Building the New Town – how stonemasons created Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site

Although people had been building in stone for many centuries by the time plans for Edinburgh’s New Town were approved in 1767, it was in many ways a great step forward. Working on historic stone buildings in the city today, carrying out stone repairs and lovingly rebuilding the steps, facades and carving work of the Georgian and Victorian era, it’s impossible not to marvel at the scope of the original project.

For a start, local architect James Craig’s drawings were a refreshing approach, ushering in a preference for wide boulevards, gardens and elegant symmetry that remains to this day. The very concept of the New Town was revolutionary: 18th century Edinburgh had an overcrowding problem, with almost 40,000 people crammed into the Old Town along the Royal Mile. But it was also suffering from economic stagnation after power moved to London in 1709, and the concept of creating the space that would attract creative people, businesses and trade was a groundbreaking idea at the time, born of the city’s Enlightenment thinking.

The grand plan worked – Edinburgh established itself as a banking centre and the New Town was quickly filled with elegant shops. However, while the architects are justly celebrated, the actual men who built the New Town are largely forgotten.

The role of masons and their fellow craftsmen the wrights (carpenters) was a very significant one. These were far more than just skilled labour: many of their leaders or ‘deacons’ bought land in order to erect their own buildings within Craig’s blueprint, while others styled themselves as architects and were commissioned by the remaining landowners. Anthony Lewis names some of these entrepreneurial stonemasons in his excellent scholarly research on the builders of the New Town, which can be read here:

Confusion between designers and constructors

Lewis found that though there was some confusion between designers and constructors – challenged by the ambitions and upward mobility of some of the deacons – a third rank of tradesmen was clear: the journeymen or workers who actually built the houses, and were represented by Edinburgh’s Society of Journeymen Masons. Lewis says these men became an “emerging class of architectural professional”.

These masons were the true builders of the New Town and enjoyed a fine reputation – they were to be in great demand once the world saw the New Town and were to build, for example, the White House in Washington DC. However, research by the Surgeons Hall Museums found that many stonemasons of the period paid a high price for their craft:

Silicosis / Tuberculosis

The research, by K Donaldson, found evidence that working daily with Craigleith stone led to the occurrence of an epidemic of silicosis/tuberculosis among the stonemasons. A combination of historical accounts and analysis of the lung of a contemporary stonemason, preserved in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and confirmed Donaldson’s suspicions.

He said:

“The evidence shows that a major epidemic did occur, caused by a combination of factors. The size of the undertaking attracted many stonemasons to Edinburgh over a period of almost 100 years, intensively cutting and dressing stone. The principal stone worked was a very high-quartz sandstone, derived from the local Craigleith quarry, having properties that made it desirable for prestige buildings. However, even before the construction of the New Town, Craigleith sandstone was notorious for its dustiness and the Edinburgh stonemasons worked the stone in unventilated sheds. Stonemasons appeared to be aware of the risk of their trade, but little was known about preventive measures.”

The names of most of the masons who built the New Town may have been lost, but their memory certainly lives on in the stunning city they created. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is visited by millions of tourists each year while also remaining a very desirable residential district. The stone buildings that make up the elegant ensemble do require regular care and maintenance, however, which is a role I myself am very proud to play a part in!