George Drummond

Edinburgh owes its profound metamorphosis and spectacular embellishment in the last thirty years of the 18th century to the initiative of its Lord Provost George Drummond (?1687 - 1786), to the efforts of the authorities, and to the talents of the architects.

From 1707, the year the Act of Union was signed with England, to 1750, the capital of Scotland underwent a long decline, and for nearly half a century it gave the impression of being a dead town, withdrawn into its shell, as Robert Chambers underlined in his book Traditions of Edinburg (Edinburgh, 1825) :

“No improvements, of any sort, marked this period. On the contrary, an air of gloom and depression pervaded the city.... The meanness of the appearance of the city attracted no visitors ; the narrowness and inconvenience of its accommodation, and the total want of public amusements, gave it few charms for people of condition, as a place of residence, and the circumstances of the country were such as deprived it entirely of political and commercial importance. In short, this may be called, no less appropriately than emphatically, the”Dark Age of Edinburgh.“”(I, 20-21).

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It was perhaps the publication in 1752 of an anonymous pamphlet entitled ’Proposals for Carrying on Certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh’ which aroused sluggish consciences and cut the townspeople’s self-esteem to the quick. This pamphlet, written most probably by Sir Gilbert Elliott (1722-1777) on suggestions from the Lord Provost of the capital, stressed the degrading uncleanliness of the public highways, the ugliness of certain dilapidated buildings, the lack of safety of a great many houses in ruins and, above all, the lack of cultural influence of this so called university town and of its gradual decadence compared to London’s overwhelming splendour.

The idea of enlarging and embellishing Edinburgh had always been dear to George Drummond’s heart, and it had already taken shape in his mind when he was elected Lord Provost for the first time in 1725. He confided this much later to Thomas Somerville during a private conversation that they had in 1763. Thomas Somerville related the Lord Provost’s revealing confidences in his autobiographical work My Own Life and Times 1741-1814 (Edinburgh, 1861):

“I happened one day ... to be standing at a window (in the old town) looking out to the opposite side of the North Loch, then called Barefoot’s Parks, in which there was not a single house to be seen.”Look at these fields, “”said Provost Drummond ; “you, Mr Somerville, are a young man, and may probably live, though I will not, to see all these fields covered with houses, forming a splendid and magnificent city. To the accomplishment of this, nothing more is necessary than draining the North Loch, and providing proper access from the old town. I have never lost sight of this object since the year 1725, when I was first elected Provost. (47-48).”"

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1763 was the year that George Drummond laid the first stone of the North Bridge that was to span the North Loch and connect the old town to the new one. This official ceremony in October of 1763 must have given great satisfaction to the Lord Provost, because it had been a hard struggle to obtain the construction of this bridge within the town council. He had not battled alone; he had been backed in his project by Lord James, an important innovator in all fields of public interest. Moreover, it was following Lord James’ persistent suggestions (his first report was written in 1754) that the commissioners in charge of the renovation of the town decided to drain the North Loch in 1759. Four years later, after much controversy, the construction of a bridge across the banked up North Loch was voted and subscriptions were opened to the public in the ’Caledonian Mercury’ on 2nd July 1763. It was specified that the architect whose plan was selected would receive an award of thirty guineas or a gold medal of equal value.

In August 1765, the Scottish architects William Mylne (1733 - 1790) was selected. The architect John Adam (1721-92) carried out some modifications to the plan in agreement with his fellow architect, and the construction could finally begin. From the beginning of 1769 the bridge was opened to pedestrians, but the collapse of one of the supporting walls caused the death of five people and sullied William Mylne’s reputation. The construction of the North Bridge was finally finished in 1772; it had taken nine years. That of the South Bridge was, on the contrary, extremely rapid, as William Creech informs us in his collection of letters entitled The Mode of Living, Arts, Commerce, Literature, Manners of Edinburgh in 1763 and since that Period Illustrating the Statistical Progress of the Capital of Scotland (1793) :

“The foundation-stone of the South Bridge, over the street of the Cowgate, was laid on the 1st of August, 1785. The bridge, consisting of twenty-two arches, was built - the old houses were removed - elegant new houses on both sides were finished - the shops occupied - and the streets opened for carriages in March 1788 - an operation of astonishing celerity! (8)”

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The two bridges were for a long time an object of curiosity for all visitors. One of them, the Reverend Stebbing Shaw, when passing through Edinburgh in 1787, expressed his admiration in his account of his travels A Tour in 1787 from London to the Western Highlands of Scotland (London, 1788):

“The whole city is built upon three vast ridges, very steep and disadvantageous, the intermediate vallies being so deep as to require very large and expensive bridges to be erected over them, which are the greatest curiosities over dry land in Europe ; the North Bridge, which connects the old and new town, is finished very handsomely for about £25,000. Its length is 1134 feet, and breadth 50. It has five arches, three of which are 72 feet each, and the other two about 20. They are now carrying on the same line to the South, from High-Street to Nicholson’s, another equally large and magnificent, on which are raised very lofty and handsome houses. (185-86)”

George Drummond also improved the administration of the University.