81 George Street

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We’re projecting lines from Robert Fergusson’s poem ‘Ode to the Gowdspink’ at 81 George Street:

‘… we aften find
The brawest drest want peace of mind,
While he that gangs wi ragged coat
Is weel contentit wi his lot’.

 

Find out more about these lines our ‘Quotes’ page, listen to James Robertson’s beautiful reading of the poem, and new introduction. Or why not visit our virtual trail and navigate our enLIGHTen sites on foot or online?

George Street has seen many bookshops come and go and the Waterstone’s towards the West End remains an important presence amongst the street’s exclusive shops and restaurants. This building was brand new in 1891, and its first occupant was Robert Grieve’s furniture and carpet shop. Then as now, George Street was a prestigious address, with posh shops offering luxury goods to Edinburgh’s well-heeled.

From the beginning, George Street was planned as the ‘principal street’ of the New Town. On James Craig’s original plan drawn up in 1767, you can see that the street is wider than the others, and situated on a rise it is even higher than the rest. If you look at the upper storeys of the buildings either side you can still see the remains of some of these Georgian houses.

One of the New Town’s most controversial residents – socialite and writer Lady Grant – described her George Street home as far preferable to Queen Street claiming, ‘There are no prettily laid out gardens then between Heriot Row and Queen Street, only a long strip of unsightly grass, a green, fenced by an untidy wall and abandoned to the use of washer-women.’

By the Victorian period, banks and insurance companies had started to make their home in the street. Their architecture was intended to show prudence and stability, and has this left George Street with a legacy of some of the grandest buildings in the city. Just look at the classical details, and ornate banking halls at what are now the bars, the Dome and the Standing Order on the east end of the street.

However, George Street is not short of literary heritage. The Assembly Rooms is the place where the author of the Waverley novels cast aside his cloak of anonymity and revealed himself as Walter Scott. Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray also gave public readings there and the Edinburgh Festival Club had its origins in the building.

A few doors down, Blackwood’s Magazine had its offices at No. 45 between 1830 and 1972. Initially famous for the controversial writings of Christopher North and Thomas de Quincey, Blackwood’s went on to publish the most influential names in literature, including Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Joseph Conrad, Margaret Oliphant and George Eliot.

Of course today visitors can find these authors’ books – and many more – in Waterstone’s or across the 50 or so bookshops in the City of Literature, but take time to track down a copy of the work of Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson. Writing in the late 1700s, in the Scots tongue, he was a great influence on Robert Burns, and in his poem ‘Ode to the Gowdspink’ it is honesty and the importance of freedom that shines through:

‘… we aften find
The brawest drest want peace of mind,
While he that gangs wi ragged coat
Is weel contentit wi his lot’.

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