History of Edinburgh

Edinburgh Audio Guide

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The story of Edinburgh began with a small Hill Fort on top of a massive volcanic rock and a settlement next to its walls. This became the capital of Scotland and one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

When Romans arrived in Scotland in the 1st century AD, they discovered that the land around Castle Rock was inhabited by a Celtic tribe called Votadini. They had built a hill fort on top of the Castle Rock known as Dun Eidyn.

In the 7th century the Angles of the Kingdom of Northumbria captured the castle and it became known as Eidyn-burgh.

In 1130 Scottish King David 1st gave the small settlement on the slope behind the castle the title of “royal burgh”. Edinburgh began to grow rapidly thanks to the lucrative trade in timber, wool, and skins through the port of Leith on the Firth of Forth with access to the North Sea coast.  Leith is now a suburb of Edinburgh.

To encourage rapid development of the royal burgh local merchants were given plots of land along the road leading to the castle (now known as the Royal Mile). There was a condition – they had to build a house on the plot within a year and a day.

The first stone structures in Edinburgh Castle are believed to have appeared in the 12th century, during the reign of King David I of Scotland.

One of them is the chapel of St. Margaret built in 1130 by King David and named after his mother Queen Margaret, who was canonised for her many acts of charity. This little chapel is said to be the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh.

During the Wars of Scottish Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Edinburgh and the castle were in English hands. In 1314, the Scots recaptured the castle and completely destroyed it so that the English troops could not gain a foothold in it.

In the second half of the 15th century, King James II of Scotland settled in the castle and Edinburgh officially became the capital of Scotland.

In the 16th century, Edinburgh was under constant threat of invasion by English troops. Following Scotland’s defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 work began on construction of defensive walls around the city.

For over 250 years, until the 18th century, the rapidly growing population of Edinburgh was severely constrained by the defensive walls. The city could not expand beyond the walls so it began to grow upward. Thus, the first medieval “skyscrapers” appeared – named Tenements.

Some of these high-rise tenements were up to 14 storeys high with a labyrinth of narrow wynds and closes between them.

In medieval Edinburgh, rich and poor lived together in the same high-rise tenements.  The wealthy occupied the upper floors away from the smells and noise of the streets, while the poor lived on lower floors and in the basements.

Large numbers of people were crammed into these medieval skyscrapers. Often several families shared the one room and they all had to use the same bucket, or ‘chamber pot’, as a toilet.

Every evening the contents of chamber pots were emptied through the windows into the narrow lanes between the houses. All this waste would be washed down into the lake Nor Loch – a body of water to the north of the city.

The foul smell from Nor Loch’s stagnant waters – combined with the billowing smoke from the city’s chimneys – is the origin of Edinburgh’s affectionate name “Auld-Reekie.”

Medieval Edinburgh was a prosperous city inhabited by merchants, servants, artisans, jewellers and lawyers who served the Scottish royal court and nobility.

The High Street was the centre of business life in the medieval city, with a wide variety of market stalls and craft shops lining the street. These included merchants selling goods such as textiles, food, and household items, as well as craftsmen like blacksmiths and jewellers. The street would have been bustling with activity and was a hub of trade and commerce in the city.

In 1603, Edinburgh’s prominence as the capital of Scotland began to decline. King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne and moved from Edinburgh to London where he spent most of his life.

As a result of the Union of the Crowns, Edinburgh’s role as the centre of political power in Scotland waned. The Scottish court, which had been based in Edinburgh, spent more time in London, and the city lost much of its political significance.

In the middle of the 18th century, the population of Edinburgh reached 50 thousand. People and livestock lived in a small, overcrowded and unsanitary city without running water or sewerage.  The town was ridden with filth, disease and crime. Some dilapidated multi-storey buildings collapsed without warning and many lives were lost under the rubble.

When the sanitary conditions in the Old Town became unbearable the City Council decided to take action and expand the city to the North. An architectural competition was launched inviting submissions for the design of the New Town.

The competition was won by an unknown 26-year-old architect – James Craig. His design was an example of simplicity and classic symmetry – two magnificent garden squares – connected by a spectacular thoroughfare with three intersecting streets completing the grid design.

The names of the squares – St Andrew Square and St. George’s Square – symbolise the union of the nations and the main throughfare linking the squares is named after the king at the time, George III.

In the late 18th century Nor Loch, a polluted body of water north of the Old Town, was drained to allow construction of North Bridge which links the Old Town and the New Town. The drained area of the Nor Loch was also used to create Princes Street Gardens, providing a much-needed green space for the city.

The New Town with its wide, symmetrical streets, open squares, and large palace-like houses attracted a growing number of wealthy residents.

In addition to its magnificent neo-classical architecture, Edinburgh was also home to a large number of philosophers, writers, poets and intellectuals who lived in the city during the 18th century.

It was a centre of learning and intellectual activity, and it attracted some of the most prominent figures – of what was called the Scottish enlightenment – such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Robert Burns.

This vibrant community of thinkers and creatives led Edinburgh to be recognized as a centre of cultural and intellectual life, earning it the nickname “Athens of the North”.

Today Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, the second largest financial centre in the United Kingdom and a beautiful, confident and sophisticated metropolis.