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Listed Building

The legal part of the listing is the address/name of site only. All other information in the record is not statutory.


Status: Designated


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  • Category: B
  • Date Added: 14/12/1970


  • Local Authority: Edinburgh
  • Planning Authority: Edinburgh
  • Burgh: Edinburgh

National Grid Reference

  • NGR: NT 25663 73483
  • Coordinates: 325663, 673483


Reginald Fairlie. 1934-9, completed 1956 (see Notes). Imposing library building in Classical-Modern style with stylised bas-relief ornament and sculptures by Hew Lorimer. Steel frame, concrete encased and clad with cream-coloured Blaxter sandstone. Grey granite rusticated base. Tall, central reading hall section with blind 7-bay pilastrade to upper two-thirds with sculptured allegorical figures within each bay and carved roundels above. Flanked by lower-height wings, each with three carved panels. Royal Arms carved in panel above entrance to centre; 2-leaf timber door. Rear elevations of rendered brick with raised margins. Cowgate extension built 1983-85.

Multi-pane glazing to timber sash and case windows to ground floor. Cast iron rainwater goods.

INTERIOR: Marble columned entrance hall with teak panelling; barrel vaulted passage leading to main staircase of green Westmorland slate; borders in black and grey marble. Glass engraving to main staircase window; alternating panes with thistle or Scottish crown and the Arms of the principal benefactors of the library. Walnut panelling in the Reading Room and mahogany in the Catalogue Hall. Reading room with plaster ceiling punctuated with large circular glazed cupolas. Functional arrangement of 9 levels of book storage descending down to Cowgate street level below. Huge water storage tanks for sprinkler system located beneath George IV Bridge roadway (1992-99).

Statement of Special Interest

The National Library of Scotland is a distinctive example of 20th century civic building, occupying a critical location on George IV Bridge. The renowned architect, Reginald Fairlie's design for the The National Library is one of Edinburgh¿s most prominent examples of the 'classical-modern' style, with Fairlie himself describing the buildings apperance as one of 'frigid serenity'. It makes effective and functional use of its narrow site, with 9 storeys descending to the Cowgate running beneath George IV Bridge. Featuring restrained ornamental detailing, both inside and out, the building relies on its considerable massing and proportions for its effect. The windowless upper two-thirds of the principal elevation was designed to ensure traffic noise from the street did not reach the main reading room behind, which is instead lit by a series of large circular cupolas and further windows to the East elevation. There are nine book stack floors below the level of George IV Bridge and descending down to the Cowgate below. Built using the Snead system, the intermediate floors depend for support on the slender steel columns of the book stackage. There are 50 miles of shelving containing over 2 million books.

Structually the building consists of a steel framework encased in concrete, with outer walls of stone and rendered brick. Fairlie plans for the building were approved and work begun in 1937 but ceased two years later due to the Scond World War. It was completed and opened by the Queen almost 20 years later in 1956. Fairlie died in 1952 and his partner A R Conlon was appointed to complete the work. Staff testimonials refer to the intelligent and workable design of the building.

The seven large stone figures on the street elevation are the work of Hew Lorimer, the second son of the renowned Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. They symbolise the arts of civilisation: Medicine, Science, History, The Poetic Muse, Justice,Theology and Music. The lower wings each contain three carved panels depicting various ways in which ideas are transmitted to the mind.

Built on the site of the former Sheriff Court House. The building was extended to the rear in 1985, occupying most of the former yard at Cowgate level.

List description updated at resurvey (2007/08).



John Gifford et al, Buildings of Scotland - Edinburgh, (1991) p184. Charles McKean, Edinburgh - An Illustrated Architectural Guide (1992) p50. Dictionary of Scottish Architects, (accessed 22.06.2007). Further information courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

About Designations

Listed Buildings

Listing is the way that a building or structure of special architectural or historic interest is recognised by law through the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997.

We list buildings of special architectural or historic interest using the criteria published in the Historic Environment Scotland Policy Statement.

The statutory listing address is the legal part of the listing. The information in the listed building record gives an indication of the special architectural or historic interest of the listed building(s). It is not a definitive historical account or a complete description of the building(s). The format of the listed building record has changed over time. Earlier records may be brief and some information will not have been recorded.

Listing covers both the exterior and the interior. Listing can cover structures not mentioned which are part of the curtilage of the building, such as boundary walls, gates, gatepiers, ancillary buildings etc. The planning authority is responsible for advising on what is covered by the listing including the curtilage of a listed building. For information about curtilage see Since 1 October 2015 we have been able to exclude items from a listing. If part of a building is not listed, it will say that it is excluded in the statutory address and in the statement of special interest in the listed building record. The statement will use the word 'excluding' and quote the relevant section of the Historic Environment Scotland Act 2014. Some earlier listed building records may use the word 'excluding', but if the Act is not quoted, the record has not been revised to reflect current legislation.

If you want to alter, extend or demolish a listed building you need to contact your planning authority to see if you need listed building consent. The planning authority is the main point of contact for all applications for listed building consent.

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Printed: 22/11/2017 09:18