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Edinburgh - Athens Of The North (Video) Greek influence

Edinburgh’s New Town is the largest and best preserved example of Georgian town planning anywhere in the UK.

Simply ...walking its streets gives a real sense of the past, and how life was lived 200 years ago. This was a time when the authors Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen were at the height of their fame. Britain was emerging victorious from the long Napoleonic Wars with France, and George IV finally became king after a long regency.


The New Town has grand terraces and imposing monuments, but also more ordinary homes and the traces of everyday life in the 19th century. Today this historic area has not only a wealth of important buildings, but also galleries, cafes, restaurants and independent shops that are well worth a visit.

Why Athens of the North?

Edinburgh re-branded itself ‘Athens of the North’ to express its growing importance and sense of achievement. Edinburgh had started to build its New Town in the 1760s but it had few grand public buildings, and as the city grew so did calls for suitable monuments.

At first the architecture of ancient Rome had been the inspiration, but by 1800 the ruins of Ancient Athens were seen as the model to follow. In fact ancient Greek styles were influencing everything from hair-dressing to tea sets. In 1822 the Edinburgh artist Hugh William Williams held an exhibition of his watercolours of Athens displayed alongside views of Edinburgh, inviting visitors to see the likeness in the setting of the two cities. The idea caught the popular imagination and soon many were using the phrase ‘Modern Athens’ to describe the city.

Pillars, Porticos and Pilasters

The architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town draws inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome. Look out for these features as you walk around:

Building the Athens of the North

The New Town gave the opportunity for Scottish architects to make their mark.

James Gillespie Graham, for example, came from a very humble background, but a commission from the earl of Moray to design an extension to the New Town gave him a big opportunity to make his name.

Perhaps the architect most associated with the New Town, though, is William Playfair, who designed the Royal Scottish Academy, the National Gallery, and assisted in the National Monument.

The specialist craftsmen who provided the all-important finishing touches also did well from the New Town building boom. The furniture maker William Trotter, the house painter David Ramsay Hay and carpet manufacturer Richard Whytock all made their fortune from providing fashionable interior decoration.

The stone masons who actually built the New Town were relatively well paid, however the work had serious effects on their health. Stone dust meant that many from suffered lung problems by the time they were 45. Writing in 1823 Professor W.P. Alison Edinburgh University said: “…there is hardly an instance of a mason regularly employed in hewing stones in Edinburgh living free from symptoms to the age of fifty.”

Living in the New Town

According to her daughter, Lady Grant of Rothiemurchus’s social calendar in 1817 involved “Five or Six dinners, two small evening parties, and one large evening one, a regular rout’ which ‘paid my mother’s debts in the visiting line each Winter.”

New Town houses were designed for fashionable entertaining at home. Over the winter the grand reception rooms on the first floor would be the scene of parties, dinners and ‘routs’, large social gatherings with a mixture of food, dancing and card playing.

This sort of lifestyle was only possible of course with a large number of servants, and a small glimpse of their lives can be seen in a rule book for the servants of No.52 Great King Street. The housemaid, for example, rose at 6am every day, except on washing days when they got up at 4am, and did not finish work until after 11pm. Her tasks include washing floors, cleaning the door brasses, tidying the bedrooms, delivering water to the household, and to lock the door at the end of the day.

Photo - video: Stefano Karidaki. All rights reserved

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