The builders of Edinburgh’s New Town

17 December 2014
imports_CESC_fig.6.6-82604_82966.jpg The builders of Edinburgh’s New Town
Dr Anthony Lewis explores the careers of two of the builder’s of Edinburgh’s New Town – one whose career soared as elegant new buildings were created, and another whose failure began when he fell foul of planning laws. ...

Today Edinburgh is one of the world's most visited cities; famed for its beauty and history. Its New Town is among its ‘must see’ attractions for millions of tourists. From its streets and squares they learn about the Scottish Enlightenment’s David Hume and Robert Adam who lived and worked there. It rightly enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status, and recent conservation work to the Assembly Rooms on George Street continue to attract people to its buildings.

But, what of the people who actually built it? My book ‘Builders of Edinburgh New Town’ provides the hitherto unwritten history about the tradesmen who did this in the first New Town covering the plan James Craig designed in 1767 with houses, shops and public buildings. Some of these can still be seen today in famous vistas but what this book adds are opportunities to see the plans and designs of the first houses and buildings which have since long gone.

Although working for Britain's greatest architects such as Robert Adam many of these tradesmen were comparatively lowly journeymen who grasped the opportunity that the New Town presented to make a name and career for themselves.

They became known as its builders and to enjoy unprecedented status for their work there, and beyond the new city.

This book brings these little-known heroes out of the shadows. It follows careers starting with men studying in evening classes under an elderly journeyman-mason in Canongate called George Jameson who wrote a pioneering pattern book for builders. It then moves on to see how Jameson’s students prospered in chapters reviewing masons and builders William Christie, Duncan Drummond and John Young.


The book also acknowledges that although the New Town is presented as a triumph of urban planning its actual building presented businesses and politicians with real problems. Chapters on Drummond, Young, John Brough, whose business ended in disaster, highlight this. The story of builder John Brough is a case study of how a successful business could collapse. Having begun his working life as a wright (carpenter) in Calton, then on Edinburgh’s outskirts, in the 1760s Brough took advantage of the opportunity to work as a builder that the New Town, and Edinburgh Town Council, as the project’s manager, offered tradesmen.

During the 1770s Brough flourished and had constructed several properties in the east end of the New Town for clients and as he looked ahead into the 1780s he looked to continue his success. But, to do this, Brough also had to learn to adapt to changes in Edinburgh Town Council, and therein lay the source of the trouble he fell into mid-way through the decade.

In 1767 and 1768 Edinburgh Town Council passed its first two New Town Acts which set out conditions for feuing and building. These were managed by a committee led by a leading magistrate. These two Acts were in place during the period of time when Sir Laurence Dundas was in power in Edinburgh as the city’s Member of Parliament, and Governor of the Royal Bank of Scotland – the Town Council’s principal source of credit.

However, from 1780 to 1781 he was removed from power by the ‘independent party’ within the Town Council. Following this the new regime passed fresh New Town Acts in the 1781, 1782 and 1785. With these tighter administrative controls were set in place on builders and developers to increase revenues from duties. This aim led to an attempt to restrict certain types of building, such as tenements with ‘stormont windows’ which were used to light garret flats in roofs and give access to chimney heads to clean vents.

The key mistake Brough made included assuming that his plans, with the stormont windows, would pass through the new committee and build without the formal consent of the Lord Provost, which is what the new councillors had required of builders. This mistake was followed by another, which was to take legal action against the Town Council in the Court of Session. Brough served a bill of suspension on the building of the New Town to stop all work there until his case was resolved, and effectively starve the Town Council of revenues from new building.

The attempt failed, firstly because the other builders ignored the suspension, and secondly because Brough’s finances failed as he himself continued to try to build on the new South Bridge. By 1790 his business had been sequestrated and Edinburgh Town Council had made it clear to all builders that compliance with its laws was the best way to go about their business. Brough may well have considered himself a scapegoat as the stormont windows continued to be tolerated in newly built New Town tenements, if not officially encouraged.


On the other hand, the later chapters on the plaster turned builder, James Nisbet, showed how a tradesman could rise and even compete with the great Robert Adam. If Brough was the ‘bad boy’ of the mid 1780s then, in comparison, Nisbet was the ‘good boy’ of the decade. Why this is so can be simply explained by good work and luck. The first sign of Nisbet’s arrival in Edinburgh was painted in 1779 in gold letters on a black board to advertise his home and business in the New Town.

Soon afterwards he was the plasterer of the New Town’s first church, Saints Andrew and George on George Street. Not only was this a prestigious building in its own right but it was also the first that the independent party in the Town Council backed. Such a public display of piety and virtue contrasted to the charges of self interest and corruption levelled at Sir Laurence Dundas living in his nearby mansion in St Andrew’s Square.

The building of the church was largely undertaken by builders or new men who were not members of the incorporations that Sir Laurence Dundas had dominated so that men loyal to his interest through his patronage were selected to become Town councillors. In clear contrast, the independent party wanted to set up their own patronage group and favoured builders and their supporters who were outside of Sir Laurence’s group. Through this spur and new patronage builders prospered through the 1780s and early 1790s. Nisbet and others also contracted to build the church, such as Robert Burn, prospered as builders.

They can be identified as working together almost akin to a mutual company of builders as names such as Nisbet, Burn, Robert Inglis, John Hay, John Baxter, Robert Wright and many others are frequently seen in Town Council papers and media. The chapter on Nisbet symbolises this rise and success. Such was the regard that he and builders were held in by Lord Provosts by 1790 that Nisbet challenged the great Robert Adam for the design of Charlotte Square. Now, although Adam was finally favoured, the fact that Nisbet’s design was given some consideration, much to the vexation of Adam and his representatives in Edinburgh, indicates the impact and importance of the builders to the Town Council. By then these men could have easily considered themselves to be Edinburgh’s elite house-builders.

Collectively, they momentarily challenged the hegemony of the Adam practice and incorporations of wrights and masons of Edinburgh and its satellite burghs. The rise of the builders had not gone unnoticed by anxious architects and incorporations. The former could do little to challenge but the latter could in the law courts where prosecutions for working as ‘unfreemen’ threatened to deter and delay the builders enough to destroy businesses or force them to join the incorporations of wrights and masons.

Having shown some resistance and solidarity through the establishment of the Society of Master Builders, Wrights and Masons of Edinburgh, which was independent of the incorporations and its subservient society of journeymen, some of the famous builders including Burn, Baxter, Inglis and James Salisbury did just that. The Society, and later versions of it, continued into the next century but never challenged the dominance of the incorporations in the ways its first members had done.

These first builders were commonly men of ambition and a determination to survive and thrive in hard times and make the most of business opportunities.

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Their names are largely forgotten as in architectural history they became better known as architects rather than the builders or journeymen they began as. In this sense, the book narrates an account of one of the ways Scottish Georgian architecture and architects developed in cities and as professionals. In another, it also contributes to the presentation of names and facts of the history of building a world famous city which could allow decision makers in planning and conservation committees to protect and promote what survives today for future generations of residents, visitors and those with a passion for Scottish history.

Dr Anthony Lewis is the author of Builders of Edinburgh New Town: 1767-1795, published by Spire Books Ltd. Dr Lewis tells their story, based on his PhD research, to bring little-known heroes out of the shadows. He starts with men studying under journeyman-mason George Jameson who wrote a pioneering pattern book for builders. He then focuses on men like William Christie, Duncan Drummond, and John Young who all enjoyed successful careers, John Brough whose business ended in disaster, and James Nisbet who even competed with the great Robert Adam.

(Images from the Edinburgh City Archive collection and the photograph courtesy of Carsten Flieger.)