St Andrew Square

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We’re projecting a David Hume quote onto the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square: ‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends’David Hume

Find out more about this line on our ‘Quotes’ page, listen to William Letford’s lovely response, ‘Monuments of the Mind’ or why not visit our virtual trail and navigate our enLIGHTen sites on foot or online?

Today the grandeur of St Andrew Square can be approached in several directions: from the bustle of George Street, via the great and the good who are on show in the National Portrait Gallery on nearby Queen Street, or via the opulence of the shopping district on Multrees Walk, to the east side of the square.

In the 1780’s, during the Scottish Enlightenment period, St Andrew Square was probably the most fashionable address in the New Town, as one visitor described “All built in the modern style…free from the inconveniencies of the old city”. The regal and saintly names undoubtedly added to this, and are indicative of Edinburgh’s frame of mind at the time.

Amongst all this, David Hume’s cheering thought, ‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends’ reminds us of a simple truth and also of Hume’s presence on nearby St David Street.

He was one of the first residents to flee the hubbub of the Old Town for the precise grid iron of the New Town. This environment perhaps better suited his rational, enlightened mind and he held many intellectual gatherings here with the likes of the American thinker, author and politician, Benjamin Franklin. An engraving marks the spot of Hume’s house which you can see if you turn your back to the side entrance of Jenners and look up high enough.

The Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters at No. 36 were originally the townhouse of a wealthy businessman. Sir Lawrence Dundas bought the land that would normally have been reserved for a church. This three-storey mansion at No.36 has to be the grandest house in the whole New Town, at dusk you can get a glimpse of the opulence of the drawing room on the first floor. The stupendous banking hall, with its startling blue painted dome with gold-glazed stars, is open to the public.

The young essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, who was an occasional contributor to the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia which was based at No.9 in the opposite corner, would definitely have recognised Dundas’s use of the space as a ‘Sign of the Times’ where the devotional age was to be eclipsed by that of the mechanical.

A sorrier tale linked to St Andrew Square is that of the last days of Sir Walter Scott. The man who had to dedicate the last years of his life to writing his way out of debt, following his bankruptcy in 1826, was sadly all too familiar with what is still largely a banking district on St Andrew Square. Returning from Italy in 1832 Scott spent two nights at No. 35, then Douglas’s Hotel, and died later that year. The world’s largest monument to an author is dedicated to Scott, and a stone’s throw away, it seems to erupt from Princes street as a reminder of literary life in the heart of the City of Literature.

The architectural feat of the Melville Monument at the centre of St Andrew Square Gardens has a literary link. The grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, the world-famous author and poet, was a lighthouse engineer, and he was consulted about the foundations for the 150ft monument when it was built in 1823. The statue itself commemorates Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville, a politician once described as ‘the uncrowned king of Scotland’ and the garden is now used as a Poetry Garden at the heart of the City of Literature.

Monuments and statues decorating the centre of the gardens were the very latest in urban design in the Eighteenth century. The thinking was that bringing a little of the countryside into the town provided a grand setting for the architecture, gave local residents their own exclusive green space and also demonstrated man’s ability to control nature.

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