Let’s be honest: the Edinburgh New Town wasn’t really planned!

Richard Rodger, Emeritus Professor at Edinburgh University and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, argues that Edinburgh New Town had little to do with town planning.

Consider Abercromby Place, Great King Street, Northumberland Street, and Heriot Row! These and another twenty New Town streets were developed by the trustees of George Heriot’s Hospital. By 1806, Heriot’s had carefully devised a schedule of charges (feu duty) payable annually to the Trust ‘in perpetuity’ on land transferred to individuals for building. Streets were socially differentiated by price: Drummond Place, Mansfield Place, and Bellevue Crescent cost 75% more than land feued in Cumberland Street and Fettes Row.

Heriot’s Trustees controlled development by issuing a fifty page ‘Feu Charter’ specifying the quality of stone, pavement width, height of railings, and many further conditions including the use of properties built on their land. Contrast this with the earliest developments of Prince Street (as it was originally known) and the eastern end of the first New Town, including North and South St Andrew and St David Streets). There the Town Council as the landowner issued short five page contracts designed principally to obtain developers’ agreement regarding sewer connections and cellar supports. Future use was not their concern; prompt disposal of building sites was the Council’s priority.

Potential owners and developers of Council-owned land also agreed to a two-dimensional street ‘plan’ of 1767 by James Craig on display in the Council Chambers. This was ‘shewn to all purchasers and feuars of building-ground’, and the mere sight of it was deemed sufficient to have agreed to the minimalist building conditions regarding cellars and sewers. Uniformity of facades and control of future use were not issues that concerned the Town Council.

As buildings developed so did disputes. Within five years, on the south side of Prince Street the buildings erected (on the footprint of the subsequent North British (Balmoral) Hotel and the adjacent Canal Street) were considered in contravention to the Craig plan which showed no structures on the south side of Prince Street. A series of court cases ensued, and a decision of the House Lords in 1772 resulted in a compromise: that there should be no further structures erected along Prince Street west of what later became the Waverley Steps. Subsequently disputes elsewhere in the New Town produced more work for lawyers but in all cases the integrity of the Craig plan was reasserted.

The New Town was developed as a series building contracts based on a generalised conception of street layout. Nothing was stated about facades, consistency of roof lines, materials, bow windows or dormers. In fact, as Anthony Lewis has shown, the New Town was a series of speculative building developments from the outset. Nothing was stated in the legal documents about the height of walls; the Craig plan was ambiguous about private gardens; and the issue of a change of use was not considered. Such visual consistency as there was in the First New Town owed more to builders’ practices, plagiarised designs, and market conditions.

Matters reached a climax in 1818. Proposals to alter the height of buildings in the rear gardens, and to alter stables for other uses were initially rejected by local courts and then by the House of Lords (1814) as inconsistent with Craig’s drawings. In 1818, the distinguished lawyer, Lord Eldon, reversed this position stating that it was a ‘violent stretch in judicature … to infer a contract from the exhibition of a plan.’ Thereafter, detailed feu charters were essential, and rights and restrictions were legally enforceable but had to be created when the property was initially transferred (feued).

The First New Town was created initially under a series of commercial contracts between landowner and property developer, but from 1818, property law provided the guiding principles, as already established on Heriot’s lands. Thus future use, and reassurance about the future value, of property gave confidence throughout Scotland to the market for land and property. The Eldon decision in 1818, reinforced in another legal case in 1840, confirmed that conditions or real burdens that applied to the initial transfer of land also applied to subsequent transactions relating to that plot.

It was through legal cases and decisions that a degree of visual uniformity was achieved in the Second and Third Edinburgh New Towns. It had little, if anything, to do with town planning.


  1. Lewis, The Builders of Edinburgh New Town 1767-1795 (2014)
  2. Rodger, The Transformation of Edinburgh: Land, Property and Trust in the Nineteenth Century (2001)