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Edinburgh, George Square, General

General View

Site Name Edinburgh, George Square, General

Classification General View

Alternative Name(s) University Of Edinburgh

Canmore ID 122519

Site Number NT27SE 1792

NGR NT 2584 7293

NGR Description Centred NT 2584 7293

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Sir Basil Spence

Building Notes

In 1947 the University of Edinburgh embarked on a programme of expansion. One of the key elements of the programme was the reintegration of university departments. The area outlined for redevelopment extended from the Old College on South Bridge southwards to the Meadows, with George Square as the centre of the new campus. In March 1954 Basil Spence was offered the post of Planning Consultant. This was Spence's first university consultancy post and he was responsible for drafting a comprehensive scheme for development over the next 50 years. Spence resigned from the post in December 1960.

Archive Details

The Sir Basil Spence Archive shows that Spence presented his initial scheme to the University Development Committee in November 1954 and that by 1955 he had persuaded them to accept the scheme as a general guideline for future development.

The Archive includes drawings, photographs and manuscript material detailing Spence's scheme, the key elements of which were that he would maintain the layout of the square and keep the central garden. He proposed siting the main library on the SW corner, the Arts Faculty along the east side and extending the Medical Buildings. The new buildings would be a combination of tower blocks and connecting linear buildings. These, Spence felt, would add interest and variety to the skyline.

In order for Spence's scheme to be put into practice everything, except the houses on the west side of the square, had to be demolished. The Archive shows that these houses were exempt from demolition because Spence felt they were the most interesting. He recommended external restoration and internal alteration to accommodate smaller departments. The Archive material also contains correspondence between the university and lobby groups who were opposed to the demolition of George Square. The material includes a letter from the University Development Committee to the Secretary of State for Scotland in response to objections raised by the Cockburn Association.

Archive Summary

The Sir Basil Spence Archive contains three manuscript folders, 18 photographs and 15 drawings relating to George Square. The drawings include sketch perspectives, preliminary plans for stages 1- 5 and a birds-eye perspective. The photographs include images of the square before, during and after redevelopment. The Spence Glover and Ferguson Collection, also held at RCAHMS, contains 29 photographs including images of the Basil Spence ARA and Partners' preliminary block model of the site.

This text was written as one of the outputs of the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, 2005-08.

Architecture Notes

Architect: James Brown 1766-1785

Sir Robert Lorimer 1919-1920 (Histology Building)

Masonry by Michael Nasmyth - father of Painter.

NMRS Print Room

48-60 George Square

General view of east side

W Schomberg Scott Photograph Collection

Acc No 1997/39


"The Builder" - August 18th 1931 containing two photographs, held in the National Library.

References for 5 George Square from the Scottish Record Office:

'New Stables. Payment of ?2.2.0 to Mr Nisbet, Mason, for advice and plan of stables.' Cash Book. 1768

James Nisbet, Mason died 1781.

GD 157/814 (Scott of Harden)

Building of the New House (5 George Square).

Payments to:-

Mr Brown, blacksmith, 'to account of work done'.

Peter Robertson 'for iron rails'.

Young and Trotter 'for account'.

James Stark, wright, 'for work at my house in George Square'.

Veitch, marble mason, 'for work at my house in Edinburgh'.

Armstrong, copper smith, 'for kitching in my new house'.

Cash Book. 1768

GD 157/814 (Scott of Harden)


RIAS Prospect magazine No. 16, Winter 1959, Pages 30 - 32.


Edinburgh Room, Central Library, Edinburgh

(James?) Brown

Edinburgh. House, near North East corner of avenue from the Workhouse to the Meadows; "new built", information from Mr Brown, architect, 1769

(Edinburgh Evening Courant, May 3, 1769)


Photographic Survey (July 1963)

Photographic survey of buildings in the south of Edinburgh in 'George Square Ward' in 1963 by the Scottish National Buildings Record.

Publication Account (1981)

After the failure of many earlier projects, a university was founded at Edinburgh in 1583. Scanty funds hindered expansion in its first years, and necessitated the use of existing buildings, such as the Duke of Chatellhareuralt's town house and the church of St.Mary's-in-theFields. In time there grew up at Kirk O'Field a quaint group of quadrangular buildings which Maitland described as having three courts, one to the north and a smaller one to the south, two sides of which were occupied by lecture rooms, professor's houses and the library, as well as the house of the principal and living quarters for resident students (Anon, 1884, 64).

By the third quarter of the eighteenth century the college buildings were inadequate for the needs of the students. The school had grown from humble beginnings until 1750 when it boasted four faculties and had been a degree granting university since the early 1700's (Blaikie, 1909, 8). Nevertheless the university buildings were falling into disrepair, so much so that an Italian traveller in 1788 remarked, 'what is called a college is nothing else than a mass of ruined buildings of very ancient construction ... ' (Anon, 1884, 67).

As early as 1768 Principal Robertson had pushed for new university quarters, but the foundation of a new complex was not laid until November, 1789 after a portion of the old college had been pulled down (Anon,1884, 68). Robert Adam designed the new quadrangle and the site he had to deal with faced the new artery known as South Bridge on the east, rising sharply in the west to the thoroughfare known as Horse Wynd; which led to the Potterow Port (RCAM, 1951, 115). On the north the site was bounded by Jamaica Street which ran west on the line of the modern Chambers Street through Argyle's Square to Candlemaker Row. The boundary on the south was 'Thief Raw' which became College Street. The east end of College Street. is some ten feet (3.05m) higher than Chambers Street, and Adam took full advantage of the difference of level, placing a great portico in the centre of the facade (RCAM, 1951, 115). The portico, which is guarded by six massive doric columns, led to an atrium inside, and an arcaded passage led west to the main quadrangle, or great court, beyond (RCAM, 1951, 115).

Information from ‘Historic Edinburgh, Canongate and Leith: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1981).

Project (1997)

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association ( set up a National Recording Project in 1997 with the aim of making a survey of public monuments and sculpture in Britain ranging from medieval monuments to the most contemporary works. Information from the Edinburgh project was added to the RCAHMS database in October 2010 and again in 2012.

The PMSA (Public Monuments and Sculpture Association) Edinburgh Sculpture Project has been supported by Eastern Photocolour, Edinburgh College of Art, the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, Historic Scotland, the Hope Scott Trust, The Old Edinburgh Club, the Pilgrim Trust, the RCAHMS, and the Scottish Archive Network.

Publication Account (1997)

When RMJM began their pioneering greenfield-site university development at Stirling, they (and other designers) were already deeply involved with this, Scotland's most architecturally ambitious university scheme involving redevelopment of existing urban fabric. The individual redevelopment along the south and east sides of George Square included setpieces by Reiach, RMJM and Spence. The stone-clad projects by the latter two firms - especially the cantilevered George Square Theatre - conformed to the 1960s predilection for more massively articulated forms; the eight-storey library was planned with central service core and elevations dominated by the bold horizontals of Portland stone-faced balconies. This redevelopment scheme, which replaced the pleasant but unexciting 18th-century classicism of George Square with a richer and more variegated architectural ensemble, including multi-storey blocks (first proposed in Basil Spence's plan of 1955), was later incorporated in a much more ambitious strategy by Percy Johnson-Marshall for a decked, multi-level redevelopment of the entie University precinct, stretching to the Pleasance. While the horizontality and slightly megastructural character of the RMJM Faculty buildings echoed this theme, the wider scheme, like most of Percy Johnson-Marshall's visionary projects, remained unrealised. (Fig. 4.30, 4.31, 4.32, 4.33, 4.34).

Information from 'Rebuilding Scotland: The Postwar Vision, 1945-75', (1997).

Field Visit (23 July 1999)

Circular two-part sculpture possibly derived from split stone. Dimpled surface indicates a circle otherwise the rock appears natural. Indentations in upper surfaces presumably to catch rainwater.

Resembles craggy landscape, giant ammonite, ancient ceremonial place.

Inscriptions : None

Signatures : None

Year of unveiling : 1989

Unveiling details : July 1989

Information from Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA Work Ref : EDIN0129)

Field Visit (23 July 1999)

Stone carving of a seed or fruit-like form, laid horizontally on three paving stones, pointed at one end and forming a slight 's' curve when viewed from above.

Inscriptions : None

Signatures : None

Information from Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA Work Ref : EDIN0130)

Field Visit (23 July 1999)

Concave and convex reliefs of the upper half of a sleeping female figure are carved on opposite inner sides of a large split stone (otherwise left natural). The stones are approximately 18 inches apart and vertical. A small carved stone is approximately 6 feet away and a smaller boulder is nearer the path by approximately 15 feet.

Inscriptions : On bronze plate in ground in front:


Signatures : None

Notes : Check description of stone layout.

Year of unveiling : 1997

Unveiling details : Dedicated on 13th January 1997 by HRH Prince of Wales

Information from Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA Work Ref : EDIN0131)


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