Why is edinburgh called 'the athens of the north'?

Today, Edinburgh’s Old Town makes for a fascinating visitor experience. A mysterious labyrinth of narrow passageways, cobbled streets and hidden closes in the shadow of the imposing fort on Castle Rock oozes medieval history; for visitors, a day or two can easily be passed exploring at leisure, absorbing the atmosphere while walking the footsteps of the Old Town’s former residents who were crammed hopelessly into a clutter of tenements. But Edinburgh, prior to the construction of the New Town, was anything but a tourist attraction. Nor’ Loch – the infamous artificial lake that was more akin to an open sewer – cast a dreadful stench over the city, while crime, disease and fire frequently rampaged around the crowded tenements. For most residents of Old Town Edinburgh, life was grim.

Change of fortune

The 18th century, however, witnessed a reversal in the city’s fortunes as its council leaders and great thinkers of the Enlightenment restyled Edinburgh as ‘the Athens of the North’. James Craig’s vision for the New Town harnessed the principles of classical architecture, with an axial layout (initially planned to reflect the shape of the Union flag, though later modified due to the complexities of such a design), wide streets, open squares and Grecian-style buildings. Today, Edinburgh boasts over 4,500 listed buildings, a testament to the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.

But the New Town wasn’t simply Athenian in appearance. With the Scottish Enlightenment came new ideas and approaches to politics, economics and science, and a swell of artistic endeavour – Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, for example, who cemented the literary foundations for a city that has been the home for some of the world’s most notable writers ever since. The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582, thrived during the Enlightenment, hosting some of the greatest minds of the time, David Hume and Adam Smith amongst them, and established the city as a centre for medicine, philosophy and science.

As Athens had been a centre for ancient learning, New Town Edinburgh now flaunted its credentials as a world leader for academic discipline, reasoning and discovery.

A centre for trade and commerce

Like the Athens of Ancient Greece, Edinburgh also became a thriving commercial centre, attracting traders from across Europe and a host of flourishing industries that served the local population that was enjoying more generous salaries as the city prospered. In doing so, Edinburgh secured Lord Provost George Drummond’s vision for a city that generated wealth through commercial enterprise to which ‘all those will flock whose circumstances can afford it’.

To secure Edinburgh’s claim as ‘the Athens of the North’, the Scottish National Monument, modelled on the Parthenon in Athens, was started in 1826, a powerful statement of the city’s classical vein. It was only a shortage of funds that led to the abandonment of the project – maybe Edinburgh’s only folly.

Edinburgh’s forgotten Acropolis

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Edinburgh enjoys global fame for its grand architecture, with literally thousands of listed buildings; nevertheless, the visitor who is unfamiliar with Scotland’s capital may be surprised to see an almost Athenian temple astride Calton Hill – incomplete, not because it bears the scars of thousands of years of history, but simply because it was never completed.
A sweeping panorama

Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh’s celebrated viewpoints, boasting a sweeping panorama that includes Holyrood, the Royal Mile, Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth. It’s also home to a collection of architectural accomplishments that are steeped in history: the City Observatory, where it was first calculated how to measure the distance of stars; and the Nelson Monument, a commemoration to the death of Admiral Lord Nelson in 1805, the time ball on top of which has enabled moored ships in the Firth of Forth to set their clocks correctly for the last 170 years.

It is the incomplete National Monument of Scotland, however, that dominates Calton Hill. Originally conceived as a tribute to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, the structure has become known as ‘Scotland’s Disgrace’ or ‘Scotland’s Folly’. And reading the story of the project, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Even by modern standards, the monument was ambitious to say the least. Designed by William Playfair, a renowned architect who was also responsible for inventing the humble bar chart, the monument was, outwardly, designed to recreate the Parthenon, reflecting the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment that perceived the city as ‘the Athens of the North’. Inside, the building would function as a church.

Even though only a fraction of the £42,000 required to complete the construction of the building was sourced, work commenced anyway. Logistically, the construction was challenging, with the 12 Doric columns having to be transported over three miles to the summit of Calton Hill from a quarry. Only the columns and the base were complete when the entire project was shelved due to a lack of money.

If the sheer scale of the building and the decision to start construction without the funds were flawed, so too was the entire concept. Only 50 years since the expansion of the city in the New Town had begun, the 1820s were a period marked by massive construction work as Edinburgh flourished. Those residents with the financial capital to back such an expensive project – which was likely to have far exceeded the estimated £42,000 – were already committed elsewhere and simply couldn’t invest the sums required to see it through to its completion.

Thus, Scotland’s Disgrace was created, an unfinished replica of the Athens’ Parthenon that perhaps represents the one significant mistake in Edinburgh’s New Town expansion.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

Calton Hill

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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