James Court has a special place in Edinburgh’s history, as it is connected to several of the most important figures in the city’s past.
James Court was built between 1723-7 by a developer called James Brownhill. His plan was for a courtyard building of exclusive apartments, following the style of its near neighbour Milne’s Court built thirty years before. A series of old closes were demolished to make way for the new development, and a square courtyard was formed with a tall tenement forming the north side.
Straight away it became one of the most fashionable addresses in Edinburgh, with an air of exclusivity in the same way as a gated community today. The residents formed a committee which organised assemblies and other social events. James Court even employed its own scavenger or dung collector, rather than rely on those paid by the council.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that in 1762 the famous philosopher David Hume, moved into an apartment in James Court. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Paris as a secretary to a British diplomat, but he clearly missed his home. In a letter of 1763 written to his friend Adam Ferguson he admits: “…I wish twice or thrice a day, for my easy chair and my retreat in James Court”. However, like many wealthy middle-class residents, by 1770 his feelings had changed as the New Town started to be built. Hume was attracted by the prospect of a modern house and saw the limitations of his Old Town home, describing it as: “…very cheerful and elegant, but too small to display my great talent for cookery…”.
The new tenant of Hume’s old flat was another man of letters, James Boswell. After a while though Boswell moved his family to another, much larger James Court flat, which very unusually had two floors connected by an internal staircase. It was here that Boswell entertained Dr Johnson, as he arrived in Edinburgh to start their epic journey to the Western Isles.
During the Victorian period, James Court suffered the same decline as the rest of the Old Town. One writer described the building as: “…a spot where unredeemed squalor had reigned for at least half a century.” But in 1886 the visionary academic and city-planner Patrick Geddes, and his family moved into James Court. Geddes was committed to the regeneration of the Old Town, and to bringing the university and the community together. Together the Sir Patrick and his family energetically set about trying to transform James Court, cleaning, painting, planting window boxes and organising rubbish collection. Their idea was to enable the people to take control of the area and demonstrate that it could be a pleasant place to live. It is largely thanks to his efforts that so much of old Edinburgh still exists today.
The James Court of today has changed greatly from the days of Hume, Boswell and even Geddes. A fire in 1857 destroyed many of the buildings, and others were rebuilt in the 1890s. But during recent renovation work a tantalising clue came to light, when builders uncovered traces of an internal stone staircase. Perhaps they had found the remains of Boswell’s apartment, a reminder of James Court’s illustrious history hidden away for over 200 years.