This thread was originally written and published in November 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
A tweet for #WorldTownPlanningDay from the The National Library of Scotland Map Library earlier threw up a reminder of one of my favourite, less weel kent features of the Edinburgh New Town .
Namely, why on earth does James Craig’s otherwise regular Georgian grid of Princes / George / Queen Streets of 1768 (red lines) meet the 1773 Georgian Square of St. James (blue lines) at such a jarring and unsatisfactory angle? What’s all that about?
Clue 1 is in those dates. The two were planned 5 years apart. On his 1768 plan, the St. James area is still the Feu (a portion of land tenure in Scottish land law) of Clelland’s Yards; an area of gardens and nursery land, with buildings on a regular plan but offset at about 47 degrees from the New Town.
Clelland’s Yards were on the north slope of a natural rise in the land known as Moutrie’s Hill. The romantic version of the place names is that it comes from Multree or Mulberry Tree after the trees planted there by the French exiles of Picardy Place. (Hence the modern-day Multree’s Walk). However it’s much, much older than that and is recorded back to the 1360s as land and a house owned by one Robert Multrere (later Mowtrayis, Moutries, Multer’s etc.)
Mapping of the area of the New Town before Craig’s Plan is pretty scant, as it always centres on the Old Town (indeed the land that became to be the New Town, the Barefoot’s Park, wasn’t actually even in the City and Royal Burgh). But this 1765 plan captures the area and that offset of Clelland’s Fue. The name is recorded here as Multers Hill.
So quite some time before Craig’s regular, perpendicular New Town was planned, there were already buildings and streets in the area respecting much older boundaries and alignments, offset at that 47 degrees.
Craig laid out the the Princes/Queen/George Street New Town for the City. Five years later he laid out the St. James New Town for three private citizens as a speculative development; the writer Ferguson and lawyers Gray and Steuart who owned most of the Clelland’s Feu.
As a wee tangent, Ferguson, Gray and Steuart were all three ardent Jacobites. Stuart Harris suggests therefore that St. James is actually named for the “Old Pretender” James Francis Edward Stuart, as was King (now Little King) Street. Very risqué not 30 years Culloden hence.
Back on topic, in those early maps there’s something else tantalisingly hidden in plain sight; loans (lanes) following a grid pattern, but predating St. James Square. One in particular is highlighted in blue below.
It’s tantalising, because despite all the efforts of the Georgian developers, the Victorian rebuilders and the 20th Century destroyers and re-destroyers have thrown at it, it (and the west face of St. James’ Square) are still there.
We are talking of course about the enigmatic Gabriel’s Road.
Gabriel’s Road maintains that lane alignment which predates the Georgian planning. Rather than build over it, they built around it and included the alignment in the buildings (Guildford Arms and Café Royal patrons will be familiar with this). This was because land ownership trumped town planning (as it does to this day) and where the planners hit an existing, irregular land boundary which couldn’t be resolved, they went with it rather than going to the legal complexity of trying to regularise it.
Gabriel’s Road is an ancient right of way, which is why there’s a gate and public access from Register Place through the Square outside the Royal Bank of Scotland HQ at 36 St. Andrew Square.
Oh but what’s this? Another Gabriel’s Road? Almost a mile away in Stockbridge? What’s that doing there? Surely just a coincidence?
No, it’s not a coincidence at all, it’s the same road; the middle part has long since been built over, but either end escaped the planners and builders.
Here we are in 1804 before Saxe Coburg Place was laid out.
This section was known locally as the Dummie Steps. The first part because is obviously because the steep path was long stepped and the second because because in the Property of Heriot’s Hospital was the Deaf and Dumb Institution, the building now part of Edinburgh Academy
That Dummie, from the Scots for dumb, is where Dumbiedykes (previously Dummiedikes) got its name, from the institute for the dumb (the Dummiehoose) set up by James Braidwood in 1763, and the walls (dykes) that enclosed the Dischflats land.
Walter Scott borrowed the name for a comical character in Heart of Midlothian, changing it to Dumbiedykes from Dummiedykes. The change stuck, and the street names and neighbourhood took up the b, even though it should be silent.
Anyway, back to Gabriel’s Road. What is it and why is it there? Well the obvious thing to do is to join the ends together and see what happens. Well you get a (near enough) straight line between Inverleith House and the southern end.
At the northern end was long a set of stepping stones, approximately where the Collin’s Place colony is now. This allowed the river to be crossed. The theory is that the path was simply the direct route from the lands around Inverleith across the river to the town
And, via the community of Silvermills, one could take a direct line to the head of Leith Wynd, the northern entrance to the city through the Leith Port.
Another plan of 1759 shows the road (path) in more detail, running from the Water of Leith in a straight line from Inverleith House to Silvermills, which it skirts around, then heading back off southeasterly towards Multrieshill.
There are a few other fragments of Gabriel’s Road if you follow along it, for instance along East Silvermills Lane…
And off Abercrombie Place, there’s a boundary wall line at an oddly irregular angle in a sea of right angles.
Old & New Edinburgh records the “beautiful and sequestered footpath bordered by hawthorn hedges, known by the name of Gabriel’s Road, is said to have been constructed for the convenience of the ancient lairds of Inverleith to enable them to attend worship in St. Giles [kirk]“.
The meaning of the “Gabriel” part of the streetname is lost to time. A theory about it relating to an infamous murder is apparently spurious and an old tavern in Broughton is said to have been named for the road (and not the other way around).
The old alignment of Clelland’s Feu, itself respecting Gabriel’s Road was also invisibly demarcated in the parish boundaries. St. James Square was a detached “island” of St. Cuthbert’s parish (the large parish that surrounded old Edinburgh), where as Craig’s New Town was split between the new parishes of St. Andrew’s and St. Stephen’s parishes.
Anyway, there you go. Hidden amongst the regular, monotonous Georgian grid of the New Town there are some little clues and reminders of Edinburgh in a much older time.
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.