James Craig lived from 31 October 1739 to 23 June 1795. He was a Scottish architect primarily remembered for his role in laying out Edinburgh's New Town. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Craig was born in Edinburgh and educated at George Watson's School. He was the son of William Craig, a merchant, and Mary Thomson, sister of the poet James Thomson. In 1755 Craig left school to take up an apprenticeship with the mason Patrick Jamieson. Nine years later he was recognised as a fully qualified mason by Edinburgh's guild of masons and wrights.
Edinburgh in the early 1700s had a problem. It was one of the most densely populated places on earth, and one of the most squalid. What is now called the Old Town comprised tightly packed high-rise tenements in which rich and poor lived side by side: or, more commonly, those who could afford it chose to live on upper floors where the air was a little fresher, leaving the lower floors to the poor. The turning point came when a tenement simply collapsed in 1751. A survey that followed revealed that much of the city was suffering from severe neglect, and the result, the following year, was a set of proposals for a new suburb to be built on open countryside to the north of the existing city.
The idea was an ambitious one: to build a "splendid and magnificent city" attractive enough to draw back to Edinburgh at least some of the Scottish aristocracy who had increasingly wintered in London since James VI of Scotland had also become James I of England in 1603 and moved south: a trend that only increased with the Act of Union and the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament in 1707.
A competition was launched for the design of the new aristocratic suburb, and in August 1766, apparently from nowhere, James Craig was declared to be the winner. His original plan for "New Edinburgh" centred on a large square and had streets radiating from it in the pattern of the Union Jack. While the detail of his plan found favour, its general layout did not, and by July 1767 Craig had amended the overall plan to a grid to be known as the "New Town". Building started immediately, and what can be seen in Edinburgh's New Town today can largely be traced directly back to James Craig's amended plans.
Craig never really equalled this success in his later work. He was responsible for the outline planning for a number of expansions to the New Town, but of the individual buildings he designed, very little still stands. He died in 1795 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.