Classical Greece’s impact on civilisation was immense, its influence stretching far and wide. And when communities throughout the western world experienced their own period of greatness, they reached back to emulate the world of Athens in its classical heyday. And so just as the new Greek state celebrated its re-birth with great new public and private buildings in what was called the neoclassical style, so too did the nations of what we might call the western hemisphere – from London to Paris, from Washington to Melbourne.
Scotland looks to Classical Greece
One of those communities was in the land of my own birth, the city of Edinburgh, capital of Scotland. As the 18th century progressed into the 19th, Edinburgh experienced a re-birth, stimulating the re-vitalisation of this regional capital, in its cultural expression as well as industrial and scientific achievement. It was expressed in the works of the writers David Hume, Adam Smith and Robert Burns, the engineer James Watt and medical brothers William and John Hunter. It became home to respected academic institutions and internationally influential journals, creating a constellation of intellectual achievement known across Europe and would soon be named the Scottish Enlightenment, with Edinburgh at its centre. Ancient Greece – with its stories of civic virtue and public morality – would by re-told to inspire this new generation. The playwright John Home would write Agis: A Tragedy, set in Ancient Greece, while the poet William Wilkie would look to Homer for inspiration for his mammoth three-thousand-line poem The Epigoniad based on the fourth book of Homer’s The Iliad.
The Athenian connection would find physical form in the work of the architects who would undertake the architectural recreation of the city from the middle of the 18th century onward. Drawn by the appeal of the City authorities for the transformation of Edinburgh into a modern capital city, these architects – principally Robert Adam, William Playfair and Thomas Hamilton – would transform Edinburgh with new public buildings, private homes and memorials. And they would realise their dreams using the abundant availability of beautiful, light-coloured sandstone from nearby quarries. Like the architects who re-built Athens from the mid 18th century, they drew on the architectural heritage of ancient Greece and the results can be seen throughout Edinburgh to this day. This combination of intellectual ferment and architectural achievement, both influenced by the triumphs of Ancient Greece, led the Scottish poet Hugh Williams to name Edinburgh in the 1820s as “the Athens of the North” a title which has endured.
Edinburgh’s Athenian Heritage
A number of writers have remarked on the physical similarities between Athens and Edinburgh. Indeed as you approach Edinburgh from the air, the sea entrance to the city – the Firth of Forth – reminds me of the Gulf of Aegina, and as you approach the land, the physical landscape and layout of the city is not dissimilar. Like Athens, Edinburgh is a city constructed around its hills with significant buildings erected on their peaks. And its’ port of Leith could be Piraeus.
The neoclassical revival of Edinburgh stretches across both of the principal areas of the central city, from the Old Town to the New Town. Today, I will concentrate on the heart of neoclassical Edinburgh – the Calton Hill, the Mound and the Royal Mile.
The constellation of buildings and memorials on Calton Hill make it the heart of Edinburgh’s neoclassical revival. It was remarked at the time of its transformation as “… one of our noblest sites and would have been given by Pericles to one of his finest edifices.” No wonder that a Australian WW1 veteran would feel the same way on a post-war tour of the capital, writing that combined the structures were “all built in the classical style and largely responsible for the friendly nickname of the ‘Modern Athens’ which the city owns.” The historian Robert Crawford describes the whole effect as being “something of a splendid stage set, even a museum exhibit.”
And if one building encapsulates this theme it must be the National Monument of Scotland which stands in a position of prominence, visible from many points in the city below, not unlike its antecedent, the Parthenon of Athens. Intended to be a memorial to the Scots who died in the Napoleonic wars as well as a burial site, complete with catacombs, one writer envisaged it to be “a sort of Scots Westminster Abbey” and another as a “Scottish Valhalla.” As we can see this grand vision was not realised due to lack of funds. What we have is a partially completed Parthenon replica, designed by Charles Cockerell and William Playfair and erected between 1826-29. Unfinished it has attracted some derision, referred to as “Scotland’s folly” or “Edinburgh’s disgrace.” Yet in its unfinished state it is more a reminder of its inspiration. There is no better place to reflect on Edinburgh’s classical past than glimpsing its imposing structure as sunset approaches – much as one does the Acropolis above Athens.
Nearby is the City Observatory, whose main building – known as the Playfair Building – was designed by William Playfair in 1818. Said to have been inspired by Athens’ ancient meteorological station The Tower of the Winds, this is a cruciform structure, with four porticos on each side complete with Doric columns, topped by triangular pediments. Nearby William also erected a monument in the Doric style to his uncle architect John Playfiar. All familiar with Athens’ Choragic Monument of Lysicrates will instantly recognise the inspiration for both the Dugald Stewart and Robert Burns memorials. The former was erected by William Playfair in 1831 and is dedicated to the memory of one of the city’s great Enlightenment-era philosophers, Professor Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh University. The latter is located across Regent Road and was erected in 1830 and designed by Thomas Hamilton.
The impressive former Royal High School was designed by Thomas Hamilton and erected between 1826 and 1829. Modelled on Athens’ Temple of Hephaestus (the God associated with Lemnos), this building has been described as “the noblest monument of the Scottish Greek Revival.” A key feature of this neo-classical building is its extensive Doric columned façade and the great central portico protruding forward with six Doric columns, topped with the traditional triangular pediment. This building was so impressive that it was once considered the possible home of a future Scottish Parliament. The Royal Terrace is an impressive 360-metre-long terrace of housing and office, with four Ionic and three Corinthian colonnades (of up to ten columns each) along the frontage, which is divided into seventeen segments.
Leaving Calton Hill we make our way back to Princes Street and the area known as the Mound – the other centre of Edinburgh’s Athens. Here stand the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery, both these impressive neo-classical temples provide homes to major art collections (well worth a visit), replete with Doric columns and pediments with acanthus details, and were designed by William Playfair (the former in 1822-26 and the latter in 1854).
Next we go up to the Royal Mile, one of Edinburgh’s major thoroughfares and tourist precincts, where in a square just off the main road, stands a great statue of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus. Commissioned in 1832 (but only finally completed in 1884), this impressive bronze statue was designed by the sculptor Sir John Steell. It depicts the moment Alexander the Great tamed the horse named Bucephalus by turning it towards the sun so it could no longer see its own shadow, signifying the triumph of intelligence over brute force. And while you are here wander up and explore Edinburgh Castle, enjoy the view of the city and visit the Royal Scots Fusiliers memorial within the Scottish National War Memorial. There you will see Pericles’ Funeral Oration etched in stone. How appropriate for a body of Scottish soldiers who served on Lemnos and at Salonika during the First World War.
These are just some of the architectural achievements of Edinburgh’s neoclassical re-birth. There are many more I could discuss – and other attractions for which the city is famed. It is no wonder that the architecture of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town’s was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 – another similarity with the architecture of its Greek namesake.
A Greek legacy left behind
The neoclassical re-birth of Edinburgh reflects the Philhellenic sentiments that swept Europe throughout the era. These architectural remains are physical reminders of the impulses that drew volunteers from across Europe – and indeed from Scotland – to fight alongside the Greece in its war of liberation. But more of that later.
As we approach the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution next year, we should think of the many connections linking the achievements of Greece’s classical heritage to that of many other communities across the world. I have shown how my native Scotland – one of many – could indeed share in the celebration of this common heritage. So next time you are in Greece and have a weekend to spare, hop on a plane and visit the Athens of the North!
Jim Claven is a trained history, freelance writer and published author. He recommends Youngson’s The Making of Classical Edinburgh and Crawford’s On Edinburgh and Glasgow as further reading. His is the author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org