James Skene (1775-1864), advocate, antiquarian and confidant of Sir Walter Scott, had a profound sense of Edinburgh as a changing city. In the early 19th century, he witnessed, at first hand, the demolition of parts of an increasingly unfashionable Old Town as it made way for the New Town of Edinburgh. He remembered the opening of the South Bridge which had dramatically altered the character of the Cowgate, and, later, observed the new western development of the Old Town – and with it, the partial destruction of the Old West Bow and the construction of Johnston Terrace.
The imposing outline of Edinburgh Castle, “overtopping the whole city… and dominating for miles on every side on every side” is at the centre of this water colour drawing by James Skene. At the top right hand corner, the semi-circular half-moon battery is plainly visible. The battery was built in 1588 as part of a new defence system following the destruction of David’s Tower during the course of a two year siege – the Lang Siege – by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, and Regent of James VI of Scotland. Immediately beneath castle rock, at the bottom left, there are signs of engineering work. The beginnings of a new Edinburgh approach road are being cut out of the castle rock. The road, contouring the southern flanks of the Castle and connecting the Lawnmarket with the King’s Bridge (crossing King’s Stables Road) is now known as Johnston Terrace.
Skene was an inveterate draughtsman who had an eye for architectural detail. He recorded the changing face of Edinburgh in a series of over 200 watercolour drawings, and, following an abortive collaboration with Sir Walter Scott, an accompanying journal, known as Reekiana. These now form part of the Special Collections of Edinburgh Libraries.
Over the past year, Alastair Learmont, a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh – and a former practising advocate himself– has been researching the background of James Skene’s Reekiana. His work has culminated in a story using Skene’s own words and paintings to provide a remarkably vivid account of Edinburgh during the 19th century. Read it on Our Town Stories: James Skene’s Reekiana: a Changing City.