Looking Out For The Edinburgh Skyline: The Cockburn Association

16 Apr

The Cockburn Association is one of the oldest architectural conservation organisations in the world. Also known as The Edinburgh Civic Trust it has been working to protect and improve Edinburgh since 1875. The Association works closely with developers, architects and other organisations to influence and guide the character of new development and to encourage the re-use and restoration of existing buildings to meet today’s needs. By encouraging certain architectural developments and firmly denouncing others, the Association aims to bring together tradition and innovation in a way that celebrates Edinburgh’s distinctive civic heritage.

Edinburgh is a living city and we encourage the creation of tomorrow’s heritage –  just not at the expense of the wonderful historic environment that underpins our economy and makes Edinburgh one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The Association was named after Lord Henry Cockburn, a prominent Edinburgh figure in the nineteenth century who campaigned to protect the beauty of the city. Cockburn was educated in Edinburgh and entered the Faculty of Advocates in 1800, eventually becoming a judge in 1834. As a member of the famous Speculative Society, along with Walter Scott and Frances Jeffrey, he rubbed shoulders with some of the heavyweights of the Scottish Enlightenment. His opinions on how developments in the city should be undertaken continue to inform how the Association operates to this day. A glance at his Letter to the Lord Provost on the Best Ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh (1849) reveals how Cockburn felt about the uniqueness of the city:

It is our curious, and matchless position, our strange irregularity of surface, its    picturesque results, our internal features and scenery, our distant prospects, our various and ever-beautiful neighbourhood, and the endless aspects of the city, as looked down upon from adjoining heights, or as it presents itself to the plains below. Extinguish these, and the rest would leave it a very inferior place.

Since 1875 the Association has played a key role in saving some of the city’s most cherished landmarks. During the early part of the twentieth century for example, as part of the George Street Tramway scheme, developers attempted to have the statues of King George IV, William Pitt, and Dr Chalmers removed. Members of the Cockburn Association were up in arms pronouncing that

the presence of these statues is of high aesthetic value to the city by adding dignity, richness and historical interest to a street which forms a dignified and worthy   memorial to the genius of a past generation of citizens.’

The proposal was eventually rejected. It is difficult to imagine anyone having the audacity to attempt such a scheme today.

Equally contentious was a proposal to redevelop The Cafe Royal into an extension of Woolworth’s in the 1960’s. This popular and iconic bar was duly championed by the Association which demanded urgently that

            ‘Continued pressure will be needed to persuade the Planning Committee to refuse permission for redevelopment on any terms or (better still) to bring about the withdrawal of this proposal for the destruction of a building of outstanding value in design, craftsmanship and townscape, which is also an important institution in the life of the City.

So if you enjoy a drink at this cosy little haunt on a Friday night, perhaps you should toast one to the Cockburn Association.

Other historic campaigns include a push to save the cobbles on the Royal Mile, appeals to improve the aesthetic appeal of Waverley Station, a move to preserve the open space in the Meadows and encouraging the opening of Inverleith Park. Indeed it would seem that no significant civic development in Edinburgh escapes the inquisitive eye of the Cockburn Association.

In more recent times the association has been particularly concerned with sustainable plans for regeneration. Many of the proposed plans for development in the so called ‘Caltongate’ area, for example, a world heritage site, were rigorously opposed with the support of Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage. Plans to build a hotel and conference centre and create new roads which involved demolishing listed buildings, among other developments, were strongly opposed. One of the major arguments against these plans was that they did not fully reflect the unique historic character of the Old Town, which is, the Association argues, a natural marketing tool for Edinburgh. Only a development that respects and cherishes the Old Town’s unique architectural heritage would suffice.

The Royal Mile acts as a main artery for the city: narrow closes and wynds flow left and right, towering buildings rise on either side, and slope sharply downhill. This ‘herring bone’ pattern has been established over many centuries, and makes a powerful and lasting impression. This historic scale, pattern, and architecture must be used to set the parameters for development.’

Debate over the Caltongate area is still ongoing.

Another landmark campaign in recent years has been the Save Our Skyline project that in 2009 saw the Association successfully oppose a 17 storey hotel being built in the Haymarket area. The site around 189 Morrison Street would have been markedly altered by a building of immense proportions; so big indeed that it would have reached the height of Edinburgh Castle’s battlements. Members of the association were anxious that allowing a building on this scale to be built in the city centre would set a dangerous precedent for the future. A public enquiry was held and eventually Scottish Ministers refused planning consent for the hotel with the association playing a pivotal role:

The details of the scheme and the reasons the City gave for approval would not   have been tested, or subjected to the truly independent judgment of a Reporter if the Cockburn Association had not participated fully in the Public Local Inquiry.’

Since 1991  the association has organised an annual Doors Open Day in which members of the public get a chance to explore some of Edinburgh’s important and architecturally exciting buildings for free. The process of selecting buildings takes place in May each year. You can find details about this and other events on the Cockburn Association’s website.  They are also on twitter and have a facebook page.

As an independent charity The Cockburn Association relies on private donations, members’ subscriptions and legacies to survive and achieve its goals. It receives no core funding from the City of Edinburgh Council or the Scottish Government or its agencies. With this come both advantages and disadvantages but the association rightly celebrates its autonomous position:

We believe that our truly independent status gives us a unique and unbiased platform to comment on planning, civic amenity, heritage, transport and  environmental matters in Edinburgh and to help raise popular interest and     awareness of these issues.’


2 Responses to “Looking Out For The Edinburgh Skyline: The Cockburn Association”

  1. anlena April 19, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Hi! I nominated you for The Kreative Blogger Award. You can check it out here: http://allthoselittlethingsilike.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/the-kreative-blogger-award/

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