Audio Point Two – Nor Loch and Cockburn Street.

A short sample from Edinburgh Audio Guide – Nor Loch and Cockburn Street.

Edinburgh is divided into two distinct main areas: the Old Town and the New Town.

Located around the Royal Mile, the Old Town is the historic part of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages. It is known for its narrow, winding alleyways and closes, that lead steeply downhill on both sides of the Royal Mile.

The New Town, on the other hand, was built in the 18th and 19th centuries as a response to the overcrowding and poor living conditions in the Old Town. The New Town is famous for its grand Georgian architecture, large open squares and grid-like street layout.

The two areas are separated by Princess Street Gardens – a long and narrow valley which was once filled with the waters of Nor Loch.

The two historic areas of Edinburgh are connected by two bridges and the Mound – an artificial slope made up of dirt and rubble excavated from the foundations of Edinburgh’s New Town. An estimated 1.5 million cartloads of earth were dumped into the valley to crate the Mound.

One of the bridges that spans the valley is Waverley Bridge also known as Waverley Street.

As you walk across the bridge you can see the Waverley railway station in the valley under the bridge. The railway station is named after Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels.

In the 15th century King James III of Scotland ordered the flooding of the valley north of the city to strengthen the castle’s defences. That body of water became known as Nor Loch.

Medieval Edinburgh, also known as the Old Town, was one of the most densely populated and overcrowded towns in Europe.

The town was built within defensive walls. As a result, the residents were forced to build upward, constructing tall and narrow houses, known as tenements. These houses were built close together, leaving narrow and winding passageways between them, often no more than a few feet wide.

As the city grew and expanded Nor Loch became increasingly polluted. Household waste and raw sewage from 50 thousand people living in high-rise tenements was washed down the steep slopes of Old Town and into the lake.

It is said that on warm summer days methane gas and stench from the noxious waters of Nor Loch was so strong that it caused people to hallucinate.

Nor Loch was drained in the 19th century to make space for Waverley railway station and Princes Street Gardens.

At the end of Waverley Street, just after the roundabout, begins Cockburn Street.

This picturesque street with bright, colourful facades of bars, restaurants, and gift shops leads up the north slope of Castle Hill from Waverley Station to the Royal Mile.

Cockburn Street was built in the 19th century across the northern slope of the medieval city to give carriages and wagons a much easier gradient to climb from the railway station to the Royal Mile.

On both sides of Cockburn Street, you can see several medieval wynds and closes. In Edinburgh, a “wynd” is a narrow, often steep street or alleyway. A “close” on the other hand, is a narrow, often gated, alleyway or passageway that leads off from a street or wynd.

Some of the closes in the Old Town date back to the 16th century.

Fleshmarket Close is one of these narrow passageways that run from the Royal Mile to a slaughterhouse at the side of the Nor Loch.

As the name suggests, Fleshmarket Close was once the site of a meat market, where meat and animal carcasses were sold and hung along the alley. All the waste form the meat market would have washed down the steep close into the Nor Loch.

In the 17th & 18the centuries Edinburgh was a crowded city with population crammed into medieval skyscrapers reaching 12-14 stories up. Many families were forced to share the same room, often with only a single window and minimal ventilation.

There was no running water or sewage system in the Old Town, instead ‘chamber pots’ were used as a toilet. Every night, people on the upper floors of the tenements would open their windows and empty the contents of ‘chamber pots’ down into the narrow lanes below.

The waste was cleaned up by scavengers or was washed by the rain down the steep closes into Nor Loch.

In the morning these damp and dark alleyways were filled with market stalls selling meat, fish, bread, ale and other basic foods. In medieval Edinburgh all basic foods were sold in the streets. Only exotic goods such as tea, tobacco, sugar, and spices were sold in the shops.

Nowadays narrow closes on both sides of Cockburn Street offer a glimpse into the past of the Old Town. Walking up and down these ancient lanes can be quite an experience, especially on quiet and foggy winter evenings.