Enthusiasts for the Georgian first New Town of Edinburgh sometimes called it New Edinburgh. Anyone who called it this knew that Register House was its most important building, as it remains today. As the home to our country’s archival history, this building plays an important role in celebrating the Scottish Enlightenment for both citizens and tourists alike.
From the earliest petitions of the 1720s to plan a New Town, to its actual design in the 1760s, Register House was at the centre of proposals and intents; so much as that the 14th Earl of Morton, Lord Clerk Registrar, once wanted Register House to stand alone, and for no housing to be near it. His proposal nearly sent Edinburgh Town Council’s Bill down as Parliament debated the merits of the New Town in early 1767.
The building was built to architect Robert Adam’s plan, on a site of the northern terminus of the new bridge over the Nor Loch. The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh had thought that it had secured the site in 1765 to build their hall and library to Sir James Clerk of Penicuick’s plan only to find that the feu had not been signed. Now removed, it would take another decade before their new building was planned for George Street by James Craig, architect of the New Town plan itself.
As well as public buildings, houses, shops and stables were planned and built all around the New Town, starting in the east and heading west to Charlotte Square from 1767 to the 1790s. Not every building was planned by a Royal architect such as Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers’ or Edinburgh’s own James Craig, David Henderson and their like. In fact, many properties came to be planned and constructed by tradesmen. Some came from the city and neighbouring burgh incorporations of wrights and masons.
Others were derived from their gangs of journeymen who saw that the demand for building exceeded their masters’ abilities to meet it. This new class of tradesmen were collectively called builders, and they appeared not only in the New Town, but other improved new districts such as the South Bridge.
Fortunately, such is the wealth of archives kept by the National Records of Scotland, that it is possible to research the planning and building of Register House, James Craig’s New Town plan, and the works of the builders in depth. It seems heartily appropriate that the history of what once was Scotland’s greatest urban planning project, which has attracted millions of tourists, and generated billions of pounds for the city and country, should be easy to study in its most important building for generations to come. In Register House, we know and we trust.
Dr Anthony Lewis