A Brief History of Edinburgh



As the capital of Scotland ‘Auld Reekie’ or ‘The Athens of the North’ or quite simply Edinburgh, is a city steeped in history and tradition. There is evidence of pre-historic settlements on what is now Castle Hill and evidence of Picts living there have been established. The Picts were dispossessed by the Romans, who had a fort on the site by 84 AD. The next recorded event in the history of Edinburgh is the building of the first church on the site where St Giles Cathedral now stands in the 9th Century. It was also in this century that the King of Dalraida united Scotland into a force capable of taking on the Viking raiders. Whilst his grandson became King Duncan I of Scotland it wasn’t until King Malcolm III became the King that the seat of power moved to Edinburgh. It was he who built a castle to reside in later in the 11th century. With this event and the expansion of dwellings and markets outside the castle the history of Edinburgh emerges.

Whilst he held court in the castle it was Malcolm’s son, King David I, who built the first Holyrood Abbey, establishing what would become the anchor points for the Royal Mile and setting the pattern around which the city would develop. The Wars of Independence saw Edinburgh castle involved in many battles, culminating with it being re-captured for Scotland in 1314 after a daring raid involving scaling its vertical basalt cliffs. Following this, in 1329, Robert the Bruce  granted Edinburgh a Royal Charter making it a city. In 1450 a city wall was constructed which, whilst creating an outer defensible zone for the castle, also had the effect of creating a virtual ghetto for the citizens. Packed into a very tight area, buildings started to soar to more than 10 storeys high, creating a medieval New York sky-line and appalling over-crowding.

The next significant event in the history of Edinburgh was probably Mary - Queen of Scots - giving birth to her son James, who went on to become King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England. When James moved his court from Edinburgh to London in 1603 the fortunes of Edinburgh took a down-turn, which took many years for it to recover from. Around this time Holyrood Palace became as important a residence for the royals as was the castle at the other end of the Royal Mile. Despite some minor involvement in the Jacobite Risings  of 1715 and 1745, the last action the castle saw was in 1689 when William and Mary laid siege to it before being offered the Scottish throne.

Fortunately, prior to the Act of Union in 1707, the city had already founded major banking institutions and was renowned throughout Scotland for its business acumen. So, despite the Act of Union not helping the city to restore its status neither did it depress it further. Indeed Edinburgh went on become known as a ‘hotbed’ of innovation and learning from the mid 1700s through the Victorian period. This was also the period that the wastelands to the north of the Old Town were reclaimed and became the New Town.

As the ‘age of enlightenment’ progressed in Edinburgh such notable figures as the economist Adam Smith and writers Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson emerged. The onset of the Victorian period saw a rapid expansion in the fortunes of the city. The Edinburgh-Leith railway was built in 1831 immediately increasing the volume of trade the city could handle from the port and docks at Leith. Lines to Glasgow in 1842 and London in 1846 further expanded that trade and the city’s reputations as a banking and finance centre. Other famous names associated with Edinburgh in these times include: James Clerk Maxwell - who founded the principle of electro-magnetism, Alexander Graham Bell - telephone pioneer, James Hutton - the father of modern Geology, Charles Darwin - Biologist and Max Born - Nobel Laureate Physicist. As always whilst some prospered from the expansion in trade, others in the city lived in abject poverty. It was in Victorian times that the nick-name ‘Auld Reekie’ started to be used. It arises from the tenements that were built in the Old Town, resulting in the ‘better off’ people living on the middle and higher floors, whilst the poor lived on the lower and even basement apartments in what were described contemporarily as ‘unhygienic and smelling’.

Whilst Edinburgh prospered in Victorian times it was never a major centre of manufacturing. Instead the city’s wealth was accrued from its financial and legal professional standings. Subsequently as the industrial revolution came to an end and cities throughout the UK went into recession, Edinburgh carried on pretty well as before. The result of this was that, unlike many other places, money was available for old parts of the city - like the old and new towns - which were cared for and renovated rather than being bull-dozed to make way for new buildings.

In more recent times events in the city’s history include the inauguration of the Edinburgh International festival in 1947 and the holding of two Commonwealth Games in 1970 and 1985. The city was also the birthplace of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and even more recently the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. For many citizens Edinburgh was restored to its rightful status in 1999, when the Scottish Parliament sat again in the city, after an absence of nearly 300 years.

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