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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1018122

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The former Royal Exchange is ranged around three sides of a screened forecourt on the N side of the High Street, opposite the restored mercat cross at the E end of St Giles's Church and Parliament Square. The general form of the original building is still clearly recognisable, and closely follows the conditions of the 1754 building-contract. It was to comprise a hollow square, with the main block to the N and a wing running S from each end to meet a low range which faced the street and completed the enclosure. Through the centre of this range was to run the entry to a courtyard measuring 25.3m from N to S by 27.1 m, which on the N was to open into a piazza 4m deep, within the ground storey of the main block. This block was to measure some 34m by 17.5m, and each of the wings was to extend 39.9m towards the street. The proposed layout remained incomplete, however, for an older building used by the Writers to the Signet was incorporated at the N end of the W range, eventually being remodelled and refaced in 1898-9.

Facing the High Street, a flat-roofed and balustraded sevenbay arcade links the S ends of the E and W wings to form a frontage almost 45m in width. Although dated 1903 (beneath the armorial pediment), this screen replaces an original arcade in which a central opening was flanked on each side by three arches containing shops. In the centre of the courtyard is a bronze statue of Alexander taming Bucephalus by Sir John Steell, erected in St Andrew Square in 1884 and moved to this site in 1916.

The S elevations of the main block and wings are of four main storeys, but at the rear the building rises impressively through twelve storeys to a height of over 36m. The masonry is of Craigleith stone throughout. On the main front the lowest storey is of polished ashlar, channel-jointed in part, while the upper wall-surfaces are generally scabbled, with polished and moulded dressings. The sides and rear are of rubble masonry, but some ashlar has been used in later alterations.

The main block measures 28.3m from E to W by 16.3m, exclusive of the adjacent portions of the wings. At ground-floor level a seven-bay arcaded and balustraded piazza of channel-jointed ashlar projects into the court, its slightly advanced central bays respecting the advanced centrepiece of the main block. In the upper storeys the three-bay centrepiece is articulated by giant fluted Corinthian pilasters which were one of Fergus's additions to Adam's design. They rise to an entablature at third-floor level and a triangular pediment, surmounted by urn-finials, which encloses the City arms in relief between elegant floral scrolls. Small horizontal windows, reduced in size from Adam's design, are sandwiched within the frieze. The first-floor windows have key-blocked moulded architraves, lugged in the central bays and with Gibbs surrounds in the flanking bays, the central opening also being pedimented. The second-floor windows have moulded architraves with simple entablatures, the sills of those in the end-bays being joined by a plain string-course and the central bays having consoled sills. The treatment of the fenestration and arcaded ground-floor in the wings is generally similar to that of the main block, the Writers' Court section at the N end of the W wing having been rebuilt in 1898-9 to harmonise with the remainder.

The principal entry, in the centre of the ground floor of the N block, was originally flanked by coffee-houses. It leads to the great staircase through a lobby and stair-hall which were largely re-fitted in 1936-8. The stair itself, which is of scale and platt type with turned balusters and moulded handrail,originally started at ground level but from 1875 was extended downwards.

On the first floor, the committee-room that occupies the front E half of the main block served originally as the boardroom of the custom-house and then, from 1811 to 1903, as the council-room for Edinburgh City Council. The E wall of an original ante-room, entered from the landing, was in 1859 converted into a columned screen opening into the room itself, which has a modillion cornice and coved ceiling. Room and screens area are uniformly lined with pine panelling and the doorways in each division have carved friezes and broken pediments. The surround and overmantel of a black marble fireplace in the N wall are of similar and slightly more elaborate treatment, a painting of Edinburgh Castle dated 1886 being inset in the overmantel. The central of three niches in the E wall contains a bronze figure in Roman military costume, probably of 17th or early 18th century French or Italian workmanship.

A few early features survive elsewhere in the building, notably a chimney piece with scrolled overmantel and painted City arms in the SE room on the first floor of the W wing. The Dunedin Room, adjoining the Old Council Room to the W, is substantially of 1870 and later, but most of the principal interiors date from the turn of the century. The most sumptuous of these were created in neo-Baroque style in the re-designed W wing, a court-room of 1898-9 on the ground floor and a new council-chamber of 1901-4 at the N end of the first floor.

The site of the Royal Exchange included four closes, Mary King's, Stewart's, Pearson's and Allan's, which extended N from the High Street to the Nor' Loch. Later extensions led to the acquisition of Craig's Close to the E and Writer's Court and Warriston's Close to the W. The various properties were purchased and with the exception of the building in writers' Court were largely demolished, the debris going to make up the Castle Esplanade. Mary King's Close was partly overlaid by the Exchange in 1753-61, and further enclosed by the NW extension of the City Chambers in 1901, but some 60m of the 2.1m-wide close still survives beneath the building, incorporating domestic architectural remains of the 17th and early 18th centuries.


The Royal Exchange was designed and built between 1753 and 1761 , replacing a building in Parliament Square which had been designed for this purpose in the late 17th century and destroyed by fire in 1700. It was the first of a series of civic improvements initiated by Lord Provost George Drurmmond, who laid the foundation-stone with great ceremony in September 1753.

In 1753 competitive plans and estimates for the new exchange were obtained from John Adam and from 'the Gentlemen of Mary's Chapel', a group comprising a mason and three wrights directed by John Fergus, architect. Adam's design was adopted, but in 1754 the contract was awarded to 'the Gentlemen', under the supervision of the Deacons of the Crafts. The elevation drawn by Fergus as a frontispiece to the contract of agreement was a slightly amended version of Adam's scheme. The piazza was intended to be used by the merchants as a place of exchange, but in practice they continued to transact business in the open street. The remainder of the building was to include a custom-house, thirty-five shops (fourteen of which were to have rooms above them), ten dwelling-houses (four of them below courtyardlevel), two printing-houses and three coffee-houses.

Having sold off most of the properties within the exchange, the town council reserved ownership of twenty rooms intended for the custom-house, leasing them to the government through the Court of Exchequer. In place of one of the shops an office in the W range of the new building was occupied by the town chamberlain. In 1810-11 , after the New Tolbooth had been condemned and the lease of the custom-house had expired, the council decided to occupy as City Chambers that part of the building which they owned, installing various municipal offices and meeting-rooms in the main N block. The remaining properties that had previously been sold off were re-acquired in stages between 1849 and 1893, the council eventually regaining possession of the entire complex and extending it. Significant work was carried out by David Cousin in the 1850s and 1870-1, by Robert Morham after 1875 and again in 1898-9 and 1901-4, and by E J MacRae in the 1930s.

Information from ‘Tolbooths and Town-Houses: Civic Architecture in Scotland to 1833’ (1996).

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