Traces of poet Robert Fergusson’s Auld Reekie still exist today and by following this trail you can walk in his footsteps and experience life in the old city.
Starting Point: North Bridge
Number of stops: 13
Distance: 2.6 miles
Explore on map
At the end of the 1700s the old city of Edinburgh was changing dramatically.
In 1767 a plan by architect James Craig won the competition to create a New Town and transform the city’s fortunes. The New Town would bring prosperity and grandeur to the city – for those who could afford it. In the process Auld Reekie’s way of life changed forever.
“Auld Reekie! Wale o’ilka toun
That Scotland kens beneath the moon…”
Auld Reekie, Robert Ferguson, 1772
The poet Robert Fergusson captured this changing city in his writing, and his poetry gives us a unique view of city life.
One unforseen problem with the new site was that unlike the old city it was completely exposed to the winds. This could make crossing North Bridge an uncomfortable experience. While crossing the bridge, the English visitor Edward Topham “…had the pleasure of adjusting a lady’s petticoats which had blown entirely over her head”.
Built in the 1780’s, this supremely elegant church was the first place of worship in the New Town. The Corinthian portico, designed by Major Andrew Frazer of the Royal Engineers, sets the tone for the subsequent Neo-Classical development of the area. The original location for the building was the west side of St. Andrew Square, until that spot was taken by Sir Lawrence Dundas for his new house. The eight church bells are the oldest complete peal of bells in Scotland.
Thistle Court was the first building to be completed in the New Town, but it ignored a key intention of the plan. The developer John Young received £20 from the council as an incentive for buying the first plot of land in the New Town. But instead of building a terrace of houses facing the street, he created two houses facing each other across a courtyard. The use of space and the style of the building is more like the Old Town than the New, and perhaps offers more privacy.
This building is on one of the most important plots in the New Town plan, intended as a site for a church. However, the wealthy and well connected businessman Sir Lawrence Dundas bought the land first. He commissioned the famous architect Sir William Chambers to build him a grand villa on the site. The building is one of the grandest houses in the New Town.
Register House was designed in 1772 by Robert and James Adam, to house the Public Records of Scotland with funding from the sale of Jacobite estates. But the money ran out and Register House was not actually finished until 1822. It became known as ‘the most magnificent pigeon house in Britain’, its incomplete shell useful for housing birds not records.
All Edinburgh people bought their food from the many markets in and around the High Street. Seafood could be purchased from Fishmarket Close, meat from Fleshmarket Close and vegetables and fruit from stalls in the street. Only the more expensive things like tea, sugar spices would be bought in shops.
Today Bakehouse Close is one of the best preserved closes. A visit here will give a real flavour of what living in the old city was like. A legal document from 1762 shows the total mixture of people who lived here, including Lord Adam Gordon, David Doig, merchant; William Dunbar, weaver; and Ewen, a letter carrier.
Construction began on the Kirk in 1633 and was completed 14 years later. The Kirk is named after the Salt Tron (the public beam for weighing goods) which was located nearby, at the centre of the High Street. The Tron Kirk bell was a feature of city life, marking the important moments in the city day. Robert Fergusson though was not a fan, describing it as:
“Wanwordy, crazy, dinsome thin
As e’er was framed to jow and ring!”
The City Chambers were originally built in 1753 as the Royal Exchange, a place of business for the city’s merchants. It was the first real sign of the council’s intention to improve the city, who employed John and Robert Adam to draw up the plans. It was never popular with the city’s merchants who, “..stand in the open from force of custom, rather than move a few yards to an Exchange that stands empty on one side.” – Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, 1771.
Built in 1632 to house the Scottish Parliament and the Court of Sessions, the country’s supreme court. Although most of the original building has now gone, the hall still exists and is open to the public. The scene you can see inside has not changed for hundreds of years, as advocates pace up and down discussing their cases.
The Luckenbooths were a line of tenement buildings with shops, or ‘locking booths’. The shops sold a variety of goods, but perhaps most the famous was the bookshop of William Creech which drew a crowd of ‘authors and literary idlers’ including Robert Burns. The narrow space between St Giles and the Luckenbooths was known as the ‘Krames’, and was packed with stalls
selling hardware, leather goods and toys.
James Court was a new development of four tenement blocks arranged around a square, built by James Brownhill in 1727. Each house was contained to one floor, and designed to be identical to those above and below. This was a new style of design, which made buildings much cheaper and easier to construct. The flats in James Court were more spacious, light and airy than traditional tenements, and so more expensive. James Brownhill held parties and balls to attract potential dwellers. Initially, James Court was the home of professionals, merchants and gentry. Many historic figures lived within its walls, including philosopher and historian David Hume and author James Boswell.
To encourage development the city council announced that the first person to build a house on Princes Street would be exempt from paying taxes. The first house was built by Mr John Neale, a local silk dealer. Almost immediately, Princes Street became
regarded as the principal street of the New Town due to its proximity to the bridge and the Old Town.