Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and a city that nearly half a million people call home. In fact, people have been calling this fantastic location ‘home’ according to archaeological finds, as far back as 8500 BCE (the Mesolithic Period). Traces of later Bronze and Iron Age settlements have been found in the area, most notably on Castle Hill (the hill that leads up to Edinburgh Castle) and Arthurs Seat, the extinct volcano that sits within the boundaries of Holyrood Park.
It is easy to see what attracted people to these sites as they are both commanding locations in relation to the surrounding countryside and they are within a short distance of the sea. And so, it became that this valuable real estate was fought over frequently throughout history, initially between local Celtic tribes, then towards the end of the first century by the Romans who marched in and claimed it as their own, displacing the Celtic tribe known as the Votadini.
By 211CE the Romans had retreated south behind Hadrians Wall and eventually left Britain for good in 411CE.
The next 700 years was a tumultuous time for the country as a whole. Various Kingdoms fought over its ownership and there was no stability until King David I of Scotland (Alba) defeated his nephew to claim the Kingdom of Scotland as his own and introduced feudalism into the Scottish psyche. This period is referred to as the Davidian Revolution by scholars to summarise the changes that took place. Part of this revolution was the foundation of ‘royal burghs’ of which Edinburgh was the most prominent.
During David I’s reign a royal castle was built at the top of Castle Hill replacing the old fort that had dominated its heights previously. He also founded Holyrood Abbey a mile away from the castle. A road sprung up between the two sites known as the Royal Mile and it is from this road that the modern shape of Edinburgh started to grow from.
The city’s oldest surviving building is St Margaret’s Chapel that is within the walls of Edinburgh Castle at its highest summit and was believed to have been built in the 12th Century.
During the Wars of Independence, a series of military campaigns fought between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries the city changed hands numerous times and suffered a lot of damage. The castle itself was captured by the English between 1296 and 1322 and in 1385 the Cathedral and Town Hall were burnt down. Despite this the city still thrived and became famous for its main exports of wool and leather which were shipped out from the Port of Leith.
After defeat at the Battle of Flodden against the English in 1513, the inhabitants of the city built the Flodden Wall to protect themselves. However, the wall was not very effective and the English would breach it to attack the city on several more occasions. At this time approximately 12000 people lived within the boundaries of Edinburgh but the population was expanding rapidly and it wasn’t long before the Royal Mile started to get built up as expansion was impossible due to the city walls hemming them in and soon multi-story houses, some up to 12 stories high began to line the roads. A feature of the Royal Mile is these high-rise dwellings that soar above you.
In 1707 the Act of Union was signed and united the Kingdoms of England and Scotland which became the United Kingdom.
Edinburgh continued to thrive and its population grew rapidly to such an extent that Daniel Defoe the English author of Robinson Crusoe commented on his visit that ‘in no city in the world [do] so many people live in so little room as in Edinburgh’.
This high population in cramped conditions made the whole place extremely unhealthy with bubonic plague, typhus and cholera problems that were faced on a daily basis by many people. Where Princes Street Gardens are now used to be known as the Nor Loch and was where the effluent and waste water were thrown by the residents of the Old Town. Edinburgh was one of the most unsanitary towns in Europe. But this was soon to change as the Nor Loch was drained and a massive development project began. In the second half of the 18th Century the city was at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment and became known as the Athens of the North due to its neo-classical buildings and reputation for education.
Built in several stages from the 1760s to the 1830s, the New Town of Edinburgh was the largest planned city development in the world at that time, and it proved an outstanding success in bringing commercial and cultural dynamism to the city. It attracted the rich and powerful businessmen who had forsaken the Old Town for London to return to the new Edinburgh.
A new vibrant Edinburgh coupled with the Scottish Enlightenment that was sweeping Scotland between the late 18th and early 19th Century created huge advances in philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry and sociology put Edinburgh and her universities firmly on the map. It was the place to be.
Due to the Act of Union in 1707 the city was no longer restricted by its surrounding defensive walls and it quickly began to see growth in all directions. By the end of the 19th Century nearly a quarter of a million people lived in Edinburgh. It became a centre of finance and trade. The New Town had been built, the Old Town was getting upgraded to improve living conditions, Princes Street and surrounding areas were awash with new businesses and commerce.
This expansion and improvement has continued to the present day, a new financial district has sprung up and Edinburgh is now recognised as the second largest financial and administrative centre after London. The city also houses the Scottish Government who are responsible for governing Scotland and has done so since the Scotland Act of 1998.
This was a fleeting introduction to Edinburgh throughout its history and with the help of the Hidden History App you really can turn the streets you walk on into the museum you never knew existed. The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh were added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO’s) list of World Heritage sites in 1995. So, go and explore more of this fantastic city!