St Andrew Square – Its history and What’s on Now

One of Edinburgh’s central smaller gardens in the New Town is St Andrew Square Garden and this weekend it is hosting ‘Film Fest in the City’. Here you can sit back and enjoy free outdoor screenings of several films. There’s a wide variety of movies to choose from for all ages from 1980s hit Ghostbusters, to Paddington, The Greatest Showman and Star Wars, Return of the Jedi.  It makes a great place to relax, unwind and be entertained if you have time.

St Andrew Square was built in the 1770s and formed a key element of James Craig’s New Town design. For over 200 years the garden in the centre of the square remained private for the use of residents and local businesses only.  However, on the 4th April 2008 the garden opened to the public for the first time in its history, following a £2.6 million refurbishment funded by the City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Enterprise.  They added 2 new gates into the gardens, new pathways, and a reflecting pond. It still remains privately owned, but is open to the public and it has become a favourite location for hosting different free events and exhibitions which everyone can enjoy together throughout the year.

When you are in St Andrew Square there are 2 different connections with the Dundas name that will immediately draw your eyes. The first one dominates the Square rising 152 foot high (46m) and is the monument to 1st Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas who stands on top of a column in the middle of the garden.  He was a lawyer and Advocate who turned MP and held important government posts, becoming Secretary of State for War, First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy. He was so influential and powerful in his day that he was nicknamed King Harry the Ninth or the Uncrowned King of Scotland. However later he was disgraced and impeached in 1806 for misappropriating Navy funds.  He remains the last MP to be impeached in the UK.  Unusually, earlier in his career as an advocate in Edinburgh, he had represented Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland from Jamaica who had wanted freedom from his master John Wedderburn.  Perhaps surprisingly given the times, Dundas won the appeal in 1777 and Joseph was given his freedom in Scotland.  These days Dundas has become a rather controversial figure, as he later opposed the abolition of the slave trade and so held back the Emancipation Act by decades – a decision that is thought to have been founded on greed and self-interest.

The second place to look at is Dundas House, built between 1771-1774 for Sir Lawrence Dundas and set back slightly from the main square on its eastern side. Sir Lawrence was an 18th century MP and an extremely wealthy and influential businessman.   He was only distantly related to Henry Dundas.  He had seen James Craig’s plans for the New Town and even before James Craig could realise his plans for the site, Dundas had bought and started to build his house.  Dundas thwarted Craig’s idea of having a church built on this plot of land in St Andrew Square, which was to have faced his other proposed church in Charlotte Square at the opposite end of George Street.  It had all formed part of Craig’s vision of symmetry and elegant simplicity in his grid layout of streets.  Instead Dundas had his house built, so he could enjoy the benefits of the location himself.  Later it would become the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  Today, although no longer their headquarters, it is still a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland which is open to the public.

As the initial building of the Georgian New Town progressed from east to west, St Andrew’s Square became one of the most prestigious and fashionable addresses to live. The philosopher David Hume moved into No 8, and there were certainly many other notable and influential residents who made St Andrew Square their home.  Gradually in the 19th century the Square started to become a hub for an increasing number of banks, life insurances and financial institutions.  The banks advertised their stability, trustworthiness and general dependability to their customers through the grand, impressive architecture of their buildings and opulent interiors.  These were cathedrals of finance, some with impressive domes.  I remember as a child being taken with my parents to these old banks and they were incredible.   Nowadays most of them have closed and lie empty, have been re-purposed, or are currently under development.  In St Andrew Square you’ll see that at No 42, another Royal Bank of Scotland building is about to open as ‘The Edinburgh Grand’, a luxury aparthotel with restaurant.  Standard Life now owns all the buildings on the south side of the Square, which includes the old red sandstone Prudential building on the corner.  This side is where you’ll find a range of popular new restaurants, bistros and bars.

If you’re looking for the best aerial panorama of the Square, head into the Harvey Nichols Department Store and take the escalator to the top floor. There is a café at the top with an outdoor terrace where you can sit and enjoy a bird’s eye view!

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