The connection between Richelieu, France and Edinburgh

In the early eighteenth century Edinburgh was much smaller than it was today, consisting only of the part that we now know as the Old Town. Cramped, smelly and overcrowded, the wealthier inhabitants were desperate to have somewhere more delightful to live. The picture below shows Edinburgh in 1690 (picture courtesy of wikicommons media).

 Below the town you can see the Nor' Loch, an odiferous and quite revolting place, full of rotting rubbish and, quite often, bloated corpses as it was a popular suicide spot. The land to the right, previously deemed too wild and sterile to be rented out at even a paltry sum, was to be the place where the privileged and monied inhabitants would have their New Town built.  Work was started in 1759 to dry out the loch and by 1763 the eastern part was sufficiently dry to build the North Bridge (not the one we have today). In 1766 a competition was launched for the best design and was won by James Craig, a 26-year old relatively unknown architect who had left George Watson's Hospital in 1755 and agreed to start an apprenticeship with the incorporation of wrights and masons in Edinburgh in 1759. The recent Improvements Act of 1753 would ensure plenty of work for builders and masons so this was undoubtedly a wise move on Craig's part!  However, he never sat the incorporation's exam to be accepted and in 1765 he was formally discharged. Interestingly, in 1763 he submitted plans for a proposed bridge over the Nor' Loch and in 1765, the year of his discharge,  for a road in the Holyrood area.He was obviously intent by then on becoming an architect, and indeed later said that he had been "bred in the "executive part" of his business!  All apprentices had to read architectural treatises and one must wonder if it was during this time that he learned of the Cité Idéale of Richelieu in France (map below, taken from 


As mentioned previously, the competition for a sparkling, enlightened New Town was launched in 1766 and Craig's entry (below) was considered best.

The similarities are astounding. Richelieu had been created over 130 years earlier by Armand du Plessis, the Cardinal of Richelieu, who had been granted permission by Louis XIII to build a castle and town on his family lands.  The royal architect Lemercier designed the town on a hippodamian plan, as grid schemes were then known ( Hippodamius was an ancient Greek architect known as the "father" of urban planning). Richelieu is still considered to be a prime example of architectural success in France and is still studied at university.

Craig did not design the facades of the buildings which would stand in the New Town - he was only concerned with the layout. His layout consists of a grid scheme where the streets met each other at right angles and a main central street which joins with a round square at each end. Let us compare Richelieu then with Craig's plan and note the similarities:

Princes Street = Rue Henri Proust
George Street = Grande Rue
Queen Street = Rue des Galères
St Andrew's Square = Place du Marché
Charlotte Square = Place des Religieuses

Of course, we will never know if Craig had seen plans of Richelieu or if, as many think, he had actually based his town along the lines of the ancient town of Milet, built 2300 years previously, but it would seem odd that whilst Edinburgh was being swept along on top of the wave of the Enlightenment, embracing exciting and new ideas and concepts, that the city would opt for ancient classicism as its source. Surely it would be more apt to choose the plans of a Cité Idéale like Richelieu, a scheme which as a concept aims to bring together architectural and human perfection and aspires for a singular, harmonious society based on definite moral and political precepts?