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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER V. IMPROVEMENT OF EDINBURGH. 1812–1834.
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    Design for approaches to Edinburgh from the East by Regent and London Roads, and opening up access to the Calton Hill—Sites for the new Jail and Court of Justiciary, and buildings in Waterloo Place—Regent Bridge—Feuing Plan for Eastern District of Edinburgh—Improvement of accesses to Edinburgh from the West and North, and from Granton—Removal of old “Tolbooth” Prison—Removal of University buildings.

Ancient Edinburgh was famed for its narrow streets and crooked wynds, and even at the period when this Memoir begins, much remained to be done for the improvement of the various accesses to the city. These roads, leading from north, south, east, and west, were under the management of different Trusts or public bodies, by all of whom Mr. Stevenson was on various occasions consulted; and the subject seems to have had for him more than a merely professional interest, for his advice was generally far “ahead” of the cautious views of his employers, on whom he seems often to have had no small difficulty in urging the adoption of sufficiently comprehensive designs. His love for the beautiful rose above all other feelings, and he succeeded, not without difficulty and perseverance, in securing for Edinburgh those spacious road improvements which have undoubtedly helped her to claim the title of “Modern Athens.”

75 The “Modern Athenians” who now enjoy the magnificent approach to Edinburgh by the Regent Road and Calton Hill, or that no less commodious access from Parson’s Green to Leith Walk, known as the “London Road,” can hardly realise the time when the only communication from Princes Street to Portobello was by Leith Street, Calton Street, and the North Back of the Canongate.

At that time Princes Street was abruptly terminated by a row of houses at the Register Office, and the Calton Hill was in a state of nature.

Mr. Stevenson’s scheme of forming a direct access to London and the south, by making a roadway over the Calton Hill, was based on a comprehensive scale, providing sites for public buildings, and an extensive feuing-plan for the eastern portion of Edinburgh, all of which were ultimately carried out under his directions.

But this scheme, boldly conceived and so beneficial to Edinburgh, was not well received by the inhabitants. It had the economical objection of interfering to some extent with house property, a liberty to which people were only reconciled in modern times when sites had to be acquired for railway stations. It had the engineering objection of involving what were represented in those days as dangerous rock cuttings and extensive high retaining walls along the sides of the Calton Hill; but above all, it had the serious social objection that its route ran through the “Old Calton Burying-ground,” and involved the removal of the remains of those interred in it to a new resting-place, to be provided by the Improvement Commissioners. This last objection subjected Mr. Stevenson to76 some ill feeling; and the fact that the place of interment of his own family was one of those to be removed to the new cemetery, did not succeed in allaying the discontent. It was undoubtedly in consequence of Mr. Stevenson’s perseverance and unfaltering conviction that his advice was sound, and calculated to benefit his fellow-citizens, that his plan was ultimately adopted and carried out.

It is proper to notice that the new jail and the buildings in Waterloo Place were designed by Mr. Archibald Elliot, and at a more recent period the houses in the Regent and Royal Terraces by Mr. Playfair, and the High School and Burns’s Monument by Mr. Thomas Hamilton, all architects of eminence, whose works added to the attractiveness of Mr. Stevenson’s splendid access.

In carrying the road round the part of the hill now occupied by the High School, Mr. Stevenson had some difficulty, owing to the height of the retaining wall, in avoiding what would have appeared as a dead wall, and would have proved unsightly as viewed from Arthur’s Seat. He accordingly built a strong retaining wall of masonry, which supports the road, and is covered by an exterior wall of rough masses of stone arranged as rustic work, which, when viewed at a distance, has all the appearance of a face of natural rock.

In Lord Cockburn’s Memorials of his Time he says:—“Scarcely any sacrifice could be too great that removed the houses from the end of Princes Street, and made a level road to the hill, or, in other words, produced Waterloo Bridge. The effect was like drawing up the curtain of a theatre.”


J. Bartholomew Bain.


77 In Plate IV. are traced, in red colour, the various lines of connecting road which go to make up this grand improvement, of the value of which those who know the locality can judge for themselves.

In the following report, addressed to the “Sheriff-Depute of the county of Edinburgh, as convener of a committee for erecting a new jail for the county of Edinburgh,” Mr. Stevenson details the various benefits to be derived by adopting his proposal; and as his views on this matter encountered, as has been stated, much opposition, I give extracts from his report, begging of those readers who have no local interest in it kindly to pass it over:—

    “In the report which you addressed to the Commissioners for erecting a new jail for the county of Edinburgh, the Calton Hill is amongst other places alluded to as a site. But the difficulty of access to that commanding and healthful situation presents itself as a strong objection to its being adopted. As, however, an approach to the city from the eastward, with access to the extensive lands connected with the Calton Hill, valuable both as building grounds and as a delightful city walk, has long been a desideratum, and as the present seemed a fit time for again attempting this measure, the reporter had the honour to receive your instructions to inquire into the practicability of making a proper communication to the Calton Hill, with the view of there building the intended new jail; and he is now to submit the accompanying survey of the grounds, together with the requisite plans and sections connected with the design of a road from Shakespeare Square, at the eastern extremity of Princes Street, to join the great road to London at the Abbeyhill.

    “The Hon. Sheriff is aware that the attainment of this object has long been wishfully kept in view by the public. It is believed78 that at different times such proposals were by them brought under the notice of Mr. Adam and of Mr. Baxter, the most celebrated architects of their day. But still the work remains to be accomplished, not certainly from any physical difficulty necessarily attending its execution, but from the want of sufficient energy to meet the expense that must unavoidably attend an operation of this nature, involving the removal of some valuable buildings, and otherwise interfering with private property. Were the reporter to have in view merely the forming of an improved approach to the city of Edinburgh from the eastward, instead of the present inconvenient access by the Water Gate, he might here allude to the intended London Road through the lands of Hillside to Leith Walk, or to the once proposed line of road terminating by a bridge from the northern side of the Calton Hill to Greenside, opposite York Place, and the completion of this fine street by the removal of the old and ruinous houses which still continue to encumber its entrance; or he might take notice of the less commodious road at one time in view over the higher parts of the Calton Hill, and joining the lower part of Leith Street by means of an arch over Calton Street. But all of these lines of road are objectionable, in a greater or less degree, inasmuch as they include the acclivity of Leith Street before the passenger can arrive at the level of the North Bridge. To obtain this in the most eligible manner, we must look to the extension of the line of Princes Street to the Calton Hill, for although the other lines of road have been looked forward to as improvements to a certain extent, yet still they were defective, and must have left something undone, while the extension of Princes Street by a bridge over Calton Street, and a road to the Abbeyhill, seems to answer every purpose. It unfortunately happens, however, that if carried in a direct line it must pass through the Calton Burying-ground; and if this part of the road were made with a curve, the most desirable effect in point of beauty would not be produced. There was a time indeed when, without encroachment79 upon the burying-ground, the road could have been made with a curve to the southward of Hume the historian’s tomb; but of late years the walls of the burying-ground have been extended to the verge of precipitous rocks, so that the removal of numerous private cemeteries would now be indispensable in carrying the road at an elevation sufficient to command the proper view. If a lower level were adopted in this direction, the fine prospects of the higher road would be lost, and this line would then become quite uninteresting, while a heavy expense must be incurred in carrying the road through much private property, considerations which are sufficient to render this line highly objectionable.

    “But the road which would afford the easiest line of draught is that which the reporter has delineated upon the plan by a curved line towards the left from the eastern extremity of the new bridge, crossing the present road to the Calton Hill, winding round the northern side of the hill and joining the intended ‘London Road’ through the lands of Hillside near the eastern road to Leith. By this line of road the level of Princes Street may be conceived to become the summit level of the road, which would admit of being made with a uniform declivity from Shakespeare Square to the Abbeyhill, while the acclivity to Bridewell by the present road might be greatly reduced, and the road improved in connection with the new line of road. In the present instance, however, it is not to the easiest line of draught as an approach to the city of Edinburgh that the Sheriff directs the attention of the reporter, but to a better access to the higher lands of Calton Hill, with a view to obtain a proper site for the new jail, and therefore only an eye view of the northern line of road is given. Yet when a communication is opened with the Calton Hill by a bridge from Princes Street, we may expect at some future day to see one continuous street or drive round the hill. Before proceeding further, a preliminary remark may here be stated, and in making it the reporter thinks it proper to say that no one can hold the great80 professional abilities of Mr. Adam in higher estimation than he does; at any rate he is certain that it could not fall to the lot of any individual who would feel more compunction in proposing an alteration even upon an outward wall of a work executed under his directions. But such is the inconvenience and even danger to passengers attending the projection of the south-eastern angle of the parapet wall in front of the Register Office, that in the progress of these improvements the reporter would humbly propose, for the greater accommodation and comfort of the public, that this fine piece of masonry should undergo a small alteration, as represented in dotted lines upon the plan, in order to widen the street and improve the great thoroughfare to the port of Leith.
    “Description of Line of Road recommended.

    “In reference to the accompanying survey and plan, it will be proper to describe it more particularly. The first step towards forming the proposed new approach to the Calton Hill will be the removal of the houses which presently shut up the eastern extremity of Princes Street, and the other property in its direction eastward. The approach will then be made up to the proper level by a bridge extending in length about 362 feet from Shakespeare Square over Calton Street, towards the western extremity of the Calton Burying-ground, through which it will pass. Thence, passing in front of Bridewell, or between it and Nelson’s Monument, it is continued along the southern side of the Calton Hill to the line of wall of division between the property of the city of Edinburgh and the lands of Heriot’s Hospital. At this position the road begins to skirt along the southern side of the rising grounds in the parks of Heriot’s Hospital, and crossing the eastern road to Leith it passes behind the houses of Abbeyhill, and ultimately joins the great road to London.

    “The line of road just described has been laid out with gradients varying from 1 in 39 to 1 in 22. The more to the eastward81 the new line of road is carried before it joins the present London road, the more gradual and gentle the acclivity becomes. To improve this line of road still further by cutting deeper into the rock at the summit would not only create a great additional expense, but would place the road in a hollow, and shut out these characteristic views of the city which are the chief inducements to the new line of road.

    “In determining the line of direction for the street from Shakespeare Square to Bridewell, it seems desirable that it should run in a straight line. The only objection to this is its interference with the Calton Burying-ground. In making any encroachments upon a place of burial, there is no doubt something very repugnant to the feelings, but in many cases this has been found necessary for public improvements, of which we have an example in the improved access from the bottom of Leith Walk to Bernard Street, where the road was carried through part of the churchyard of South Leith, and so in other parts of the country. The reporter has been at much pains in endeavouring to avoid the burying-ground, by attempting to turn the road more or less towards the left in going eastward, and by this means taking only a part from the northern side of that ground. But were the burying-ground to be encroached upon at all, and this cannot well be prevented, it seems less objectionable to carry the road in a straight line through it, especially as it may be found practicable to give an equal quantity of ground immediately contiguous to the present burying-ground without materially trenching upon any plan that may be in view for the erection of the prison; and as there will be a considerable depth of cutting in carrying the road through the burying-ground, the surface terring of the different places of interment may be removed to the new grounds with due care and becoming solemnity.

    “The reporter gives a preference to this line, because it seems best suited to the peculiar situation of the ground, being calculated to show to much advantage the rugged rocks on which Nelson’s82 Monument is erected, which beautifully terminates the view in looking eastward; and in entering the town from the opposite directions, it exhibits at one view, from a somewhat elevated situation, the striking and extensive line of Princes Street. Now the reporter is humbly of opinion that to attain these objects, this line of road should be carried straight from Shakespeare Square to the eastern side of the burying-ground, after which it may be made to suit the position and nature of the ground in all its windings, as delineated upon the survey.

    “As this road is not only to be the great approach from the eastward, but likewise to become the chief thoroughfare to the extensive lands of Heriot’s and Trinity Hospitals, and to the lands of the other conterminous proprietors, henceforth likely to become the principal building grounds for this great city, which is always increasing towards its port of Leith, it becomes desirable for these purposes, and particularly to preserve the interesting view of the Calton Hill, that this road should not be less than seventy-five feet in breadth, or similar to Princes Street, exclusively of the sunk areas, which is certainly adequate to all the ordinary purposes of utility, intercourse, and elegance. There is, however, one way of viewing the width of this part of the road or street, by which it may appear to be too narrow even at seventy-five feet, and that is by comparing it with the width of Princes Street, which, including the sunken areas, measures ninety-five feet in breadth. Princes Street, however, comes more properly under the description of a row or terrace, and the principal footpath being on the north side of the street, it may consequently be apprehended that unless the new street were of an equal width, a spectator looking from the north side of the new street towards the line of Princes Street would command but an imperfect view of it. This to a considerable extent would be the state of the case even at seventy-five feet of breadth, and were the street reduced to sixty feet in breadth, as has been proposed, the view of the higher parts of the Calton Hill83 would be hid from the pavement on Princes Street. But the narrowing of the street even to sixty feet in width, with two elegant buildings in the form of pavilions or wings to the bridge, would have an effect similar to what is strikingly observable in looking from the western end of George Street towards the Excise Office. Examples of narrowing streets are not uncommon, as Great Pulteney Street in Bath, and Blackfriars and Westminster Bridge Streets in London. The reporter, however, confesses that he is not induced to consider sixty feet, or even seventy-five feet, as the most desirable breadth for the new bridge from any views of elegance; with him the reduction of the width of the street is proposed rather from motives of economy to insure the success of a great measure, than from choice in making the design. In this situation a bridge of ninety-five feet, or equal to the extreme breadth of Princes Street, would most unfortunately place the new buildings upon the north-western side so near to the houses of Leith Street, that the windows of the houses of Leith Street and those of the new street would be shaded by each other, so as to require the buildings at the western end of the bridge to be kept less in height, if not to be discontinued altogether, for a considerable way, which would render the building grounds of much less value. Two or three of the new buildings, indeed, might be joined or connected with the old houses, but still the property upon the whole would be greatly injured. Considering this, and also the additional expense of the bridge without greatly increasing the value of the cellarage, together with the greater trespass that would be made on the burying-ground by a street of ninety-five feet in breadth, the reporter has been induced to delineate upon the plan a bridge of seventy-five feet, and a road from it to the Abbeyhill of sixty feet in breadth. Yet if it shall appear that funds cannot be conveniently obtained to meet even this expense, it may then be found necessary to make the whole of the uniform breadth of sixty feet. From the annexed estimate for the purchase of property,84 building a bridge of seventy-five feet in width, and making a road from it to the Abbeyhill of sixty feet in breadth, it appears that the expense will amount to £71,976, 14s.

    “In estimating the expense of these works, the reporter has had in view that the road should be executed in aisler causeway, and that the whole should be executed in a substantial manner. From the borings in the strata which have been made by the directions of the reporter, there is reason to hope that the foundations of the bridge will not be difficult, and he therefore trusts that the several sums in the estimate of the expense already alluded to, will be found adequate to this purpose.

    “The expenditure will no doubt be large, but the advantages are great in proportion.

    “In considering this proposed new approach, it may be proper to notice it particularly as the means of procuring a proper site for the new jail and court house; second, as calculated to raise the value of certain building grounds; thirdly, as a public road; and lastly, as contributing individually to the comfort of the inhabitants of Edinburgh.
    “Site for the Jail.

    “In any display of the advantages of this measure, the motive which led to it should not be overlooked. It was not the convenience of the wealthy citizen, nor the increased value of ground for building, nor even the improvement of the public roads that was sought after. It was to obtain a healthful situation for a common jail, and thereby to extend the comforts particularly of one unfortunate class of individuals, who, perhaps from the unavoidable circumstances of their lot, or from innocent misfortunes, are unable to pay their debts, and are cast into prison; and even of another class, certainly less to be pitied, who from a perversity of disposition or the depravity of their nature, forfeit their liberty for a time.

    85 “In looking for a proper site for building a jail upon the Calton Hill, the eye is naturally directed to the position of Bridewell as a fit place for concentrating the whole establishment of prisons for the city of Edinburgh to one spot, and if thought advisable, to put the whole under the care of the same governor, as is the general practice in England. A suitable site for the felons-jail has been pointed out upon the western side of Bridewell; and with a proper discrimination, the Sheriff proposes to erect the debtors-jail upon the other side; and if these buildings be constructed in the same style of architecture as Bridewell, the whole will present one uniform front or suite of buildings. The reporter understands, however, that the Sheriff does not wish this to be understood as fixed, but that the opinion of the most eminent architects should be obtained regarding the jail to be erected.
    “Site for the Justiciary Court House.

    “Supposing, for the present, that the jails were arranged in this manner, and that it were necessary in connection with them to erect a Justiciary Court House and public offices, a place must be found for them that shall at once be suitable in point of elegance, and be at the same time convenient for communicating with the prisons. In the event of adopting a street with a turn at the eastern end of the bridge, a site for these buildings could be very appropriately got, either facing the line of Princes Street or upon the southern side of the arch over Calton Street. On this last spot it may be objected that the buildings would not be fully seen till the spectator had reached the open arch of the bridge. Both of these situations would, however, be contiguous to the Register Office and North Bridge, and could be made accessible to the prisons by a private way round the southern side of the burying-ground.

    “But certainly the most commanding site, in regard to elegance and grandeur of effect, for a public building would be to place it86 opposite to the prisons in the opening of the street, as marked on the plan. In such a position, when viewed from Princes Street in connection with the monument, the effect of these Court houses in perspective would indeed be very fine, and in coming round the hill by the line of road from the eastwards, it would be no less striking.

    “The site for the prisons naturally points out itself contiguously to Bridewell, as well for the reasons already stated as on account of its southern exposure, and it has been observed to be just at the point of elevation for receiving a supply of water from the city’s reservoir. But in setting down the public buildings for the county and for the Sheriff Court at so great a distance from the Court of Session and the other Courts of Law, the convenience of the practitioners is a consideration of importance which presents itself as requiring very mature deliberation, which does not strictly come under my notice.
    “The value of Feuing Ground.

    “The prolongation of the line of Princes Street by a bridge over Calton Street is calculated in a particular manner to benefit the extensive lands of Heriot’s and Trinity Hospitals, and the conterminous proprietors to the eastward of the Calton Hill, by affording a better access than can be obtained in any other direction, especially in so far as it regards the higher grounds of Heriot’s Hospital. But on this subject the reporter has already submitted his opinion in so far as regards Heriot’s Hospital, in a report to the Governors of that institution; and as the same argument held in a greater or less degree with the other proprietors, it seems unnecessary, in this place, to resume the subject.
    “As a Public Road.

    “As a new approach to the city of Edinburgh from the Abbeyhill to the central parts of the city, avoiding the inconvenient87 acclivity and awkward termination of Leith Street, or the still more intricate and incommodious access by the North Back of Canongate, this road will be regarded by the Trustees for the highways within the county as an improvement of the first importance. As a road, it is at once direct and obvious. By an extension of this line of road to Leith by the eastern road, or still more to the eastward through the lands of Restalrig, this access will be found of very general utility, while the traveller thus entering Edinburgh will be presented with the most characteristic views of the city, both old town and new town, calculated to inspire the highest opinions of its picturesque beauties.
    “To the Inhabitants of Edinburgh.

    “As a great addition to the individual comfort and convenience of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, the bridge over Calton Street will open an elegant access to the lands of the Calton Hill, from which the surrounding country forms one of the most delightful prospects of distant mountain ranges,—detached hills and extensive sea-coast, with numerous ships ever plying in all directions, together with the finest city scenery that is anywhere to be met with.

    “Those who have admired the city of London from an eminence have indeed seen more extended lines of street bounded perhaps by a richer country, yet it is very deficient in that variety and boldness of feature which is so striking in this place. When it is wished to extend this walk to the eastward, the new road will lead the pedestrian commodiously to the bottom of Arthur’s Seat, round the eastern side of which a path to Duddingston, branching out in various directions in its course round to Salisbury Crags, might, in a very delightful manner, be imagined to complete an afternoon’s excursion. Let those who have not a lively picture in their mind of the prospect from the Calton Hill walk along the line of the projected road, and upon attending to it they will meet88 with such a richness and variety of scenery as will satisfy them how greatly the ornament of the city, and the pleasures of the inhabitants and of its occasional visitants, would be promoted by the continuation of the line of Princes Street towards the lands of Calton Hill. Whether therefore we consider a bridge over Calton Street as calculated to improve the approach to the city from the eastward, or as rendering accessible many acres for building, and villa grounds which must otherwise remain as grass fields for an indefinite period, or as opening an easy way to the rising grounds of the Calton Hill, in all these and in other important purposes the reporter is humbly of opinion that this measure ought to be regarded as the greatest object which has engaged the attention of public men since the erection of the North Bridge, which was a very bold and enterprising undertaking for any period of provincial or even of metropolitan history.

    “Under these circumstances, it must be doubly gratifying to learn, that notwithstanding the facility which an improved access must afford in laying out the city grounds of the Calton Hill for buildings, it is understood to be the intention of the Lord Provost and Magistrates, in framing the Bill for an Act of Parliament for regulating these works, to provide, with a proper liberality and a due regard for the immediate and ultimate interests of the community, that these lands shall in all time coming be preserved open and free as at present from all common buildings. It is also hoped that the Hon. and Rev. Governors of Heriot’s Hospital, with enlightened sentiments, will preserve the view of Holyrood House and its connecting scenery, by restricting the buildings on the southern side of the new road through the Hospital’s land to such limits as may seem for that purpose to be necessary.”

The Bill for this new approach to Edinburgh was passed in 1814, and, on the 9th of September 1815, the foundation stone of the Waterloo Bridge was laid with89 great masonic ceremony, bearing the following inscription—

Regnante Georgio III. Patre Patriae
Urbis praefecto iterum
Joanne Marjoribanks de Lees equite baronetto
Architecto Roberto Stevenson
Cives Edinburgenses
Novum hunc et magnificum
Per montem vicinum
Ad summam urbem aditum moliti
In hoc ponte nomen jusserunt inscribi
Proregis Georgii Augusti Frederici.7

which I quote, because Mr. Stevenson, in his notes, mentions a curious circumstance in connection with it:—“The late James Gregory, then Professor of the Practice of Medicine in the University, the well-known author of the Conspectus Medicinae Theoreticae, was applied to by the Commission for the improvement to put the inscription in classical Latin. The Doctor came to me to say that he must style me Architect, there being no such word as Engineer to be found in the history of the Arts, and so it stands in the inscription. I wanted the Doctor to introduce the term Engineer, as it was very desirable to have the profession recognised in works now exclusively entrusted to the engineer.”

90 Mr. Stevenson’s original feuing plan, already referred to, for the Calton Hill had three ranges of terraces at different levels, as shown by a picture in my possession, from which Plate V. has been engraved. The middle line of terrace shown in the drawing corresponds to the Regent Terrace as ultimately constructed.

The approach on the northern side of the hill, known as the “London Road,” was executed according to Mr. Stevenson’s design immediately after the completion of the Regent Road and Waterloo Bridge; and the whole of the new lines of road, as shown in red in Plate IV., were, as I have stated, part of the same design.

Mr. Stevenson’s further contributions to the improvement of the approaches to Edinburgh were made between 1811 and 1817 to the “Trustees for the Post-road District of Roads,” the “Trustees of the Middle District of Roads,” the “Commissioners for forming and feuing Leith Walk,” and the “Trustees of the Cramond District of Roads.” These were the several authorities at that time in power, under whose directions he laid out the access to Edinburgh from Stockbridge by Royal Circus, and from Inverleith by Canonmills to Dundas Street, and from Canonmills to Bellevue Crescent. More recently the access from Granton Harbour to Inverleith Row on the east, and to Caroline Park on the west, were designed and executed under his direction in connection with his design for Granton Harbour, made to the Duke of Buccleuch in 1834.

To Mr. Stevenson’s engineering skill, therefore, it may truly be said that modern Edinburgh owes much of its fame as a city of palaces, commanding views of the Firth of Forth and surrounding country which cannot be surpassed.


W. & A. K. Johnston Lithog. Edinburgh.

G. C. Scott, Delt.

Robert Stevenson, F.R.S.E. Civil Engineer.


While Mr. Stevenson was elaborating his designs for the new approaches to the city, his attention was naturally directed to the crowded state of the buildings in the old town; and as we shall see, he did not fail fully to appreciate this evil, or forget to suggest a remedy for it in his plans of improvement.

The old “Tolbooth” prison, in the High Street of Edinburgh—the scene of so many incidents in the Heart of Midlothian—was still the only stronghold in which debtors and criminals were indiscriminately confined. Its position in the centre of the High Street, at St. Giles’ Church, was very objectionable, and the erection of a new jail, in a more favourable situation, had been often proposed, but never carried out.

In pursuance of this desirable object, Sir William Rae—the Sheriff-Depute of Edinburgh—in 1813, accompanied by Mr. Stevenson as a professional adviser, visited many of the principal jails in England, including Newgate, Kingsbench, Cold Bath, Oxford, Gloucester, Chester, and Lancaster, to inquire into their general arrangements and accommodation.

Sir William Rae also remitted to Mr. Stevenson, in conjunction with Mr. Crichton, architect, to report on the condition of the ancient “Tolbooth;” and from the conclusion arrived at by the engineer and architect, most92 people of the present day will readily sympathise with the Sheriff in his ardent desire for the erection of a new building. Their report is curious, as conveying an idea of the state of prison discipline in the early part of this century, and is interesting in connection with the antiquities of Edinburgh. Messrs. Stevenson and Crichton say:—

    “Agreeably to the directions of the Honourable the Commissioners for erecting a new jail, the reporters have examined both the exterior walls and the interior parts of the present jail, and they now report that this building, which was erected in 1562, originally formed the western extremity of a continuous range of buildings in the middle of the High Street, called the Luckenbooths. A few years ago these buildings were partly removed, leaving the old jail in an insulated and unsupported state. The street at the north-eastern angle of the buildings was at the same time lowered several feet; and these changes, together with the defective state of the masonry, appear to have produced the following effects upon the eastern and northern walls of this now shattered fabric.

    “The eastern wall or gable is rent in three places. Two of these fissures extend from the ground to the top of the building, and the wall is found to bulge or bend outwards.

    “On the northern side there has been a junction of the walls of two separate buildings, forming what is called the debtor and criminal sides of the prison, which seem to have been erected at different periods. At this place there is a very apparent opening from the bottom to the top of the prison, and the eastern or criminal end appears to be settling at the north-eastern angle, as further appears from the doors of the guard-house and black hole, situate in that quarter of the building, having at different times required some alterations to make them move upon their hinges.

    93 “This wall, like the eastern one, is also bulged outwards to the extent of from six to ten inches in different places.

    “The roof of the prison is likewise unsafe, particularly upon the criminal or eastern side, where the rafters have sunk in the middle and pressed the side wall outwards at the top.
    “Interior of the Prison.

    “Upon examining the interior of the prison, it was found that the several cracks and fissures, already described as observable on the outside of the building, were also most distinctly visible from within, and that the northern wall in several of the apartments appears to have separated from the floors. In confirmation of these facts, which appear particularly to claim the notice of the Honourable the Commissioners, it was distinctly stated to the reporters by Mr. Sibbald, the head jailer, that he had been conversant with this prison about twenty-two years; that about seven years ago he became principal jailer, and had ever since been in the habit of making requisitions for the necessary repairs, which were always executed at his sight; that these openings and fissures, which now appeared obvious to the reporters, had been frequently plastered over with lime, sometimes previously to whitewashing the apartments, and at other times at the earnest request of the prisoners, to stop the current of air, which annoyed them, and still these fissures appeared to be getting wider; that in every instance where the walls had been attempted to be forced by the prisoners, the mortar was found to be loose and soft, without having taken bond; in particular it was stated that two of the prisoners had lately excavated about two cartloads of rubbish from the walls with a small piece of iron, in the course of a few hours.

    “It is therefore humbly concluded, from the information obtained by the reporters upon the spot, but especially from their own knowledge and observation, that there are data for assuming94 that the eastern and northern walls of the prison have deviated considerably from the perpendicular of their original elevation; that there is reason to consider them still continuing to deviate from the perpendicular; and that finally, in the decayed state of this building, it is impossible to warrant its stability for any given period of time. The reporters should even consider the continuing the use of this building for one year longer than is indispensably necessary for the erection of a sufficient jail, an evil if possible to be avoided, as involving imminent danger to the wretched inmates, and much hazard to the public at large, from its position in the heart of the city.

    “It would accordingly be very desirable that some support could be given to this old building immediately, but unfortunately its position renders this quite impossible without seriously obstructing the High or principal street of the city. Had it formed any part of the Honourable the Commissioners’ instructions to the reporters to take notice of this jail as a place of security for the safe custody of prisoners, it would only be necessary for them to refer to what is herein stated regarding the insufficiency of the walls, and to remark that the floors, being wholly composed of timber, are neither proof against the simplest accident by fire nor against the slightest attempt at escape by the prisoners. It is truly surprising that any criminal of a desperate character can be retained within its precincts to abide the pains of law, which nothing but the active vigilance of its keepers could insure.”

This ancient prison-house was removed in 1817, and in his Notes to the Heart of Midlothian, Scott says:—“That with the liberal acquiescence of the persons who had contracted for the work, he procured the stones which composed the gateway, together with the door and its ponderous fastenings, to decorate the entrance to the kitchen court at Abbotsford.”


There is yet another report which, though its interest may only be local, I think is worthy of a place in this Memoir, as it not only shows Mr. Stevenson’s firm conviction in the ultimate success of his Calton Hill improvements, but is a pleasing record of his interest in the scene of his early studies.

It is not, I believe, generally known that Mr. Stevenson made an unsuccessful attempt to have the University buildings, then in progress, removed from the old town to the site proposed to be opened up on the Calton Hill; and the remarks he then made, addressed to the Right Honourable Sir John Marjoribanks, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, may have interest even at the present day, as shadowing forth views which, in the now altered relations of the new and old town, have been to some extent realised.

    “In making the following observations at the desire of the Lord Provost regarding the completion of the College of Edinburgh, the memorialist would be understood as referring to the site of the building rather than to the merits of any particular design, of which he does not presume to give any opinion, as it is a matter which more properly falls under the observations of the architect than the engineer.

    “In treating of the fitness of the present site of the College of Edinburgh, it may be proper to take some cursory notice of the situation of the Old College, as connected with the houses and streets in the neighbourhood, and then show the alterations which the University grounds have undergone since the design was first formed of rebuilding the College.

    “Old College.

    “In so far as the memorialist can recollect the exterior of the area of the Old College, it was occupied by a range of low buildings of only two stories, particularly upon the southern and western sides, and was again divided by a range of buildings into a small lower court towards the north, and the present main courtyard on the south, and these two courts communicated with each other by a spacious flight of steps, so that the principal or higher court was comparatively open and free to the influence both of the sun and of the air. Nor was there any obstruction to this state of things beyond the precincts of the College for a considerable period after the New College was commenced, and until the elegance of the building stamped a new value upon all the surrounding property. But, unfortunately, by this time the funds for the works fell short, and the operations were stopped. The Magistracy, also, who originally entered upon this great work, in rotation retired from office, and the same zeal was perhaps not felt by those who immediately succeeded; and we are now left to regret the shortness of the period of human life, which has removed the man who conceived the magnificent design of this building, which is now so completely invested with streets as to be rendered nearly unfit for the purposes of its foundation.
    “New College.

    “The site of the New College of Edinburgh, as already stated, does not possess any of those properties which are considered essential to the convenience and eligibility of a public school. Instead of being in a retired situation with sequestered walks, like the other colleges of the United Kingdom, it is closely surrounded by paved streets, which are the most public thoroughfares for carriages in the city, insomuch that the memorialist has witnessed the annoyance of Playfair’s mathematical class by a ballad-singer, and he has97 oftener than once seen the Professor of Moral Philosophy put to silence by the disloading of a cart with bars of iron in College Wynd; and at all times the driving of a single carriage briskly in the streets which surround the College is sufficient to disturb, and even to interrupt, the classes. To this it may be replied that double windows will prevent such interruptions; but these would obscure the light which already, from the late erection (on all sides) of very high buildings, is much injured.

    “So strongly is the memorialist impressed with these views, from what he has himself as a student experienced, and from what he has heard from others, that he cannot resist bringing them forcibly under the notice of your Lordship in connection with the erection of a building for one of the first seminaries of education in Europe.

    “When your Lordship’s predecessors in the office of the magistracy adopted the plan of Robert Adam, the most eminent and justly celebrated architect of his day, the site was comparatively free from the objections stated. It is not therefore the plan which is objectionable, but it is the neighbourhood which has been so altered and changed as to be very unsuitable to the elegant design of the architect.

    “From causes to which it is unnecessary to allude, the building of the New College has only advanced about one third towards the perfecting of the design, and a sum of money is now expected to be procured for its completion. The present moment is therefore one of the greatest importance for considering the deficiencies of the present site, and if found materially defective, as humbly appears to your memorialist to be the case, it were much better to change the site of the building while it may be done without much loss, and execute the design in a more eligible situation.

    “It must always be kept in view that when this design was made the grounds were open to the free circulation of the air and the full influence of light. But now the case is materially altered,98 and if the design is executed under such a change of circumstances the direct rays of the sun will hardly ever reach the area of the courtyard, especially in the winter months, neither will there be that free circulation of air which is essential to health and comfort, and moss (byssus) will make its appearance upon the lower parts in the interior of the courtyard, which is very unsuitable in a magnificent building such as Mr. Adam’s design for the College of Edinburgh.

    “At the period when the rebuilding of the College was determined upon there was perhaps little choice as to the spot for its erection; the number of students, now greatly on the increase, was at that time much smaller, and the College grounds were then much more relieved and uncumbered with other buildings, a state of things which most unquestionably would have been preserved had the building proceeded as was expected; but in the lapse of about one third of a century many changes take place, and the slow progress of the building necessarily produced a want of energy in the official people to prevent the use that has since been made by the respective proprietors of the surrounding grounds.

    “At the present crisis, however, your Lordship will now feel yourself called upon in a review of these circumstances to consider what is proper to be done upon a great scale for the ultimate best advantage of future generations in a matter of great public interest. Under these impressions a field of operation is just opening for your Lordship’s consideration, in a prolongation of Princes Street in a direct line to the lands of Calton Hill and Heriot’s Hospital, now in progress under the auspices of your Lordship. To take a minute view of this improvement would be tedious, and would require the notice of more particulars than these observations are intended to refer to. But in a general way it may be noticed that there is ample space and freedom for the execution of Mr. Adam’s design on the lands to which the new approach will lead by a very easy access.

    99 “It may be objected to the removal of the College that it would be inconvenient for the students; but for those who are perhaps the most numerous, living in the New Town, a site for the College on the north side of the town would be the most convenient, and for a different class lodgings at a cheap rate would be procured quite at hand in the Canongate.

    “A more powerful objection would perhaps arise from the contiguity of the present site of the College to the Infirmary and other institutions connected with the education of the medical classes, but these may also be got over by a little arrangement in the present hours of the classes, and one would not despair of seeing a more direct road projected from the Calton Hill to the southern side of the town were the College removed to that neighbourhood. With regard to any real loss to the students, it is not believed that such could be instructed were this proposition fully considered. But those who would perhaps be the most clamorous are the persons who have made the most of their property by building immense piles of lodging-houses in the immediate vicinity of the College, and have thus ruined the neighbourhood.

    “With regard to the funds for this change of site, your memorialist is of opinion that the removal of the College from the present valuable grounds in the central parts of the city, for buildings applicable to commercial and economical purposes, would be attended with an increase of funds towards the new erection;—for the lower part all round would be opened for valuable shops, while the higher parts would answer for dwelling-houses and other purposes. The part of the front would be easily convertible into a house for the Royal Bank, which seems much wanted, and in short it may be confidently stated that upon the whole there would be no loss, but gain, by the change of position, while very many advantages could be pointed out as attending such a measure, were this the proper place for entering more fully into the subject.

    100 “The proposal stated is not new; it has been often under the memorialist’s consideration, and he has heard it favourably spoken of and received by several of the Professors of the University, in particular Professors Leslie and Playfair, and others eminently qualified to judge correctly upon the subject.”

With this report I conclude what may be fairly held to be of purely local interest, but which nevertheless I have thought worthy of a place in the memoir of one whose great anxiety ever was to secure the amenity of Edinburgh, and make it attractive not only as a place of residence but as a seat of learning.

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