James Craig (architect)

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James Craig
Portrait of James Craig by David Allan.jpg
portrait by David Allan
Born (1739-10-31)31 October 1739
Died 23 June 1795(1795-06-23) (aged 55)
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Architect
Projects Edinburgh New Town

James Craig (31 October 1739 – 23 June 1795) was a Scottish architect. His brief career was concentrated almost entirely in Edinburgh, and he is remembered primarily for his layout of the first Edinburgh New Town.

Date of birth[edit]

Craig's birth date is traditionally given as 1744, as his baptism is recorded in parish register as Tuesday 13 November 1744. However, more recent research has shown that his birth date was 31 October 1739, as recorded in the registers of George Watson's Hospital, where Craig was educated. As well as his date of birth, the records show he entered the school in 1748, and left in 1755. The 1744 date must therefore be incorrect, as it would mean he started school aged four, and left aged eleven. The baptism year, although not the date, has been shown to be in error, as 13 November fell on a Tuesday in 1739 also.[1]

Early life[edit]

Craig was the son of William Craig, a merchant, and Mary Thomson, sister of the poet James Thomson (1700–1748). William was the son of Robert Craig, merchant and Dean of Guild in Edinburgh. He was schooled at George Watson's College, which had been recently set up to educate the sons of "deceased and indigent" merchants, suggesting that his family were of little wealth. Craig was apprenticed to mason Patrick Jamieson in 1755, and by 1764 was a qualified mason of the Incorporation of St Mary's Chapel, the guild of masons and wrights in Edinburgh. He does not appear to have had any formal architectural training, and his only known work prior to the New Town is a drawing, dating from 1763, for the proposed new North Bridge, a scheme that was built by William Mylne a few years later.

Architectural work[edit]

Edinburgh New Town[edit]

Plan for the New Town by James Craig (1768)

Plans for a New Town, to ease overcrowding in the medieval Royal burgh of Edinburgh, had been suggested since the late 17th century. However, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that Lord Provost George Drummond succeeded in extending the town boundary to encompass the fields to the north of the Nor Loch. A competition was held in January 1766, in which six plans were entered. Craig's was considered the best, and he was awarded the prize; the Freedom of the City and a gold medal. However, his design was not initially considered suitable for construction, and was reviewed by a committee, including the architects John Adam and William Mylne, before Craig drew up the final version. This plan was presented to King George III in 1767.

The plan comprised a simple rectilinear arrangement of three parallel main streets (Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street) with a square at each end (St Andrew Square and Charlotte Square). Craig later amended his plan to include a large circus at the centre of the development, although this idea was never adopted. Construction began with St Andrew's Square in the east, and continued until after Craig's death, with Charlotte Square being completed in 1800. Craig was responsible only for the layout of the streets, and had no design input into the appearance of the new buildings.

Other works[edit]

Craig never fully capitalised on his early success, and struggled to maintain a steady supply of work in later years, often finding himself in financial difficulty. He continued to prepare layouts for new development, including St James Square, to the east of the New Town, in 1773, and Merchant Street, south of the Old Town, in 1774. In both these developments, he was also responsible for the facades of the buildings, although little remains of his work. One side of St James Square still stands, although the rest was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the St. James Centre shopping and office complex. In 1786 he prepared and published a Plan for Improving the City of Edinburgh, which included proposals for remodelling the Old Town, with squares and crescents along the Royal Mile. None of these ideas were taken up, however. One of his last projects was a plan for the new development of Blythswood, then planned for Glasgow. While nothing was built until the 19th century, Craig may be responsible for the strict grid layout of the area.

Observatory House in 1792

His significant buildings included the Physicians' Hall (1773–1779) in George Street, for the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. The cost of the building led to disagreements between the College and Craig, and, once built, the accommodation was found to be inconvenient. It was demolished in 1843, to be replaced by a banking hall by David Rhind. In 1775 Craig prepared plans for the new City Observatory on Calton Hill. The gothic tower, now known as Observatory House, was the only part to be completed before money ran out in 1777. The rest was finally finished in 1792, although this too was replaced, by William Henry Playfair in 1818.

From 1777 to 1781 Craig was engaged on refurbishments at St Giles' Cathedral, and also undertook works at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, then located on Leith Walk. He was appointed as contractor, in 1780, to build a new fort at Leith: he had design control over the building elevations but not over technical aspects of the fort. The main gate and guard house remain, although the rest of the fort was demolished in the 1950s. Two monuments by Craig also survive; the Fullerton monument in St Michael's churchyard, Inveresk, and a 100-foot (30 m) obelisk at Killearn commemorating the writer George Buchanan (1506–1582).


Grave of James Craig in Greyfriars Kirkyard

Craig died in Edinburgh in 1795. He is buried in the northmost section of Greyfriars Kirkyard. Due to complex bans on monuments in the churchyard (not lifted until the late 19th century) the grave was only marked in the 1930s, then being done as part of half a dozen new memorials to notable persons by the Saltire Society.


  1. ^ Cruft, Kitty. "James Craig 1739-1795: Correction of his Date of Birth". Book of the Old Edinburgh Club. New Series Vol. 5: pp.103–5. 
  • Colvin, Howard (1978) A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, John Murray, pp. 237–238
  • Cruft, Kitty, and Lewis, Anthony. "James Craig, a Biographical Sketch", in Cruft, Kitty, and Fraser, Andrew. (1995) James Craig 1744-1795. Mercat Press. ISBN 1-873644-40-X
  • Cruft, Kitty, Fraser, Andrew, and Lewis, Anthony. "Descriptive List of Works and Projects by James Craig", in Cruft, Kitty, and Fraser, Andrew. (1995) James Craig 1744-1795. Mercat Press. ISBN 1-873644-40-X

External links[edit]