At the east end of George Street, stands the Palladian mansion of Dundas House. It is best known today as the registered office of the Royal Bank of Scotland and its position dominates one side of St Andrew Square. However, despite seeming to be in perfect harmony with the setting of the first New Town, the house was not in the original James Craig design, indeed, it was built in contradiction to that plan. The man who ‘disrupted harmony’ even before the first stone of the New Town had been laid, was Sir Lawrence Dundas.
Plain Lawrence Dundas was born in Edinburgh in either 1710 or 1712 – sources vary on this – and was the second son of Thomas Dundas of Fingask, a draper in the Luckenbooths near the High Kirk.
His family claimed noble ancestry but by the time that Lawrence was born they had become what would have been described as ‘the middling sort’, not rich enough to be considered gentry but comfortable enough not to be thought poor. Lawrence attended Edinburgh High School and then set himself up as a merchant contractor.
He had a good head for business and was on the winning side in that great game of the early Hanoverian period, speculating in stocks and shares. However, his rise to great wealth started in 1745 during the Jacobite Rebellion.
James Masterson was an old school friend, and son of another Edinburgh merchant. In 1745 he was a Lieutenant of Foot in the army and aide-de-camp to Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II and commander of the government forces sent to put down the Jacobites. These troops needed supplies, and Masterson recommended his old friend Lawrence Dundas. He was duly appointed Commissary for Bread and Forage in Scotland.
When British troops were sent to Europe in 1746 to fight in the War of the Austrian Succession, Dundas was appointed Commissary for Stores and Provisions in Flanders. Over the next twenty years, further government contracts would follow and by the end of the seven years war in 1763 Dundas was estimated to have made a personal fortune of around £800,000.
Like many rich men, Lawrence Dundas was not content with just wealth, he also desired power and set about a political career. In 1745 he contested the Linlithgow Burghs and, according to one of his opponents, was soon busy about ‘his work of treating and bribing.’ Unfortunately for Dundas, this had the opposite effect to that intended. Almost everyone mistrusted him and he failed to win the seat.
For his next attempt, he was a little more circumspect. He spoke to an old army connection, William Petty, a well-connected, aristocratic but slightly impoverished Member of Parliament, and made him a substantial loan. Petty spoke to Lord Bute, the favourite of the Prince of Wales and Dundas duly received a baronetcy and the gift of the seat for Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. He had wanted a richer, Scottish seat but had to wait for that. Both Lord Bute and William Petty (as the Earl of Shelburne) would later go on to be Prime Minister.
Dundas built up property holdings in London and Yorkshire but his real ambition was to become the most powerful man in Scotland. In 1766 he purchased Orkney and Shetland from the Earl of Morton for £63,000. This gave him control of the county representation and a leading interest in Tain Burghs. Lavish expenditure would help secure Stirling Burghs for his associate Robert Haldane and Stirlingshire for his son Thomas. He still maintained an interest in Linlithgow Burghs and Linlithgowshire. In Fife, he had considerable influence which he gave to James Wemyss of Wemyss. For himself, he reserved what he considered to be the jewel in the crown: the representation of the city of Edinburgh.
Having achieved so much, Dundas now set his sights on the next set of targets. He wanted to become a government minister (preferably with power over Scotland) and then be elevated to the peerage. However, in this he was to be thwarted. He had made enemies during his rise to power and despite always loyally voting with the government (and getting his followers to do likewise) these prizes would never come to him.
He was though, a man of great influence and perhaps his most enduring legacy is to be found a few miles upriver from Edinburgh in the Forth. In 1752 he had purchased land on the south bank of the river. When the Forth and Clyde Canal was being planned in the 1760s he was able to persuade the canal company that its eastern terminus should be created on this land, at a point where the Grange Burn flows into the River Carron, close to where it in turn joins the Forth. The original plan had been for the canal to emerge on the Forth at the existing port of Bo’ness, a few miles further east. Having got an agreement, Dundas set about building a new port on his land, to allow trans-shipment of goods between sea-going ships and canal boats. This would grow into the modern port of Grangemouth, Scotland’s largest container port, and the only one in the UK to export more than it imports.
Back in Edinburgh, Dundas wanted a house that would match his status. The plans for the New Town were being drawn up and it was obvious that this would become the fashionable place to live. Somehow, Dundas saw an early copy of the James Craig design. In this, the central street, George Street, ended in two squares, St Andrew Square and St George Square (later to be renamed Charlotte Square). Each of these squares was to be finished with a church, dedicated to the eponymous saint. Dundas quietly bought up the piece of land that on the plan was allocated to the church of St Andrew, somehow keeping his name off the legal documents until the deal was done.
The building was designed by Sir William Chambers (best known for Somerset House in London) and construction started in 1772 taking two years to complete.
Sir Lawrence was always a gambling man and one night, in a high stakes game of cards, he bet the house. He lost, and the winner, General Sir John Scott, was only persuaded not to take possession after Dundas promised to build him another house, of equal grandeur elsewhere in the New Town.
Sadly for Dundas, he only enjoyed his house for nine years before he died, crippled with gout, on 21 September, 1781. He left an estate worth £16,000 a year and £900,000 in personal and landed property. The political influence he had sought at huge expense for himself and his family evaporated soon after his demise.
The Government bought Dundas House and made it the Excise Office for Scotland.
It was then purchased by the Royal Bank in 1825. It remained their headquarters until 2004, when a new building was opened at Gogarburn, near Edinburgh Airport.
Dundas House remains a branch of the Royal Bank and is open during office hours. The upstairs is private, but the lower floor with its magnificent dome, pierced with six-point stars is well worth seeing and we certainly recommend a visit.