The history of edinburgh's old town

It’s the capital city that very nearly wasn’t. When Robert the Bruce awarded Edinburgh its charter in 1329, it’s unlikely he knew that, only ten days later, he’d be lying on his deathbed, sick from syphilis; after all, he was only 54 which, even by the standards of the Middle Ages, fell well short of an average lifespan. In granting the town its charter, Robert was preparing the ground for Edinburgh to become the country’s seat of government and chief centre for commerce; within 35 years, the French chronicler Jean Froissart was describing Edinburgh as ‘the capital of Scotland’, instead of the more likely candidate, Berwick-upon-Tweed which, although wealthier and larger, was probably a little too close to England for comfort.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

The birth of Edinburgh

Human habitation around Edinburgh stretches as far back as 8500BC, while the origins of the Old Town can be traced to the seventh century AD, when the Gododdin established the hillfort of Din Eidyn on or close to Castle Rock, tempted by its proximity to the River Forth and its elevated and highly defensible position. This became the main stronghold of the Lothian province and was the site of repeated battles over the next three hundred years after falling to Northumbrian control; Etin gained the Old English suffix -brugh, as the language became dominant throughout the region.

The fortification by Malcolm Cranmore, son of Malcolm II, of Castle Rock in the tenth century AD – the site of the modern Edinburgh Castle, although few of the original buildings remain – marked the beginning of the development of the Old Town.

200 years later, the granting by David I of a royal charter, established the town’s reputation as a centre for manufacturing, mainly in cloth weaving, and as a market, stimulating a prosperity that attracted craftsman from all over north-west Europe.

Below the royal fortress on Castle Rock, land was divided up into tofts along the street that is famously the Royal Mile today and were allocated to merchants who were encouraged to build houses. This was the start of the jumble of tenements that distinguishes the Old Town from the New, where Georgian common sense established spacious townhouses along wide avenues and around open squares. But it was also the foundation for the area that ominously became known as ‘Auld Reekie’.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

Fire, pestilence and plague

By 1400, there were only 350 houses in Edinburgh, but nevertheless it was the most populated burgh in Scotland, a housing problem that was later exacerbated by the construction of the Flodden Wall, which successfully repelled the English but also imprisoned the locals. Unable and unwilling to expand outwards, there was little choice but to build upwards, creating a bizarre higgledy-piggledy heap of tenements that towered above an intricate warren of wynds and closes. And in this hellscape, squalid conditions prospered, as did crime, pestilence and plague.

Although Edinburgh remained the seat of government until the Act of Union in 1707, conditions for residents showed no signs of improvement; with a population of 40,000 squeezed impossibly into an area of 140 acres, this is hardly surprising. It wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century, after a series of fires and building collapses, that local councillors finally recognised the need for a new town beyond the confines of Edinburgh’s walls – and what followed was a masterpiece of civil planning that established the city as a world leader for hundreds of years to come.

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

PHOTO BY @sunxjin

What was life in Old Edinburgh like?

A fetid, disease-ridden abyss. Life in Edinburgh’s Old Town was miserable.

The rapid expansion of the Old Town within the confines of the city walls committed tens of thousands of citizens to unbearable suffering with little chance of escape. The sky-high tenements, rooms stacked upon rooms in an ungainly fashion, became gaols for rich and poor, the wealthiest commandeering the top floors to be as far away as possible from the maze of foul-smelling streets and wynds below. Typically, families resided in a single room, sometimes together, and the narrow thoroughfares became a putrid sea of human and animal excrement. Scavengers, paid by the council, swept the streets each evening, removing the filth and depositing it beyond the walls; however, rain often washed it into Nor’ Loch, the swamp that bordered one side of Castle Rock, a site for public executions and witch trials, and the only source of water for many of the Old Town’s residents.

‘Auld Reekie’, as Edinburgh became known, was not a reference to the stench of the city’s streets, but a nod to the smoke pollution that hung cloud-like over the Old Town, produced by the open fires in the crowded tenements. During the daytime, the streets were packed with market stalls of fishmongers, butchers, bakers, candle-makers, weavers and other craftsman, many of whom had been attracted by Edinburgh’s royal burgh status from as far afield as France and the Netherlands. The bloodletting of carcasses and the degutting of fish took place on the streets, with the bodily fluids pooling beneath. But the Old Town was a vibrant and noisy place, dominated by the sounds of tradesman selling their merchandise, animals freely milling around, residents laughing, calling and chatting, and crowds jeering at the sight of miscreants being punished, or hanged, at the Mercat.

Each evening, at ten o’clock, the sound of a drum would instruct residents to retire to their tenements, with the gates to the closes, the small courtyards that led off the main streets, locked overnight. Life in Edinburgh’s Old Town trapped the city’s residents in more ways than one.


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