James Craig's winning entry for the development of The New Town of Edinburgh was announced on the 17th of April, 1766.
It's hard to accept that the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment was a cesspit, but back in 1766, twenty years after Culloden, it stank. You might say, “It stank to high-heaven!” and you'd be right, after a manner of speaking, because the only way to avoid the stench was to live 'in the heavens' – that is on the upper floors of the tightly packed, high-rise tenements, where the air was a little less pungent.
Back in the mid-18th Century, Edinburgh consisted of what we call the Old Town, the area well favoured by tourists today, which sprawled along the spine of volcanic rock between Holyrood House and the Castle. At that time, Edinburgh was
one of the most densely inhabited places on earth. A century earlier, when Jamie Saxt rode south, Edinburgh (excluding Leith) contained about 30,000 souls, which made it second only to London in the kingdoms of James VI & I. By the time James' line had been usurped and replaced, with the Hanoverians on the throne, Edinburgh's population had increased dramatically, but the overcrowding hadn't been catered for by building outwards; it was upwards, they'd gone.
The once fine old houses had been sub-divided into lots of single-roomed flats and further expansion had been achieved by building over the gardens. As early as 1700, some tenements had reached an amazing 14 stories high and, not only were they overcrowded, they were squalid and filthy. Understandably, those who could afford it lived on the upper floors, with the poor at the bottom suffering from olfactory overload and being dumped on from above in more ways than one. As Joseph Taylor wrote, somewhat amusingly, in 1705, “In a morning the scent was so offensive that we were forc't to hold our noses as we past the streets and take care where we trod for fear of an accident disobliging our shoes, and to walk in the middle at night for fear of an accident on our heads.”
There was no sign of the baillies doing anything about the situation until 1751, when a tenement collapsed. That event, surprising only in that its like hadn't occurred sooner, was the turning point that led to a survey, which revealed the extent of the neglect and led to proposals for a new suburb to be built on open countryside to the north of the Old Town. Enter James Craig, stage left...
The proposals for The New Town were ambitious, namely to build a “splendid and magnificent city” that would be attractive to the Scottish aristocracy, many of whom had gone south in 1603 with Jamie Saxt. Mind you, the flow of Scots to London, which had increased with the Act of Union in 1707, had nothing to do with its being less of a pigsty than Edinburgh; it had more to do with patronage and opportunity for gain – just ask Jinglin' Geordie. So it was that in the January of 1766, a competition was launched, by Lord Provost George Drummond, to extend Edinburgh's boundary beyond the Nor' Loch.
Six plans were submitted, including one by the relatively, nay, completely, unknown James Craig. Despite his lack of credentials, Craig's entry won the day and he was declared the winner, getting the freedom of the city and a wee gold medal into the bargain. Craig's original plan for 'New Edinburgh' centred on a large square and had streets radiating from it in the pattern of the Union Jack, however, despite winning the competition, that general layout was not considered suitable for construction. The plan was reviewed by a committee, which included the architects John Adam and William Mylne, before Craig was asked to draw up a final version.
The plan presented to King George III in July, 1767, consisted of a simple rectilinear arrangement, with three main streets running in parallel: Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street; and with a square at each end: St. Andrew Square and Charlotte Square. The entire plan consisted of a grid some five streets deep and seven streets wide, with the broad central axis terminating in those squares at each end. There were also to be two churches: St George's and St Andrew's; at the western and eastern extremities, respectively. The New Town was built mostly of sandstone from Craigleath Quarry and its construction began with St Andrew's Square in the east. Charlotte Square wasn't completed until 1800 and the expansion work continued until 1830, long after Craig's death. The New Town has now been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
James Craig is said to have been born in 1744, which was reasonable to assume as his baptism was recorded in a parish register on Tuesday, the 13th of November that year. However, according to Wikipedia, more recent research has shown that his birth date was the 31st of October, 1739. The reconsideration is based on the registers of George Watson's Hospital, where Craig was educated, which show his date of birth, and that he entered the school in 1748 and left in 1755.
The 1744 date is believed to be incorrect, because it would have meant that Craig started school aged four and left aged 11. Despite the date of birth, which it is not unreasonable to accept, it is also the case that leaving a school such as George Watson's at age 11wasn't so unusual. It would've been more unusual to have stayed at a school for the education of the sons of 'deceased and indigent' merchants until he was 16. In any event, whether he was 11 or 16, Craig was apprenticed to Patrick Jamieson in 1755 and by 1764, James Craig was a qualified mason of the Incorporation of St Mary's Chapel, the guild of masons and wrights in Edinburgh.
Craig the mason and town planner was also an architect, although there's scant evidence to suggest he studied and qualified in that discipline. Little remains of the individual buildings he designed, one of which was the Physicians' Hall in George St. Its foundation stone was laid in 1776 and it must have been a striking building, with its 84-foot frontage and a portico of four Corinthian columns. Sadly, it never suited the purpose of the Royal College of Physicians and after being sold to the Commercial Bank, it was demolished, in 1843, and replaced by a banking hall (now The Dome nightclub) designed by William Henry Playfair.
James Craig died in Edinburgh on the 23rd of June, 1795 and he was buried in the northernmost section of Greyfriars Kirkyard.