Charlotte Square

North side of Charlotte Square
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

North side of Charlotte Square

Located at the W end of George Street, Charlotte Square is the finest square of Edinburgh's New Town, intended as the mirror of St. Andrew Square in the E. Initially named St. George's Square in James Craig's original plan, it was renamed before completion in honour of King George III's Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenberg, and first daughter (born 1766), and to avoid confusion with George Square, newly built in the south of the city.

Charlotte Square was the last part of the initial phase of the New Town to be completed in 1820. The facades were the design of Robert Adam (1728-92), who died just as building began. Architect Robert Reid (1774 - 1856) became involved with the work, along with several building contractors who took responsibility for erecting the individual properties, ensuring there was no uniform plan of construction behind the frontages.

West Register House, formerly St. George's Church forms the centre of the W side, the remaining houses being occupied by wealthy bankers and merchants. Nos. 5, 6 and 7 are now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. No.5 was the home of John Crichton-Stuart, the 4th Marquess of Bute (1881 - 1947), who bought it in 1903 and gave it to the Trust on his death. It was the Trust headquarters from 1949 to 2000. Bute did much to promote the preservation of the Square. No.6 is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland and was previously the home of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who master-minded the Statistical Account of Scotland.

No.7 is the Georgian House, internally restored by the Trust (1974-5) to its original state and open to the public. The upper floor is the official residence of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

James Syme (1799 - 1870), the surgeon, lived at No.9 and his son-in-law Joseph Lister, pioneer of antisepsis, lived there 1870-77. No. 13 was home to Sir William Fettes (1750 - 1836), founder of the college, and No. 14 the house of conservationist Lord Cockburn (1779 - 1854). Viscount Haldane of Cloan, the Secretary of War who remodelled the army, was born at No.17; tennis champion Harold Mahony was born in No. 21; and another soldier, Field Marshal Earl Haig, was born at No.24.

Nos. 26-31 comprise the central section of a palace-fronted terrace on the south side of the Square which was designed by Adam and built between 1805 and 1818. Nos. 27 & 28 were connected to form the Edinburgh Collegiate School in 1868. All six properties were bought by the National Trust for Scotland in 1996 and linked as their headquarters. Opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2000, the building was given the name Wemyss House, in honour of David Charteris, Earl of Wemyss and March (1912 - 2008), who was President Emeritus of the Trust.

While some work was undertaken on the exterior, the Trust subjected the interiors of the houses to a major refurbishment, restoring architectural details in the rooms using traditional materials wherever possible. The work was undertaken by the Edinburgh-based architectural practice of Simpson & Brown. Extensive conservation was required, with systematic recording of the existing fabric, including paint investigation, that revealed much new information about the construction and decoration of New Town properties. Various artefacts were discovered, including workmen's clay pipes and a rare Mediaeval cannon ball which may have been fired from Edinburgh Castle.

After only nine years, the Trust was forced to sell this headquarters owing to its precarious financial state and moved to Hermiston Quay on the edge of the city. Wemyss House was purchased by Fordell Estates Ltd., a property developer, for £8.75 million and recast as four individual units to form prestigious office accommodation.

Robert Reid designed No.44 as his own home, medical scientist Sir Robert Philip lived at No.45 between 1898 and 1938, whilst pioneer of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, was born nearby in South Charlotte Street.

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