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The New Town Gardens


The New Town Gardens in Edinburgh comprise a series of late-18th- and 19th-century town gardens, squares and walks, contemporary with developments in the planning of the New Town which commenced in 1767.The gardens, which include Calton Hill, Dean Gardens, Princes Street Gardens, Queen Street Gardens and Regent Gardens, are internationally recognised as a extensive system of private and public open spaces designed to take advantage of the city's topography and townscape.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Type of Site

A series of 18th and 19th century town gardens, squares and walks, which, together with the surrounding buildings are collectively termed the 'New Town', and the result of neo-classical town planning. The gardens range in size from West Princes Street Gardens (12.8ha) and Regent Gardens (4.8ha) to the smaller squares and strips of Rothesay Terrace (0.12ha) and Saxe-Coburg Place (0.2ha).

Location and Setting

The New Town extends from Calton Hill in the east to Donaldson's Hospital in the west. The Stockbridge Colonies form a boundary to the north and the Old Town defines the southern boundary.

The public and private open spaces, circuses and squares, which are part of the strict geometrical framework of the New Town, are often visually interconnected. Characteristic of the townscape are long-distance views from outwards from the New Town, over to the Firth of Forth, the Fife or the East Lothian coastline, or the surrounding hills. Views over to the New Town extend from the North Bridge and Old Town looking northwards; from Arthur's Seat looking north-west; and from the Royal Botanic Garden looking southwards from Inverleith House.

The following principal gardens are described in detail: Queen Street Gardens, part of the second New Town: Calton Hill and Regent Gardens, dominating the eastern end of the New Town; Princes Street Gardens, laid out on the site of the former Nor' Loch below Edinburgh Castle; and Dean Gardens, occupying a site on the north bank of the Water of Leith, beside Dean Bridge.

There are views into West and East Queen Street Gardens from the surrounding streets, in contrast to Central Queen Street Gardens which is screened by thick shrub planting.

Calton Hill, a public open space, is visible from a wide range of locations. Its monuments give it emphasis and a characteristic form. Conversely, Regent Gardens, directly behind Calton Hill, are private with no external views into them expect from adjacent properties. Panoramic views are obtained from Calton Hill and Regent Gardens to the Scott Monument and over the city of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.

Princes Street Gardens lie at a lower level than the surrounding streets which means that there are good views into the gardens from Princes Street, the Mound, and the Castle; but views out from the gardens are limited, and are dominated principally by The Mound and views of the Old Town, which overlook the gardens to the south.

Dean Gardensoverlook the Water of Leith. Apart from a view into the gardens from Dean Bridge, they are quite private.

Since first formed, the extent of the New Town Gardens has remained unchanged.

Landscape Components

The Gardens


Craig's plan included a wide band of formal parkland to the north of Queen Street. It took a considerable time starting in 1809, following the private sale of these slots by the Heriot Trust, to buy out the private owners, from the gardens and safeguard the three Queen Street Gardens. This was finally achieved by a private Act of Parliament in 1822.

East Queen Street Gardens were the first along Queen Street to be laid out as a communal pleasure garden in 1814, from three separate private gardens. Following the bankruptcy of one of the private owners, a group of local house owners worked towards amalgamating these gardens, which were eventually purchased under a unique and original share system.

The gardens are thought to have been designed by the horticulturist and garden designer John Hay (1758-1836) in 1814 (q.v. Inventory, Newhailes p.64-70) and their layout appears on a plan of 1817 (Kirkwood, 1817). Subsequently Hay's layout changed ' the alignment of paths altered and the path arrangement radiating from the centre of the gardens has not survived. In 1859 McNab recommended thinning the trees, opening up the gardens to make vistas and space. In 1868, the existing terrace that extends along the Queen Street side of the garden was constructed, to give generous views down into the garden, as it sweeps away down to Abercromby Place.

The interior of the gardens are visible from Queen Street, through the railings, privet hedge and fencing which form the boundary. Wych elms (Ulmus glabra) are planted at regular intervals along the hedgerow. The length of the terrace is planted with sycamore (Acer pseusoplatanus) and holly (Ilex aquifolium). The eastern boundary of the gardens is planted with holly, while the western boundary is thickly planted with an evergreen shrubbery comprising laurel (Aucuba japonica), yew (Taxus baccata), and holly. A garden shelter on the northern side of the garden backs onto Abercromby Place.

Central Queen Street Gardens are 1.82ha (4.5 acres) in extent, and were formed out of a steading farmed by Mr Wood. The farm pond survives, as a central feature in the garden. In 1769, the Town Council took on a lease of the land, but by 1785 it had been taken on by Sir James Hunter Blair, John Brough and Adam Rolland. The Heriot Trust gave then charters stating that the ground could only be used for a garden or park. Charles Cunningham finally bough the land in 1820 and in turn sold his portion to the Commissioners in 1822.

Following the 1822 Act, the making of the gardens proceeded apace. The land was enclosed and put down to grass. In 1823, Wilson submitted a design proposal based on an appraisal of the site's natural features, which were enhanced in a simple and informal manner. This was accepted and a gardener appointed. The pond was reformed with a small rocky island in the middle. The centre of the garden was left open, planted with specimen trees and upper and lower terraces were made on the Queen Street side. Wilson designed a toll house, in the form of a small Doric pavilion which forms an important focal point in the formal garden, east of the pond (Knox, 1824).

In 1829 McNab advised and supervised the thinning, pruning and transplanting of the initial plantations and supervised the planting of new species including beech (Fagus sylvatica), strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo), and bay (Lauras nobilis).

Central Queen Street Gardens is very enclosed. Unlike East and West Queen Street Gardens, there are no views into the gardens due to a thick perimeter planting of deciduous trees and evergreen understorey of laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), holly, and box (Buxus sempervirens). Other, flowering shrubs include Philadelphus and Rhododendron sp. The paths at each end of the garden are planted with clipped, thick, privet or box hedges, fronted in some places by shrub borders. This gives a very architectural effect and provides a good sound and vision buffer from street traffic.

West Queen Street Gardens were also designed by Wilson, whose plan was approved in March 1823. Unlike the Queen Street Central Gardens, which possessed a farm pond, Wilson had to deal with a flat area which possessed no natural features to incorporate into the design apart from some old trees. The central area was mounded and intersected with walks. As in East and Central Queen Street Gardens, a terrace was built on the Queen Street side to allow good views, especially down India Street.

Although the path layout has not altered, the surfacing is now tarmacadam. The garden is open to the surrounding streets, with simple perimeter planting. Trees planted in the corners of the garden include elm, with shrub underplanting including holly and laurel. Trees in the garden include lime (Tilia x eurpaea) and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), particularly along pathways. There is holly along the bank on the Queen Street side. The centre of the garden is set with a crescent-shaped shrubbery of holly and yew. Recent shrub plantings include Rhododendron, Berberis, snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus), Cotoneaster sp., Viburnum sp., and Prunus sp.


'Every bit as symbolic a location to Edinburgh as the Castle, and even more carefully crafted for picturesque effect, albeit in classical rather than military garb' (McKean, 1992).

The Commissioners turned their attention to developing a new town between Edinburgh and Leith, the 'Calton Hill Scheme', to cover 80-120ha (2-300 acres). An invitation to submit plans produced 32, received by 1813, on which Commissioners invited eight architects to report. It was the report by William Stark (1770-1813), an architect well versed in 18th century picturesque theory, that formed the basic principles and ideas for laying out Calton Hill. He stressed the natural beauty of the site and the importance of harmonising new building development with the natural contours. He considered:

'Calton Hill an object of public interest, considered either as a leading feature in the general scenery of Edinburgh or as a striking and attractive spot, affording a succession of the most splendid and diversified views that are to be found assembled in the immediate vicinity of any large city''.

His approach formed the basis of a competition won by William Henry Playfair (1790-1857), one of his pupils. Originally the scheme was to extend to Leith, but this was never realised. Playfair's plan and report in 1819 retained the lines of elm along Leith Walk, proposed a terrace half way up Calton Hill and left the top of hill open as a garden; a high proportion of the area being retained as open space. All the buildings on Calton Hill were built between 1776 and 1830, and linked by a circuit path. Among the unrivalled collection of monuments which provide an unforgettable city skyline, Playfair was responsible for the New Observatory (1818), the monument to Professor John Playfair (1825-6), and the monument to Duguld Stewart (1831). The National Monument (1824-9), built in collaboration with C. R. Cockerell, was the result of an only partial appeal for subscriptions (1822) to build a facsimile of the Parthenon in memory of those fallen in the Napoleonic Wars.


Regent Gardens were formed between 1830 and 1832, the feu charter having been granted in 1829 after negotiation with the Heriot Trust. A condition was that the ground could only be used for pleasure gardens. The help of Patrick Neill (1776-1851), a founder member and Secretary of the Caledonian Horticultural Society, and Dr Robert Graham (1786-1845), Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden and Professor of Medicine and Botany, was enlisted.

The gardens, the largest of the New Town gardens still in private ownership, are roughly triangular, with the gardens of Regent Terrace and Calton Terrace backing on to the two long sides. The structure of the garden remains very much as originally planned. A central lawn on sloping ground is planted with mature parkland trees. A mixture of lime, beech, and sycamore shelters the surrounding walks. The various footpaths lead to a terrace planted with limes, set above a ha-ha at the top of the gardens, just inside the boundary wall with Calton Hill. The ha-ha is in two parts, connected by a rustic bridge below which is walk lined on one side by a holly hedge and on the other by Irish yews (Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'). Other species in the gardens include laurel and sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa).

A tree survey (late 20th century) recorded: cherry (Prunus avium), small leafed lime (Tilia cordata), common lime, sycamore, holly, English elm Ulmus procera), wych elm, hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), horse chestnut, silver birch (Betula pendula), laburnum (Labarnum anagyroides), ash (Fraximus excelsior), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), whitebeam (Sorbus aria), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), beech, rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), white poplar (Populus alba), black poplar (Populus nigra), oak (Quercus robur), and sweet chestnut.


Princes Street Gardens lie in the valley separating the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. Some of this land may have formed part of the gardens of the Castle whose orchards stretched to the south and west. The valley remained a marsh until the Middle Ages. The stream was dammed in the mid 15th century in order to defend the Castle and became know as the Nor' Loch. By the early 18th century the Nor' loch was essentially an open drain, polluted, unhygienic and a considerable nuisance. As early as 1728, the exiled 11th Earl of Mar had suggested draining the Nor' loch, an idea which became one of George Drummond the Lord Provost's principal aims. Craig's proposal was to form a canal on the site with a series of grass plats on either side, overlooked by residential houses on what was to become Princes Street.

To encourage residential development and improve the environment the Town Council planned to drain the loch despite some resistance to developing the ground east of the Mound. A special committee appointed in March 1826 to arrange the landscaping of this ground was advised by Playfair, who had been involved with the development of part of the Mound and with the landscaping of Calton Hill.

East Princes Street Gardens

In 1776, the Town Council declared itself responsible for this large area of land, strategically placed between the Old Town and the New. In 1826, with the intention of providing a pleasure ground they commissioned William Sawrey Gilpin (1726-1843) to prepare designs for this important picturesque site with its backdrop of the Old Town skyline and the Castle. He produced a model and a plan for which he was paid, but neither survives.

Despite these ideas and consultations, it was not until 1829 that any improvements were made, when Thomas Brown, the Superintendent, had some groundworks done, and an ornamental terrace along the Princes Street side built, as proposed by Playfair. Patrick Neill, who advised on Regent Gardens, also advised here, specifying a terrace broader than Playfair's and planted with limes, English elm and sycamore, with a shrubbery of privet, holly and laurel. The perimeter slopes were planted with a deciduous and coniferous mix, including Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sycamore, Scottish elm, birch, horse chestnut, oak, and maple. Messrs Dickson & Co of Waterloo Place donated many of these.

The Town Council experienced some tension between the financial resources needed to create the pleasure grounds and the commercial possibilities of the site. The terrace was widened to accommodate the Scott Monument, built 1836-46, and Neil's original scheme disappeared. From 1844 onwards the construction of Waverley Station and the railway cut through the garden. David Cousin (1808-78) advised on the redesign of the gardens to accommodate these changes. East Princes Street Gardens were officially opened on 15 August 1851 on the anniversary of Sir Walter Scott's birth.

A memorable feature of the gardens is the floral clock, the first in Britain, having been formed in 1903 by John McHattie, the Parks Superintendent. Its popularity and success led to the widespread adoption of floral clocks as a prominent fashion in civic bedding displays during the early 20th century.

The layout of the gardens has been simplified. Many of the subsidiary paths have been grassed over. The gravel walk on the main terrace has been replaced by flowerbeds.

West Princes Street Gardens

During the 1820s the Nor' Loch was drained, the scheme being designed by a land drainer, surveyor and engineer named Stephen, who also made proposals for laying out the land. The land, owned by the Town Council, was leased to residents who were insistent on creating a garden in this strategic location, despite the considerable outlay involved.

Alternative plans were put forward, including designs by the architects Playfair and Archibald Elliot (1760-1823). James Skene (1775-1864), a close friend of Sir Walter Scott, became involved ' his plans superseding Stephen's. By 1820, Skene's plans were being implemented by Alexander Henderson, whose firm, Eagle and Henderson, was involved with many of the New Town pleasure gardens. In 1821, the gardens opened to the residents and to those willing to pay four guineas annually.

In 1823 much of the garden was still given over to nursery (Wood, 1823), but this was reduced in 1840. Between 1845 and 1847, the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway Company took its line through the bottom of the gardens which spoiled the layout, despite mitigation measures.

By the 1870s Princes Street had become virtually exclusively commercial, but there were still private individuals, numbering some 400, who subscribed to use the garden. The Town Council adopted the gardens in 1876 and instigated several changes, such as the creation of the terrace just below Princes Street in 11879, with small paths running downhill from it. Plans for a winter garden were never realised. The existing bandstand, by Peddie and Kinnear, was erected in 1880 but was superseded by the Ross Theatre. The spectacular Ross Fountain by A. Durenne of Paris was added in 1862. During the 20th century many structures, some less appropriate than others, have been erected in the gardens.


In the 1860s the area surrounding the Dean Bridge was undergoing rapid development by Clonel Learmonth, son of Lord provost Learmonth who was instrumental in building the Dean Bridge. Local residents, anxious to protect open space, petitioned for the provision of a garden.

Learmonth granted land for a garden with a lease for 12 years, in return for the right to dispose of rubble on some of the land. However, as he made no undertaking not to renew development after expiry of the lease, the residents campaigned to purchase the land. They achieved this by raising a levy on each house, raining funds to acquire another piece of ground beyond the Dean Bridge in addition.

The architect John Dick Peddie, who worked closely with McNab, designed the gardens. His layout consisted of two terraces connected by paths and steps which allowed various picturesque views to St Bernard's Well. This is a classical temple, designed by Alexander Nasmyth in 1789, built on the site of a mineral spring and based on one at Tivoli. Daniel Mackay and Co. of Cameron Bank Nursery executed the majority of the layout in 1868. John Jeffrey and Son, a local nurseryman, laid out the newer piece of ground in 1877.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

Access contact details

Some of the gardens are open to the public all year round, such as Princes Street Gardens. Please see individual sites for opening details.


James Craig's prize-winning plan for the first New Town was adopted in July 1767 and subsequently developed over a period of 100 years. Commissioners for various purposes were appointed between 1785 and 1831. The spine of the first New Town, George Street, was terminated to the east by St Andrew's Square, laid out in 1770, and to the west by Charlotte Square, laid out between 1797 and 1808. In 1809 about six hectares of land was bought for three communal pleasure gardens collectively known as Queen Street Gardens. Plans for the second New Town were in progress by the early-19th century and saw development north of Queen Street with a series of circuses and squares designed by Robert Reid and others. From 1822 onwards the New Town was extended further with development on the Earl of Moray's estate, a triangular area of land between the first and second New Town and the Valley of the Water of Leith.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

The internationally recognised New Town Gardens comprise a series of 18th and 19th century town gardens, squares and walks. Although broadly contemporary with other developments in city planning, Edinburgh New Town has the most extensive system of public and private open space, designed to take full advantage of the topography and Edinburgh townscape.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

James Craig's (1714-95) prize-winning plan for the first New Town was adopted in July 1767 and subsequently developed over a period of about 100 years. Plans for the second New town were in progress by the early 19th century and saw development north of Queen Street with a series of circuses and squares designed by Robert Reid (1774-1856) and others. From 1822 onwards the New Town was extended further with a development on the Earl of Moray's estate, a triangular area of land between the first and second New Town and the Valley of the Water of Leith. William Playfair's (1790-1857) Calton Terrace development began after 1819.

Site History

The planning and creation of Edinburgh's New Town must be considered against its contemporary political and economic background. The gradual growth of economic prosperity by the mid 18th century was accompanied, after 1745, by surer political stability. Eighteenth and 19th century neo-classical town planning expressed a passion for order, regularity and symmetry. In Edinburgh this was combined with a clear political statement which has been described as 'an ideogram of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland' (McWilliam, 1975), expressed through the names of the streets and squares, the architectural motifs ' the Thistle and the Rose ' and a hierarchical arrangement of buildings, spaces and a rigid geometry.

An original feature of Edinburgh's town planning was that is anticipated and fostered urban growth. The city grew from a population of 67,000 (1801) to 136,000 (1831) and combined a feeling of spaciousness with order. The Town Council was instrumental in directing these developments and, governed by a strictly limited coterie of merchants and craftsmen, the local political system engendered strong direction and commercial interests. The relationship between the council and residents was good and James Craig's city plan, adopted by the Town Council in 1767, was laid out with consensus, not by autocratic decision. In order to effect public works and improvements which required additional powers, the Town Council obtained a series of improvement acts, private Acts of Parliament. This allowed Commissioners for special purposes to be directly appointed. This first started in 1785 and continued until 1831.

Craig's proposal for the first New Town, based on an earlier one, centred on an avenue ' George Street, linking two squares. The first of these, St Andrew's Square, was laid out in 1770. Although railings were erected around the second in 1797, Charlotte Square was not completed until 1808. Despite urban arrangements of circular plazas and squares being common by the 18th century, Edinburgh's developed into gardens of an informal, even picturesque character ' unlike London squares, and despite Edinburgh's formal plan.

The Town Council and Governers of Heriot's Hospital jointly commissioned the second New Town, lying to the north of the first, with a syndicate of architect-builders. These included Robert Reid, Master of the King's Work in Scotland, William Sibbald (d.1809), Thomas Bonnar (d.1832) and Thomas Brown (c 1781-1850), Superintendents of Works in the City.

Most of the New Town Gardens were laid out on fertile farmland. A major influence on the design of the gardens themselves was the growth and establishment of a thriving nursery trade in Edinburgh during the mid 19th century. In the 1770s there were only five seed merchants, but 37 by the 1870s. In addition, during this period the Royal Botanic Gardens moved to a new site and developed as a prestigious, innovative and influential horticultural institution. James McNab (1810-79) appointed Curator of the Botanic Garden in 1849, had himself trained at the RBG under his father William McNab (q.v. Inventory, Volume 5, p.206). The mid 19th century saw considerable progress in the development of the Botanic Gardens with new ideas and theories on planting design which were eagerly applied to the New Town pleasure gardens. In the 1860s McNab wrote a series of articles entitled 'Our Town Trees' for the Scottish Farmer, which were influential in the renewing and reassessment of the gardens, by this time in need of management and some improvement.


  • 18th Century (1701 to 1800)
  • Late 18th Century (1775 to 1799)
Associated People
Features & Designations


  • Conservation Area

  • Reference: Edinburgh New Town
  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland


  • Floral Clock
  • Sculpture
  • Description: The Scott Monument.
Key Information


Designed Urban Space



Principal Building

Parks, Gardens And Urban Spaces


18th Century (1701 to 1800)



Open to the public





  • Historic Scotland