Royal Society: 22 George Street

Listen to David Hicks from Edinburgh World Heritage explain more about the Royal Society on George Street

22 George Street on soundcloud

We’re projecting some Adam Smith wisdom onto the Royal Society building at 22 George Street: ‘Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition’.
Adam Smith

Find out more about this line on our ‘Quotes’ page, listen to Ken MacLeod’s witty response, ‘Maxwell’s Platter’ or why not visit our virtual trail and navigate our enLIGHTen sites on foot or online?

George Street, criss-crossed by Hanover and Frederick Street, has been the backdrop for a number of significant literary events in this City of Literature. However, the street’s origins are perhaps best understood through the Royal Society, and through a quote from the great Scottish social philosopher and pioneer of political economy, Adam Smith:

‘Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition’.

The Royal Society was created back in 1783 for the ‘advancement of learning and useful knowledge’,  Its founding fathers were leaders of a new wave of challenging ideas known as the Scottish Enlightenment, but perhaps its most tangible legacy is the very streets you are standing on.

It was in the mid-1700s that the town council proposed to build a New Town to transform the city and to rival London, Berlin, Venice and Turin. This New Town was to bring grandeur and prosperity to the city by attracting back to Edinburgh the aristocracy and ‘people of rank’. It was a street with aspirations, and in the spirit of the Union of the Crowns, it is named after George III.

When the competition was announced in 1766, for someone to design the New Town, a young architect called James Craig proposed a formal layout that reflected Enlightenment ideas about progress and rationality. After some alterations a design was agreed, and on 29 July 1767 a final plan was formally adopted by the town council.

There is a clear hierarchy with a ‘Principal Street’ and ‘Back Streets’ and lanes to give access to the rear of buildings. Some historians even see a clear link between its grid-iron pattern of streets and the layout of a Roman army camp. Despite its apparent simplicity it is actually a very clever plan, using the natural fall of the ground to best advantage. Despite James Craig’s achievement there is still no proper memorial for him, except perhaps that his plan is still preserved today.

Just a few doors down from the Royal Society at No. 60, the English Romantic poet Shelley stayed with his childhood sweetheart, Harriet Westbrook, after they eloped in 1811. There is a plaque commemorating this event, however the marriage was not to last. Some years later Shelley returned to Frederick Street with his second wife, Mary Shelley. The narrator of her classic novel Frankenstein certainly approves of Craig’s rational approach to design commenting, ‘the beauty and clarity of the new town of Edinburgh, its romantic castle and its environs, [is] the most delightful in the world’.

1 Rose Street ←