Old and New Towns

We are staying in a place whose “New Town” was designed in 1766. A 22-year old named James Craig won a competition set forth by the city to design new housing for the overcrowded Edinburgh, all piling up on top of itself in the medieval walled city. The plan of New Town was a grid (a grid — all nicely laid out!) of houses, streets, and public squares, providing for the wealthy a place to move out from the congestion of Old Town.

I can’t imagine the reaction of people moving in to New Town for the first time: The Old Town is as full of warrens and overhanging roofs and narrow passages as the books tell us. In the 1700s, the congestion and dirt, the over-crowded buildings and lack of discreet waste disposal would have made New Town that much more impressive.

Princes Street, Queen Street, Rose Street, Thistle Street: the thoroughfares are broad, allowing the paving stones to bathe in light. Buildings are tall, but not as tall as necessity built them in the medieval city. When the first families moved in, the area would have been quiet, off-limits to many. Even today, the difference between them is striking.

Towns do change, of course. They expand and work always continues. Princes Street has been closed on and off to traffic while a tram is installed. While the stores in New Town have new storefronts, containing fashionable clothing stores and Starbucks, above the awnings and painted windows still stands the the stone designed by James Craig.

Old Town saw itself ricochet back and forth between prosperity and slums, settling into a respectable tourist haven and student housing (I was overcome with envy when I first saw the University of Edinburgh sign on the door of a residence. Staying in a 300-year old dorm, even one that has been remodelled inside, would have been amazing!).

I walk through streets that haven been in place for centuries. I walk through living neighbourhoods, evolving through the seasons. The flagstones beneath my feet witnessed wars, prosperity, sandals, buckle-shoes, bobby socks, and sneakers. The ever-lasting stone buildings housed tenants of every ilk, their stories varied, their names mostly lost to history.

In both Old and New Towns, history lives in its walls while the future seeps out into environs. Together harmonising into the essence that is Edinburgh.