David Cousin: versatile Victorian architect - exclusive read

05 August 2020
In our exclusive read, Morven Leese explores the life and legacy of David Cousin who, despite being largely forgotten today, did much shape Scotland’s modern built environment, particularly in Edinburgh.

David Cousin (1809-78) was an immensely versatile Victorian architect and town planner. As Edinburgh’s City Architect he was responsible with his colleague John Lessels for redeveloping areas around the High Street.

He created several large garden cemeteries, and built domestic and public buildings all over Scotland from the Highlands to the Borders. Arguably under-appreciated outside the world of architecture, he had a wide-ranging influence on the Scottish built environment, especially in Edinburgh. There, the impact of his buildings is sometimes only subconsciously perceptible to the casual observer.

Yet his buildings, blending in with ancient streets, have helped to create the distinctive cityscape of Edinburgh, admired all over the world.

Family and early life

David Cousin’s parents, John (1781-62) and Isabella, née Paterson (1813-1861), initially lived in Trinity, Edinburgh. Previous Cousin generations came from Fife; a family tradition held that they were of Huguenot origin.

John and Isabella’s first son David died as an infant as did, it can probably be assumed, a second, Robert. Surviving sons were George (b.1807), David (b.1809), and William (b.1812). George became a surveyor and valuer, and Edinburgh town councillor and magistrate; he was to remain close to David personally and professionally. 

William moved from Edinburgh and became a Free Church minister. John Cousin, while primarily a joiner and builder, was termed ‘architect’ in 1819 on plans for a tap room in West Register Street and in 1830 he was living in Jamaica Street with sufficient money to send William to the Edinburgh Academy.

David was educated locally, learning joinery from his father. He was interested in science, conducting experiments in his father’s workshop and studying with a local mathematician, Edward Sang.

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Early career

By 1830 the Cousin family had moved to Fettes Row, with business premises in Silvermills, David being described as a surveyor. He began architectural training with William Henry Playfair, who was then engaged on the National Gallery of Scotland and Donaldson’s Hospital.  David found him a hard taskmaster, according to his own pupil John McLachlan, and he left Playfair in 1831, aged 22, to begin his own practice while still living at his father’s house.

While no buildings are extant from the early stage of David’s professional life, records show involvement in three distinct professional areas, namely land use (plan of Scroggs Estate, Tundergarth in 1827), public buildings (church design exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1830) and domestic design (villas described in J C Loudon’s Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture). 

The villas are particularly interesting as they already show his characteristic style, which he described as ‘Scottish Manor House’ (now called ‘Scottish Baronial’). He had studied a number of older precedents for his domestic designs including Gogar House near Edinburgh, and Tullibole, Kinross-shire and it seems that his ’Scottish Vernacular’ style was very much self-taught. The features of ‘turrets, gables, steep roofs, high chimneys, bartisans etc’, that he copied from existing buildings, were, he believed, 16th century additions to even older buildings, a conclusion he says made purely from observation rather than academic study. 

By 1834 the family firm of John and George Cousin (house agents, cabinetmakers and upholsterers) were affected by the bankruptcy of Edinburgh in the 1830s. The lavish furnishings of the family house in Fettes Row, where David and his brother William were still living, were listed for liquidation and only the few pieces of furniture not actually belonging to John or George were spared, including David’s drawing board and travelling writing desk. This experience of bankruptcy may have prompted David to ensure his own financial stability: he was to amass an enormous fortune by the end of his life. 

Employment by Edinburgh City Council

In 1837 David Cousin entered the competition for the design of the Scott Monument. He was unsuccessful, the winner being his great friend George Meikle Kemp, who had lived with the Cousin family as an apprentice. They were to remain friends, and David took on George’s son Thomas as an apprentice until the latter's death, aged about twenty. Cousin married Isabella Galloway in 1838, and in 1839 joined Glasgow engineer William Gale to form the partnership of Cousin and Gale, Cousin running the Edinburgh office in Royal Exchange.

The Gale-Cousin practice won two competitions, one for the Cambuslang Parish Church in 1839 and one for the West Church in Greenock (now known as Westburn Church) in 1840. It was after the Greenock Church project that Cousin fell ill with what was described in his obituary as ‘brain fever’ due to over-work. Illness was to dog him throughout his life.

In the early 1840s Cousin was employed by the Commissioner of Police in Edinburgh to supply scenes-of-crime plans. One of them, a plan of a property in Plainstane Close, was for the trial of the infamous murderer James Wemyss. In 1841 he was appointed as assistant to Thomas Brown, the City Superintendent of Works, combining that post with private work and in 1842 he designed the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society Hall and the Herbarium (now Caledonian Hall) at the Royal Botanic Garden. In 1847, on Brown’s retirement, Edinburgh Town Council voted Cousin as successor. He was thrown into the deep end: for one thing, Brown seems to have been failing near the end, with some issues of non-authorised expenditure.

There was also a need to resolve a fierce dispute between Princes Street shop proprietors and the Railway Company who, they claimed, were filling up the drains with filth up to a foot deep. This type of problem, to do with drainage and water supply, was one with which Cousin was very concerned throughout his career. For example, he designed drainage with an egg-shaped cross-section for the Meadows aimed at efficiency and safety from rat ingress. While his job had a very wide remit, encompassing such semi-engineering projects, he nevertheless was the first to term himself ‘City Architect’ rather than the official title ‘Superintendent of Works’.

The Free Church and cemetery design

In 1843 Cousin joined the newly created Free Church of Scotland, along with his brother William, who became a Free Church minister in Melrose. David can be seen in the 1866 painting of the Disruption by David Octavius Hill, where he is showing his architectural drawings for the free Church Offices and Savings Bank to John Maitland, who had commissioned them in 1858.  The chance to create this striking building may have been consolation for missing out to Playfair on the earlier commission for the Free Church College next door.  Although a fervent member of the church, he raised questions about the choice of Playfair as architect of the College and later said privately that he suspected that wealthier congregations used their influence to employ Playfair, even though he had not entered the building competition.

Cousin was, commissioned to design many, essentially temporary, churches for the Free Church in the years 1843-44.  He felt that these rather basic structures, some of which were attributed to him with little actual involvement, did harm to his professional reputation. He did, however, design some more interesting Free churches, such as St George’s, Lothian Road, Edinburgh and the Free Church in Oban.

In the 1840s Cousin entered the new field of municipal cemetery design, which was evolving to deal with overcrowding of churchyards through increasing birth- and death-rates, the latter due to epidemics.

Furthermore, municipal cemeteries were in demand to serve congregations such as the Free Church who were denied the use of traditional churchyards. Paths for carriages and ornamental planting, pioneered at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, were features that David employed in his own cemeteries in Edinburgh. Warrington, Dalry, Rosebank, Dean and Newington Cemeteries are now prized as green spaces in the city as they each have a unique character both in terms of their historic memorials and current use.

An intriguing and somewhat bizarre building from Cousin’s early period is the Monteath Mausoleum of 1849 in the Glasgow Necropolis.

Extract taken from the September/October 2020 issue of History Scotland magazine. Get your copy here and enjoy exclusive research on topics including Scotland and slavery, the Bishops’ War, GPR investigations at Dunfermline Abbey, plus news, opinion and events.