmas, 1769.
The foundation stone was laid on the 21st of October, 1763, by Provost Drummond, and by the summer of 1769, ostensibly on target for completion, the North Bridge was being regularly used by pedestrians. However, on the 3rd of August, 1769, the North Bridge disaster occurred, but not on a Sabboth Day. What Mylne hadn’t foreseen or had underestimated, was the depth of foundations needed. The area below the steep north side of the hill, between the castle rock and where the waters of the Nor’ Loch had been, largely consisted of loose earth that, ironically, had accumulated from other foundations; those dug to build the houses on the hill. Mylne’s bridge foundations hadn’t been dug deep enough to cope on such a shaky footing and part of his structure collapsed, causing the deaths of five people.
Mylne’s brother Robert, who, incidentally, was the designer of Blackfriars Bridge, came up from London to offer his support and the Council got John Smeaton and John Adam involved, after commissioning a report into the collapse. Apparently, David Henderson, who had earlier failed with his competitive design, was also called in to provide advice on the repairs. Mylne’s payments were stopped during a protracted dispute with the Council, but the bridge was repaired (at a cost of an additional £18,000) and finally and formally opened in 1772.
In 1779, the ‘Earthen Mound’ was commenced, which was to provide an alternative means of passage between the Old Town and New Town. It was created by throwing earth excavated from the foundations of houses in the New Town into the previously drained Nor’ Loch. The present day North Bridge replaced the original when it was demolished in 1896, during the reconstruction and expansion of Waverley Station. James Craig’s New Town of Edinburgh, considered to be a masterpiece of city planning, was built in phases between 1765 and 1850 (more or less). In 1995, the Old Town and the New Town were jointly designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.