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Edinburgh World Heritage/5 Charlotte Square

5 Charlotte Square

Overview

5 Charlotte Square was the birthplace in 1797 of Elizabeth Grant, who wrote The Memoirs of a Highland Lady, regarded as a classic of Scottish literature. They give an insight into both Georgian high society life and the early history of No.5 (Image via Kim Traynor)

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A palace-like frontage

Listen to Ian Gow, Chief Curator of the National Trust for Scotland, explain the genius of Adam’s design and the lifestyles of its Georgian residents:

 

Charlotte Square is believed by many to represent the highpoint of the first New Town’s planning. The famous Scottish architect Robert Adam designed the town houses on each side of the square as unified blocks, creating palace-like frontages. Charlotte Square soon became one of the most prestigious addresses in the city.

Timeline

  • 1791 Robert Adam produces a design for Charlotte Square commissioned by the town council.
  • 1796 No. 5 Charlotte Square built by Thomas Russell to the design of Adam
  • 1871 The first floor windows were extended and changes made inside on the ground floor, where rooms had been adapted for a dentist’s surgery.
  • 1903 Restored by the architect A.F. Balfour Paul for Lord Bute.

Features

  • A fanlight is a common feature of Georgian houses, allowing light into the hallway behind.
  • The stonework gives a clue about life inside the house. The rough stone in the basement marks the servants’ quarters, the first floor contained grand reception rooms and the stone has a smooth finish known as ashlar.
  • The trumpet shape in the railings was used to snuff out the torches carried by ‘link boys’ who would light your way home at night.
  • Many of the front steps have iron boot-scrapers so that visitors could remove mud from their boots before entering the exclusive houses.

Memoirs of a highland lady

“I was born on the 7th of May 1797 of a Sunday evening at No.5 N. side of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, in my father’s own lately built house…”

5 Charlotte Square was first inhabited by the Grants of Rothiemurchus and was the birthplace in 1797 of Elizabeth Grant, who wrote The Memoirs of a Highland Lady. The memoirs of Elizabeth Grant are regarded as a classic of Scottish literature and they give an insight into both Georgian high society life and the early history of No.5

“On their marriage my parents settled in Edinburgh, which was to be their home and where my father had purchased one of the only three houses then finished in Charlotte Square”.

Her father was a lawyer and related to the chief of clan Grant, and heir to a vast estate in the Highlands. At that time the newly built houses on Charlotte Square would have been the most prestigious address in the city.

The Grants would have entertained visitors on the first floor, in grand reception rooms. As a child, Elizabeth would have spent her days in the nursery at the very top of the building. From her memoirs though it seems she was not particularly angelic.

“I have a recollection of at about this time beating a boy in a red jacket who was playing with me and shutting up another in some cupboard, while I went about with his drum which he had refused me.”

Restoration

During the Victorian period changing fashions meant that Charlotte Square lost much of the classical symmetry of its original design. In No. 5, the first floor windows were extended and dormers were added to the roofline.

In 1903 the Marquis of Bute bought No.5 Charlotte Square and commissioned Balfour Paul (1875-1938) to restore the building to its original Georgian glory. Lord Bute was an early pioneer of historic building conservation and had a particular enthusiasm for Adam’s work.

The main impact of Lord Bute’s restoration can be seen in the interiors of No. 5. Almost every element of the interior has a date of 1903 or later. In fact, the cornice in the library may be the only surviving example of late Georgian plasterwork in the whole house.

Lord Bute wanted to create an interior appropriate for a house designed by Adam. Therefore the interiors have been dubbed as ‘Fabergé Adam’.

At great expense the interiors were re-decorated in a sumptuous Adam style. In the Front Drawing Room, on the first floor, a luxurious white marble fireplace was installed, partnered by opulent, carved cedar woodwork. A painted Adamesque plasterwork ceiling was introduced and, although no longer in existence, lavish silk wall hangings were hung from the walls. Large cedar dividing doors slide back to reveal the Back Drawing Room, with matching ceiling and white marble fireplace.

Between 1949 and 1999, No. 5 served as the headquarters of the National Trust for Scotland and in 1966 ownership of Nos 5, 6, and 7 Charlotte Square passed permanently to the Trust. Between 1999 and 2012 No. 5 was the home of Edinburgh World Heritage.