Social housing buildings in Edinburgh before WWII

In 2020, an exhibition named “Housing to 2040” is set to “help to inform the Scottish Government’s final vision and route map for housing over the next 20 years”. The portable exhibition will travel around Scotland, providing a public platform for the public to engage in the conversations about housing and places of the future.

As Scotland is going through its biggest council housebuilding programme since the 1970s, architects alongside the government are in the mist of redefining what social housing can look like. Therefore, in order to help inform what the social housing of tomorrow could look like, it is important to look back at yesterday’s solutions. Edinburgh offers a variety of architectural examples from all eras. From Scottish baronial tenements to brutalist tower blocks and contemporary retrofitting, social housing buildings in Edinburgh have taken many forms, often influenced by the ideology in place during the time of construction. The early beginnings of social housing offer a particularly interesting view on the history of the typology. 

Inside the courtyard of Well Court social housing buildings in Edinburgh Dean Village
Well Court by Sydney Mitchel, 1884.

1884, Well Court

In the second half of the 19th century, the population of Edinburgh expanded greatly. The majority of the working class lived in overcrowded tenements buildings in Edinburgh Old Town. Social housing initiatives were exclusively undertaken by private individual philanthropists and were not perceived as the responsibility of the government. A great example in Edinburgh is the Well Court in the Dean Village, commissioned by John Richie Findlay, owner of the Scotsman newspaper, in 1880. The accommodation was intended for local workers of the Dean Village. The scheme not only provided residents with well designed housing that contained common laundry facilities, and a bathroom in each flat, but also a communal hall, and a large courtyard, all intended to create a sense of community within the residents. However, the residents were subjected to list of rules and lectures intend to “improve” them. 

Tenements by John Cooper, High School yards, 1897 (Image: David Gray on Flickr)

1893, the Urban Sanitary Improvement Scheme

It is only in 1893 when the council started to clear out the Old Town slums that it took on the task of giving a home to the neediest. The Sanitary Improvement scheme sought to clean out the Old Town first through demolishing the slums and constructing new housing designed by the Burgh Engineer, John Cooper. 

The High School yard tenements were the first of the 6 developments built as part of the scheme. Designed in the Scottish Baronial style to fit in the area, the tenements had modern deck access, considered more beneficial to health thanks to the “through ventilation” it allowed. The block replaced cramped and crowded housing whilst respecting the character of the Old Town. Today, it is extremely well preserved and almost unaltered externally (if we excuse the pigeon protection nets!)

An alternative method of “conservative surgery” led by the biologist and sociologist Sir Patrick Geddes, advocated the preservation of the existing buildings. The method was to purchase key historic buildings in Edinburgh Old Town to redevelop into social or student housing and opening them with courtyards, which would bring light and air. Riddle’s court and White Horse Close are good examples of this approach. 

Tenements by Adam Horsburgh Campbell, St Clair Street, 1923-4. (Image: Architectural Heritage, Feb 2011, vo. 5, No. 1 : pp. 29-38)

The 1919 Housing Act and Adam Campbell

In 1919, a Housing Act encouraged councils to provide housing across the UK thanks to state subsidies. Edinburgh was not different from the rest of the country and the council accelerated the provision of housing in the city. The engineer Adam Horsburgh Campbell was thus commissioned as head of Housing. He first prioritised the refurbishment of existing empty tenements in the city, which was cheaper and saved several historic buildings, like the now demolished McConnachie’s Close in the Cowgate, before later subsidies encouraged more new built.

In the early 1920s, Campbell built tenement blocks such as the ones still standing in Leith on St Clair Street or Sheriff Brae. In order to keep the cost as low as possible, the average number of rooms per dwelling was reduced to two and three (as opposed to three, four and five) per apartments and the façades were kept as minimalist as possible, reducing the architectural features.

Tenements by Ebenezer James MacRae, Piershill Square, 1937-8

1926-1946, MacRae’s Era

When Campbell retired in 1926, his role as Director of Housing was passed down to architect Ebenezer James MacRae, not to an engineer. MacRae was less focussed on efficiency and more interested in delivering the most liveable housing possible within his budget. He believed tenants could better themselves thanks to more sociable architecture and was especially interested in daylight and ventilation. Unlike Campbell, MacRae didn’t use any modern material such as concrete and steel, but focussed more on traditional stone, slate and brick.

The East and West Piershill Squares are examples of the style and scale of interwar social housing in Edinburgh. The squares are part of a greater development compromising 47 three and four storey tenements. Charles McKean in the RIAS guide to Edinburgh refers to it as “By far the most distinctive council house development in Edinburgh”. The craftsmanship was of high quality and remains today a great example of care to details. MacRea built in what he interpreted as “Scots style” with traditional harling cover and sash windows, but with modern proportions and plans. 

When he retired in 1946, MacRae had delivered around 12,000 houses in Edinburgh, as well as important studies on the city’s historic buildings.


Social housing buildings in Edinburgh after WWII

WWII marked a new era for social housing. The war put an end to any new development. Fortunately, it did not affect Scottish houses as badly as some parts of England. By the 1950s, permanent housing was being built again to clear out the city’s slums and increase the housing stock. However, the City Architect lost his authority and power, as the first major post-war housing estate had been offered to an open competition. Thus, no single architect had as big as an impact on a typology since as Campbell and MacRae. 

Since the 70s, tenants of social housing have been granted a right to buy their house under the “Right to Buy scheme”. Although the policy helped to increase home ownership it is also responsible for the drastic reduction in social housing stock. The scheme is no longer in place in Scotland since 2016 but its impact is still felt. This explains why today the Scottish government is aiming to built 50,000 houses before the end of the parliamentary term and why architects need to redefine what social housing can look like to avoid the stigma that precedes it. 

Find more about post war housing in our article about brutalist architecture in Edinburgh. 

To see some of the buildings mentioned above in their flesh, why not try our architecture audio tours: the Old Town tour for Riddle’s Court and Dean Village tour for Well Court.


We’ve done architectural tours in a number of cities and this ranks among the top!” 

Lynn, Edinburgh

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