History of Edinburgh


Edinburgh, showing Arthur's Seat, one of the earliest known sites of human habitation in the area


The area around modern-day Edinburgh has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its origins as a settlement can be traced to the early middle ages when a hillfort was established in the area, most likely on the castle rock. From the seventh to the tenth centuries it was part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, becoming thereafter a royal residence of the Scottish kings. The town that developed next to the stronghold was established by royal charter in the early 12th century, and by the middle of the 14th century was being described as the capital of Scotland. Edinburgh's New Town area was added from the second half of the 18th century onwards and it was Scotland's largest city until the early 19th century.




1 Origins

2 Northumbrian Edinburgh (7thC-10thC)

3 Growth of the burgh (11thC-16thC)

4 Union of the Crowns to Parliamentary Union (17thC)

5 18th century

6 19th and 20th centuries

6.1 Recent developments

7 See also

8 References

9 Further reading

10 External links




Humans settled the Edinburgh area from at least the Bronze Age, leaving traces of primitive settlements which have been found on Arthur's Seat, Craiglockhart Hill and the Pentland Hills.[2] The culture of these early inhabitants bears similarities with the Celtic cultures of the Iron Age found at Hallstatt and La Tene in central Europe. When the Romans arrived in Lothian towards the end of the 1st century AD, they discovered a Celtic Brythonic tribe whose name they recorded as the Votadini.[3] At some point before the 7th century AD, the Gododdin, who were presumably the descendants of the Votadini, built a hillfort known as Din Eidyn or Etin, almost certainly somewhere within the bounds of modern Edinburgh. Although the exact location of the hillfort has not been identified, it seems more than likely they would have chosen the commanding position of the Castle Rock, or Arthur's Seat or the Calton Hill.[4] During the time of the Gododdin, the territory of Lothian came into existence, with Edinburgh as its main stronghold.

Northumbrian Edinburgh (7thC-10thC)




Kingdom of Northumbria, c. AD 800


The Angles of the Kingdom of Bernicia had a significant influence on what would be successively Bernicia, Northumbria and finally south-east Scotland, notably from AD 638 when it appears that the Gododdin stronghold was besieged by forces loyal to King Oswald of Northumbria. Whether or not this battle marked the precise passing of control over the hillfort of Etin from the Brythonic Celts to the Northumbrians, it was around this time that the Edinburgh region came under Northumbrian rule. Though not exclusive, Anglian influence predominated for the following three centuries with Edinburgh as a frontier stronghold at the north west extremity of the kingdom. During this period Edinburgh became a place where Old English was spoken[5] and its name acquired the Germanic suffix, "-burh".

While history records little about Northumbrian Edinburgh, the English chronicler Symeon of Durham, writing in c. AD 1130 and copying from earlier texts, mentioned a church at Edwinesburch in AD 854 which came under the authority of the Bishop of Lindisfarne.[6] Traditionally and less certainly, Saint Cuthbert is said to have preached the gospel around the castle rock in the second half of the seventh century.[7]


In the late ninth century the Danelaw, centred on York, was established in the wake of Viking raids on Britain. The northern part of Northumbria was cut off from the rest of England by the Old Norse-speaking Danes, significantly weakening what remained of the kingdom.[8] During the tenth century its northernmost part, which had retained its Brythonic name Lothian, came under the sway of the Kingdom of Scotland. The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba records that "oppidum Eden", usually identified as Edinburgh, [9][10] "was evacuated, and abandoned to the Scots until the present day." This has been read as indicating that Lothian was ceded to the Scottish king Indulf who reigned from AD 954 to 962. Thereafter Edinburgh remained under the jurisdiction of the Scots.[11]


Growth of the burgh (11thC-16thC)


In AD 973 the English king Edgar the Peaceful formally granted Lothian to Kenneth II, King of Scots. The historian Marjorie Anderson holds that this was the key event in assuring Scottish rule over Lothian. Certainly, by the the early 11th century the Scottish hold over the area was secured when Malcolm II ended the Northumbrian threat by his victory at the battle of Carham in 1018.[12] While Malcolm Canmore (r.1058-1093) kept his court and residence at Dunfermline, north of the Forth, he began spending more time at Edinburgh where he built a chapel for his wife Margaret to carry out her devotions. St. Margaret's Chapel within Edinburgh Castle has been traditionally regarded as Edinburgh's oldest building, though most scholars now believe that in its surviving form it was more likely built by Margaret's youngest son David I in his mother's memory.[13]



Reconstructed view of Edinburgh in the 15th century

In the 12th century (c.1130), King David I, established the town of Edinburgh as one of Scotland's earliest royal burghs, protected by his royal fortress, on the slope below the castle rock.[14] Merchants were allocated strips of land known as "tofts", ranged along both sides of a long market street, on condition that they built a house on their land within a year and a day. Each toft stretched back from the street to a perimeter dyke and formed a private close (from Old French clos), meaning an enclosed yard.[15] A separate, contiguous burgh of regality held by the Abbey of Holyrood developed to the east as the burgh of Canongate. [16]

After the first loss of Scotland's main trading port, Berwick, to English occupation in the 1330s, the bulk of the kingdom's profitable export trade in skins and hides was routed through Edinburgh and its port of Leith.[17] By the middle of the 14th century, in the reign of David II, the French chronicler Froissart described the town of around 400 dwellings [18] as "the Paris of Scotland" (c.1365 ).[19] The Scottish king James II (1437-60) was "born, crowned, married and buried in the Abbey of Holyrood",[20] and James III (1451–88) described Edinburgh in one of his charters as "the principal burgh of our kingdom" (principalior burgus regni nostri).[18] By the reign of James V (1512–42) Edinburgh's assessment for taxation sometimes equalled the combined figures for the next three burghs in the kingdom; its proportion of total burgh taxation amounting to a fifth or a quarter and its total customs to a half or more.[21] Despite wholesale destruction reported by contemporaries at the time of the Hertford Raid in 1544, the town slowly recovered with its burgess population of merchants and craftsmen continuing to serve the needs of the royal court and nobility.[22] Although there were periodic outbreaks of plague, most notably in 1568, 1584–88 and 1645,[23] the population doubled between 1550 and 1625, and tripled by 1650.[24]

The town was at the centre of events in the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century[25] and the Wars of the Covenant in the following century.[26]



Union of the Crowns to Parliamentary Union (17thC)


In 1603 King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, uniting the monarchies of Scotland and England in a regal union known as the Union of the Crowns.[27] In all other respects Scotland remained a separate kingdom retaining the Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh. King James VI moved to London where he held court, relying on a Privy Council to effect his rule in Scotland.[28] Despite promising to return to his northern kingdom every three years, he returned only once, in 1617.[29]



A surviving bastion of the Flodden Wall (ahead) with its 17th-century extension on the right

Stiff Presbyterian opposition to King Charles I's attempt to introduce Anglican forms of worship and church governance in the Church of Scotland culminated in the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, the initial conflicts in the civil war period.[30] In 1650, following Scottish support for the restoration of Charles Stuart to the throne of England, Edinburgh was occupied by the Commonwealth forces of Oliver Cromwell[31] who went on to inflict a final defeat on the Scots at the Battle of Worcester.[32]


In the 17th century, Edinburgh was still enclosed within the 140 acres[33] of its "ancient royalty" by the defensive Flodden and Telfer Walls, built mainly in the 16th century as protection against possible English invasion.[34] Due to the restricted land area available for development, houses increased in height to accommodate a growing population. Buildings of 11 stories were common; some, according to contemporary travellers' accounts, even taller, as high as 14 or even 15 stories.[35][36] These were often described by later commentators as precursors of the modern-day high-rise apartment block.[37] Most of these old structures were later replaced by the predominantly Victorian buildings of the Old Town.

In 1706 and 1707, the Acts of Union were passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland uniting the two kingdoms into the Kingdom of Great Britain.[38] As a consequence, the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain, which sat at Westminster in London. The Union was opposed by many Scots at the time, resulting in riots within the city.[39]


18th century



The 18thC castle and burgh


By the first half of the 18th century, despite rising prosperity evidenced by the growth of the Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland and British Linen Bank, all based in the city, Edinburgh was being described as one of the most densely populated, overcrowded and insanitary towns in the whole of Europe.[40][41] Daniel Defoe's remark was typical of many English visitors, "... though many cities have more people in them, yet, I believe, this may be said with truth, that in no city in the world [do] so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh".[40]

A striking characteristic of Edinburgh society in the 18th century, often remarked upon by visitors,[42] was the close proximity and social interaction of the various social classes. Tradesmen and professionals shared the same buildings.

In the flats of the lofty houses in wynds or facing the High Street the populace dwelt, who reached their various lodgings by the steep and narrow 'scale' staircases [stair-towers] which were really upright streets. On the same building lived families of all grades and classes, each in its flat in the same stair—the sweep and caddie in the cellars, poor mechanics in the garrets, while in the intermediate stories might live a noble, a lord of session, a doctor or city minister, a dowager countess, or writer; higher up, over their heads, lived shopkeepers, dancing masters or clerks.[43]



18thC Edinburgh was a warren of narrow closes (alleys) like this one drawn by James Drummond in 1850

One historian has ventured to suggest that Edinburgh's living arrangements may themselves have played a part in engendering the spirit of social inquiry associated with the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment: "Its tall lands (tenements) housed a cross-section of the entire society, nobles, judges and caddies rubbing shoulders with each other on the common stair. A man of inquiring mind could not live in old Edinburgh without becoming a sociologist of sorts." [44]

During the Jacobite rising of 1745, Edinburgh was briefly occupied by the Jacobite "Highland Army" before its march into England.[45] After its ultimate defeat at Culloden, there followed a period of reprisals and pacification, largely directed at the rebellious clans.[46] In Edinburgh, the Town Council, keen to emulate Georgian London, stimulate prosperity and re-affirm its belief in the Union, initiated city improvements and expansion north and south of the castle.[47]

Although the idea of a northwards expansion had been first mooted around 1680, during the Duke of York's residence at Holyrood, the immediate catalyst for change was a decision by the Convention of Royal Burghs in 1752 to propose improvements in the capital for the benefit of commerce.[48] The Convention issued a pamphlet entitled Proposals for carrying on certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh, believed to have been authored by the classical scholar Sir Gilbert Elliot and heavily influenced by the ideas of Lord Provost George Drummond. Elliot described the existing town as follows,

Placed upon a ridge of a hill, it admits but of one good street, running from east to west, and even this is tolerably accessible only from one quarter. The narrow lanes leading to the north and south, by reason of their steepness, narrowness and dirtiness, can only be considered as so many unavoidable nuisances. Confined by the small compass of the walls, and the narrow limits of the royalty, which scarcely extends beyond the walls, the houses stand more crowded than in any other town in Europe, and are built to a height that is almost incredible. [49]



James Craig, the architect who won the competition to design a plan for the New Town. Portrait by David Allan

The proposals for improvement envisaged the building of a new Exchange (now the City Chambers), new law courts and an advocates' library, expansion north and southwards, and the draining of the Nor Loch.[50] As the New Town to the north took shape, the Town Council expressed its loyalty to the Union and the Hanoverian monarch George III in its choice of street names, for example, Rose Street and Thistle Street, and for the royal family: George Street, Queen Street, Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Princes Street (in honour of George's two sons). [51]

From the 1770s onwards, Edinburgh was at the forefront of the unprecedented period of intellectual innovation and cultural expression known as the Scottish Enlightenment [52] when figures such as David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton, Joseph Black, Robert Adam, William Robertson and Adam Ferguson walked its streets. The city earned the nickname "Athens of the North" because of the classical architecture of its public buildings and the New Town, as well as its reputation as an intellectual centre, similar to Ancient Athens.[53] The novelist Smollett described it as a "hotbed of genius".[54] The 3rd President of the United States Thomas Jefferson, writing to the philosopher Dugald Stewart in June 1789, declared that as far as science was concerned, "no place in the world can pretend to a competition with Edinburgh".[55]

From the late-1760s onwards, the professional and business classes gradually deserted the Old Town in favour of the more elegant "one-family" residences of the New Town, with separate attic or basement accommodation for domestic servants. This migration changed the social character of the city. According to the foremost historian of this development, "Unity of social feeling was one of the most valuable heritages of old Edinburgh, and its disappearance was widely and properly lamented." [56] The Old Town became an abode of the Poor. Observing conditions there in the 1770s, a widely-travelled English visitor already reported that, "No people in the World undergo greater hardships, or live in a worse degree of wretchedness and poverty, than the lower classes here."[57]


19th and 20th centuries


Although Edinburgh's traditional industries of printing, papermaking and brewing continued to grow in the 19th century and were joined by new rubber, engineering and pharmaceutical works, there was little industrialisation compared with other cities in Britain. By 1821, Edinburgh had been overtaken by Glasgow as Scotland's largest city. The latter, having benefited initially from the Atlantic trade with North America, became a major manufacturing centre of the British Empire.[58] Edinburgh's city centre between Princes Street and George Street became a major commercial and shopping district, sweeping away most of the original Georgian architecture of that part of the New Town.[59] This development was partly stimulated by the advent of railways penetrating the city centre from east and west in the 1840s. The Old Town became an increasingly dilapidated, overcrowded slum with high mortality rates[60] and segregated socially from the rest of the city.[61] Following the publication of Dr. Henry Littlejohn's 'Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the City of Edinburgh', major street improvements were carried out in the Old Town under Lord Provost William Chambers, and the City Improvement Act of 1867 initiated the transformation of the area into the predominantly Victorian Old Town seen today.[62] Many of the buildings are in the mock-Jacobean architectural style known as Scots Baronial.

During World War I, Edinburgh was bombed only once on 2 April 1916. A German Zeppelin raid dropped high explosive and incendiary devices over Leith, the road by the Mound, Lauriston Place, the Castle rock and the Grassmarket. Civilian deaths, injuries and property damage resulted.[63]

More piecemeal improvements followed in the early 20th century at the instigation of the pioneering town planner Patrick Geddes, who described his work as "conservative surgery",[64] but a period of relative economic stagnation through the two world wars and their aftermaths saw the fabric of the Old Town deteriorate further before major slum clearance in the 1960s and 1970s began to reverse the process. Even so, its population dropped by over two-thirds (to 3,000) between 1950 and 1975; and of 292 houses in the Cowgate in 1920 only eight remained in 1980.[65] In the mid-1960s, the working-class area of Dumbiedykes was swept away almost overnight and the George Square area, which represented the major part of the city's original southwards expansion in the 18th century, fell victim to new University building developments. The mediaeval suburb of Potterrow, which lay outside the town walls and had been rebuilt in the Victorian period, was obliterated in the process.[66] By the late 1960s, such developments perceived by many as unsympathetic to the historical character of the city, together with the further remodelling of sections of Princes Street, prompted the eminent historian Christopher Smout to urge its citizens "to save the New Town from the vandalism of neglect and development carried on today with the consent of the present council, whose crocodile tears and pretty exhibitions do nothing at all to stop the builders' rape of the capital".[67]



Panorama of Edinburgh, seen from the Scott Monument


Recent developments


Since the 1990s a new "financial district", including a new Edinburgh International Conference Centre, has grown mainly on demolished railway property to the west of the castle, stretching into Fountainbridge, a run-down 19th-century industrial suburb which has undergone radical change since the 1980s with the demise of industrial and brewery premises. This ongoing development has enabled Edinburgh District to maintain its place as the second largest financial and administrative centre in the United Kingdom after London.[68] Financial services now account for a third of all commercial office space in the city.[69] The development of Edinburgh Park, a new business and technology park covering 38 acres, 4 miles west of the city centre, has also been a key element in the District Council's strategy for the city's economic regeneration.[69]


In 1998, the Scotland Act, which came into force the following year, established a devolved Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive (renamed the Scottish Government since July 2012). Both based in Edinburgh, they are responsible for governing Scotland while reserved matters such as defence, taxation and foreign affairs remain the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament in London.



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Further information: Timeline of Edinburgh history



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