Lost Edinburgh: The fight to keep Princes Street views

Princes Street is somewhat unique for a busy, modern, commercial thoroughfare in that it offers unobstructed, world-class panoramic vistas on one side across the former Nor' Loch Valley. It's hard to imagine walking along Princes Street without being able to see Edinburgh Castle, but if not for the efforts of a small band of homeowners who took their fight to the town council, our main drag's famed outlook towards the crag and tail of the Old Town could have been blocked out by buildings.

Saturday, 6th May 2017, 11:20 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 8:20 pm
Princes Streets gorgeous vistas are famous the world over. This photogrraph was taken c.1900. Picture: TSPL

Banker and philanthropist, Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, was just one of many men whose dogged determination and progressive attitude prevented the stunning views from being spoiled by a wall of shops and houses.

Yes, even in those far off days, centuries before UNESCO World Heritage classifications, listed building consent and environmental protection orders, there were people fighting to conserve Edinburgh’s greatest asset: her natural beauty. This is a pioneering example of civic conservation and we should feel quite proud.

Sir William was a ‘Princes Street proprietor’, one of the street’s first residents, and owned a house on the corner of St Andrew Street.

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Sir William Forbes helped prevent buildings on the streets south side. Picture: Glasgow Museums

But he was rather perturbed when, in 1769, a coach builder by the name of John Home began to buy up land on the opposite side of Princes Street where the Balmoral Hotel and Waverley Mall stand today. By 1870, Home had acquired over an acre of land, with the intention of constructing a new street down the side of the North Bridge.

Faced with the prospect of their views to the south being ruined, Forbes and other prominent Princes Street homeowners, including philosopher David Hume, presented the council with a Bill of Suspension in an attempt to stop any building taking place.

The complainants argued that they had chosen to reside in the New Town on account of there being no buildings at its southern edge “by which means the proprietors of houses on that street in particular would enjoy advantages which they considered as of the greatest value, viz, free air, and an agreeable prospect”.

It was also noted that no buildings appeared on the south side of the street in James Craig’s original New Town plan and the district was depicted as pleasure grounds.

Sir William Forbes helped prevent buildings on the streets south side. Picture: Glasgow Museums

But the town council weren’t so easy to convince. They responded by informing the proprietors that Craig’s 1766 plan did not represent a formal contract, and they were therefore not legally bound to adhere to its details.

Nonetheless, the two parties were eventually able to come to an amicable compromise, and in March 1776, after five long years of legal wrangling, it was agreed that only a few workshops should be allowed at the East End of Princes Street – below ground level. This did not prevent St Ann’s Street, and later, the North British (Balmoral) Hotel, from being built, but it did ensure that the rest of the thoroughfare was kept building-free.

Today, nearly half a million of us are able to enjoy the serene tranquillity of East and West Princes Street Gardens thanks to the likes of William Forbes and David Hume.

Only the Sir Walter Scott Monument, the Royal Scottish Academy and St John’s Church punctuate the skyline on the south side of the street.