Hidden Architectural Gems of Edinburgh
Edinburgh has its famous landmarks and buildings that everyone visits, but there are a few amazing places which most people probably miss because they’re either off the beaten track or else not accessible all year round. So, without further ado, here are my hidden gems of Edinburgh.
The first one is Dundas House on St Andrew Square. This one can be visited any time of year because it’s a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Now, I know what you’re thinking, why on earth would I want to visit a boring old bank? Well, bear with me because this isn’t your average bank building. This one’s special.
You get a sense of this when you walk into the ornate Palladian entrance hall, which is very handsome itself, but it’s the stunning blue and gold dome which covers the banking hall beyond that’ll make your jaw drop. The Wikipedia page for Dundas House describes it well:
“The large, opulent banking hall is covered by a large circular blue dome which is pierced by 5 tiers of star-shaped gold-rimmed coffered skylights radiating out from the central oculus which diminish in size towards the centre, representing the firmament.”
The building was originally a townhouse (or rather a prestigious town mansion) built by Scottish businessman and landowner Sir Lawrence Dundas, but after he died his son sold it to the Royal Bank of Scotland who added the domed banking hall - designed by Scottish architect John Dick Peddie.
Although the building has a grand facade, there’s nothing to suggest of the domed delights that lie within because the exterior of the dome isn’t high enough to peak above the front of the building. That’s why I suspect most people wouldn’t bother popping in, but as you can see it’s well worth spending five minutes inside.
Before I started taking photos inside the banking hall I asked the security guard if it was okay to. I wasn’t sure they would let me, but thankfully they have an obliging stance on this. I was told it was fine to take photographs in the banking hall as long as you keep your camera pointed at the ceiling and not at anyone going about their banking business below - which is understandable. (You can see the rest of my photos from Dundas House here.)
My next hidden gem is an absolute beauty: McEwan Hall. However, this place isn’t open to the public, sadly. There’s only one time of the year you can visit and that’s during the weekend of Doors Open Days, which is a yearly event that happens at the end of September. But if you’re flexible with your dates for visiting Edinburgh and you love your architecture, then I’d strongly suggest visiting Edinburgh on Doors Open Days weekend just so you get to see this magnificent building.
McEwan Hall is used by Edinburgh University for its graduation ceremonies and was designed by Scottish Victorian architect, Sir Robert Rowand Anderson in 1876. The facade is impressive, but it’s the Italian Renaissance style interior, featuring murals by Staffordshire-born artist William Mainwaring Palin, that makes this building exceptional. As you gaze upon the ornate and colourful interior with its vivid murals, it’s as if you’re transported out of 21st century Scotland and back into 16th century Italy. It really is stunning.
Next up is the Mansfield Traquair Centre. This is a former church that is now a private events venue for hire, but it is open to the public on certain Sundays throughout the year (usually one Sunday each month). Or, for a small fee, you can have a private visit as long as you request it at least a week in advance.
Known as ‘Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel’, the building’s interior is adorned with wonderful murals painted in the late 19th century by artist Phoebe Anne Traquair, which took eight years to complete. The murals depict apocalyptic and biblical scenes and, like McEwan Hall, are reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance style. The large barrel-vaulted nave has no aisles, which allows for an uninterrupted view of the remarkable artworks. At one time, the church fell into disrepair and the murals were damaged by water and damp, but thankfully they underwent restoration in 2003 and are now as bright and beautiful as ever. (For more photos see my Flickr album).
My last hidden gem is rather unusual. It’s a cemetery. Situated next to the Water of Leith and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Dean Cemetery is a Victorian cemetery which became a fashionable burial ground with the upper and middle-classes of the age and therefore has many notable interments. What’s great is that many of those graves’ monuments feature superb sculptural work by some of the 19th century’s foremost Scottish and English sculptors.
From the most intricate and ornate Celtic crosses to full statues and even a small pyramid, Dean cemetery features Victorian craftsmanship of a standard you usually only find in cathedrals. One of my favourite monuments is a tall stone column adorned with 4 life-sized carved Herons. So, if you take a wander along the Water of Leith during your visit to Edinburgh, which I would certainly recommend, then be sure to stroll through Dean cemetery. It’s a tranquil and fascinating place, and a hidden gem of Edinburgh.
Since moving to Edinburgh from London a year and a half ago, we’ve been discovering lots of wonderful places in Edinburgh and it’s these experiences that inspire my photo art and my wife’s jewellery designs, which we’ll soon be bringing to our patrons when we launch on patreon.com. If you’d like to come along with us on our creative journeys, then hop on our mailing list and we’ll keep you abreast of what we’re up to.