We’re projecting James Hutton’s words at Charlotte Square, using a puffersphere:
‘A succession of worlds… no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.‘
Find out more about this quote on our ‘Quotes’ page, listen to J L Williams’ lovely poetic response, ‘The Wisdom of Stone’ or why not visit our virtual trail and navigate our enLIGHTen sites on foot or online?
Charlotte Square was originally to be called St George’s Square but was named after George III’s wife instead to avoid confusion with George Square in the Old Town University Quarter of the city. This green space that separates George Street from the West End is considered Robert Adam’s masterpiece, Once the preserve of doctors, it had a reputation as the ‘Harley Street’ of Edinburgh, but now it is best known as official residence of the First Minister.
The genius of Adam’s design was to make a row of town houses appear like a palace, by planning them as one unified frontage. This attracted distinguished residents including Lord Henry Cockburn and Elizabeth Grant.
Lord Cockburn in his 1856 book Memorials of His Time describes his conflicting emotions about the expansion of the city. As an Establishment figure he mourned the passing of a way of life but he recognised the need for change and sympathised with those less fortunate than himself. While Elizabeth Grant was critical of what she considered ‘an ugly prospect’ of the unfinished streets.
Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus was born at No. 5 Charlotte Square in 1797 and her ‘Memoirs of a Highland Lady’ are regarded as a classic of Scottish literature. They give an insight into Georgian high society life, particularly as she was an outrageous snob and liked to dismiss her social inferiors. Her father was a lawyer, related to the chief of clan Grant and heir to a vast estate in the Highlands.
The exterior stonework indicates life inside for the Grant household. The rough textured stone in the basement marks the kitchens and servants quarters. The first floor contained grand reception rooms, and so the stone has a smooth finish known as ashlar. According to Elizabeth, her mother’s social calendar involved “Five or Six dinners, two small evening parties, and one large evening one, and a regular rout which paid my mother’s debts in the visiting line each Winter.”
There are also many surviving features that give clues about life in the Georgian period. The trumpet-shaped cone in the railings was used to snuff out the torches carried by ‘link boys’ who would light your way home at night. Also look out for the mounting blocks next to the pavement for easier access to carriages, and the boot scrapers to clean your shoes before entering the house.
The Georgian House, in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is a good example of the sumptuous surroundings these privileged people would have enjoyed during the enlightenment period and beyond. Guests staying on Charlotte Square are thought to include the famous crime writer Agatha Christie who was married in nearby St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Prince’s Street Gardens in 1930.
Today in the City of Literature, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has its home on Charlotte Square. Each August the world’s largest festival of its kind transforms this square of grass into a glorious tented village. The festival brings together writers and audiences from across the globe, to rediscover the world in words and find new layers of meaning.
The idea of layers of meaning and worlds within worlds was something that Edinburgh geologist James Hutton understood very well. A key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, his book ‘Theory of the Earth’ explained the concept of rock cycles and rejected the story of Genesis. To his – then controversial – mind, the earth was:
‘A succession of worlds… no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’