NEW TOWn's architectural delights

The architecture of the New Town remains one of the most striking features of the district today. Sprawling terraced houses and neo-classical frontages dominate the streets, designed to tempt the wealthy back to the city, where their money would support a host of new businesses and trades. Edinburgh New Town wasn’t just a reflection of the Scottish Enlightenment, but of the aspirational economy described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Luxury products filled the shops on Princes Street, the carriage-making industry prospered and, as the United Kingdom surged towards the Industrial Revolution, the city became a home for skilled craftsmen who, even in the working classes, enjoy generous salaries. Today the New Town is a bridge between the past and present and a lasting symbol of the birth of modern Edinburgh, and in which the optimism and prosperity of the Scottish Enlightenment is reflected.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

George Meikle Kemp and the Scott Monument: how a change of fortune cost an architect his life

Dominating the city’s skyline from every direction, the Scott Monument is an impressive sight. Known affectionately as ‘The Gothic Rocket’, the structure is the second largest monument to a writer in the world (only Havana’s tribute to José Martí stands taller), reaching 61 metres in height. Prominently located in Princes Street Gardens, the Scott Monument is not the only homage to Sir Walter Scott, the revered writer of the Scottish Enlightenment who is credited with the birth of the historical novel; Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station, just a short distance away, also owes its name to a long series of Scott’s novels.

Sir Walter Scott died in September 1832 and, following his death, impassioned calls – from within Scotland and beyond – demanded that a public monument to the writer be erected in Edinburgh, the city of his birth where he proceeded to play an influential role as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Walter Scott Monument

PHOTO BY @TRAVELTWO_

Fighting for recognition

With fundraising for a lasting monument secured, a competition was launched in 1836 for its design which received over 50 entries featuring a variety of architectural styles. The winning entry, by an unknown 45-year-old joiner and self-taught architect, George Meikle Kemp, was initially rejected by the judges on the basis that he lacked the professionalism of the other prime contenders, two well-known English architects. It was a situation that Kemp clearly anticipated: fearful of a negative reaction from the judges, he submitted his design under a pseudonym, John Morvo, a master mason who had worked on Melrose Abbey during its construction.

Despite finishing third in the competition, Kemp was awarded another opportunity when the judges relented and asked the three top-placed architects to submit additional drawings, from which the Scotsman’s ‘Gothic Rocket’ design was selected.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

Tragedy in the fog

The foundation stone for the Scott Monument was laid on George Meikle Kemp’s birthday, 15th August 1841. Tragically, the rookie architect didn’t get to see the finished structure: three years after construction began, Kemp went missing in thick fog on his way home from a contractor’s office.

Five days later, his body was recovered from the Union Canal where he had, apparently, stumbled and drowned, despite his strong swimming ability. Accounts of his death vary as to his level of intoxication on the night that he vanished. He was buried in the graveyard of St Cuthbert on Princes Street in the shadow of the monument that had, briefly, promised him a lasting career in architecture.

The Scott Monument was completed in 1844 after Kemp’s brother-in-law took over supervision of the project and, fittingly, the final stone was laid by Kemp’s son.

In modern-day Edinburgh, the Scott Monument remains one of the city’s most evocative and recognisable sights. Its colour may have weathered – architects deemed that cleaning would only expose the stone to further erosion – so only essential maintenance has been carried out on the structure to protect it for future generations.

From ground-level, a marble statue of Sir Walter Scott and his dog, Maida, can be seen as well as sixty-four statues portraying scenes and characters from his novels. Alternatively, for a modest entrance fee, visitors can ascend the 287 steps to enjoy a remarkable view from the summit overlooking Princes Street and across to Calton Hill.

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