Edinburgh History – The Middle Ages
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about Edinburgh History, you’re in the right place!
Edinburgh began as a fort on Castle Rock, the main hill where the castle is located today. Here is an easily defended position so that’s why the earliest settlers chose here. In the 7th century, the English captured this part of Scotland and they called this place Eiden’s burgh (burgh is the old word for fort). The fort of Eiden. During the 10th century, the Scots re-captured the fort. King Malcolm III built a castle on Castle Rock late in the 11th century. This helped protect the area therefore a small town grew up nearby. By the early 12th century, Edinburgh was a flourishing community.
King David I founded Holyrood Abbey in 1128. Holyrood Abbey was manned by Augustinian canons who gave their name to Canongate. (Gate refers to the old “gait” which means road).
The Middle Ages continued…
Throughout the Middle Ages in Edinburgh there were Friars. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. In Edinburgh there were Dominican friars (known as black friars) and Augustinian friars (known as grey friars). They both lived in friaries on the South edge of Edinburgh.
Medieval Edinburgh was famous for making wool cloth. Nearby was the settlement of Leith which acted as the port for Edinburgh. The main export was hides. Cattle and sheep were sold at the Cowgate market. They were then butchered in the town. Grain and hay were sold in the Grassmarket after 1477.
In 1296, the English captured Edinburgh castle and held it until 1322.
Edinburgh was given a charter in 1329 as a sign of it’s growing importance. This charter gave the people of the town some rights. Edinburgh suffered in constant warfare between Scots and English. The Scots wish the English would just leave already! The English burned St Giles Kirk and the Town Hall in 1385. Despite this, the Scottish people of Edinburgh continued to reproduce and by the 15th century it was Scotland’s capital city.
Edinburgh History in the 16th Century
By 1500, Edinburgh had a population of around 12,000. It rose to about 15,000 by 1550. In those days this is considered large as the world population estimate in 1500 was only between 425-540 million! As Edinburgh grew, a suburb was built around Canongate. Between 1513 and 1560, a wall was built south of Edinburgh to keep out the English. The English just wouldn’t stop trying to invade! Some believe this is because they loved the women of Scotland!
Sir William Bruce built Holyrood Palace during the 1500’s. It’s amazing that these buildings are still standing today. John Knox’s House was also built during the 1500’s.
When the English attacked in 1547, they captured Edinburgh castle and tortured the residents. Edinburgh was also besieged in 1571 during a civil war. Edinburgh also suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There were plague attacks 1585 and 1645. Edinburgh fortunately recovered fro each plague attack!
English writer described Edinburgh in the 16th century as this: ‘From the King’s Palace in the east the city rises higher and higher to the west and consists mainly of one broad and very fair street. The rest of the side streets and alleys are poorly built and inhabited by very poor people. Its length from east to west is about a mile while the width of the city from north to south is narrow and cannot be half a mile’.
Edinburgh History – Edinburgh in the 17th Century
In the 17th century Edinburgh grew in size and prosperity despite plague outbreaks in 1604 and 1645. Thatched roofs were banned in Edinburgh in 1621 because they were causing too many fires.
In 1623 George Heriot, a wealthy merchant, left money in his will to found George Heriot’s School, one of the most expensive and exclusive schools in Scotland to this day. Moray House was built 1628-1630. Acheson House was built in 1633 and Parliament House was built in 1632-39.
In 1633, Charles I was crowned in Edinburgh but made the mistake of alienating both the people of England and Scotland. The last straw for Scotland was when he tried to change the peoples religion by introducing a new prayer book. In the 1600’s, people were very religious and were having none of this! It caused riots in St. Giles Cathedral! The rioting even spread into more of Edinburgh’s churches. After months of unrest, a national covenant was drawn up demanding the king respect Scotland’s pre-existing religious beliefs. After pominent Scots signed it in Greyfriars Kirk, the king effectively lost power over Scotland.
In 1650, after the battle of Dunbar, the English occupied Edinburgh once more! Edinburgh continued to grow in size and prosperity. By the end of the 17th century the population of Edinburgh risen to around 50,000.
During this time, the original Botanic Gardens were founded in 1670 and the Palace of Holyrood House was rebuilt in 1672. In 1685, on the year of his death, a statue of Charles II was erected in Edinburgh and Canongate Kirk was built in 1688.
Edinburgh History in the 18th Century
Edinburgh continued to grow during the 18th century. By mid century it was severely overcrowded and dirty. The Lord Provost decided to build the new town on the land North of the nor’ Loch in Edinburgh. To decide what plan to go ahead with, they had a competition in 1767. The winner was young architect, James Craig.
In 1759, the city fathers finally drained the disgusting Nor Loch, a body of sewage water north of Edinburgh. It used to be a regular loch (lake) however before there was modern plumbing, people of Edinburgh would dispose of their waste out the window and it would drain into the loch. North Bridge was built in 1772 to connect the old and new town. It was mainly the wealthy who moved to the new town, to escape the overcrowding and poverty in the old town. The Assembly Rooms were built in 1787. After James Craig died, his work was continued by men like Robert Adam who designed Charlotte Square in 1791.
Although Georgian Edinburgh was not a manufacturing center, there was an important shipbuilding industry in Leith which is now considered part of Edinburgh due to Edinburgh’s large expansion.
Edinburgh History – Edinburgh in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, Edinburgh did not become a manufacturing hub and lost its position as Scotland’s most important city to Glasgow, which was a manufacturing powerhouse. The significant industries in Edinburgh at the time were printing, brewing, law and banking.
Edinburgh was also famous for its literary figures and was called the Athens of the North. Edinburgh was considered the upper and middle class city and Glasgow the working class city. This stereotype is still present to this day. Despite the elegance there was a lots of of poverty, overcrowding and homelessness. This can still be seen today. The problem has been exacerbated by record low interest rates and refusal from the council to build on greenbelt land. Like other cities, Edinburgh suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and in 1848-49.
Despite failing to become an industrial centre, Edinburgh grew exponentially during the 19th century. The population was under 100,000 in 1801 and grew to 170,000 in 1851. Increased sanitation, less crowding and no war helped the population grow this rapidly.
Edinburgh in the 19th Century – Finishing The New Town
Princes Street in the New Town was finished by 1805 and by the early 19th century, the New Town was complete. In the mid 19th century many Irish immigrants moved to Edinburgh fleeing from famine. This angered many Scots and sectarian hatred is still an issue in Scotland to this day.
During the 1800’s, amenities in Edinburgh improved. The Nelson Monument was erected in 1816 and The National Monument was erected in 1829. The Scott Monument followed in 1846 and The National Gallery was built in 1857.
The railway finally reached Edinburgh in 1842 and The Royal Infirmary was founded in 1870. The National Portrait Gallery opened in 1889. After 1895 Edinburgh was lit by electric street lights. This reduced crime at night. Things are starting to really improve for the city.
In 1847 Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh. Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes was born in Edinburgh in 1859.
Edinburgh in the 20th Century
In the 20th century, Edinburgh remained a city of banking, insurance and other service industries. Edinburgh’s famous floral clock was made in 1903, Edinburgh zoo opened in 1913 and Usher Hall opened in 1914. The Scottish National War Memorial was built in 1927. In the 20th century, effort was made to make Edinburgh a fun city rather than the focus being merely on survival.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Edinburgh council started clearing the slums that appeared in Edinburgh. They put these people in council houses on the outskirts of the city in places like Pilton and Sighthill. Many more council houses and flats were built after 1945.
Amenities in Edinburgh continued to improve. City Museum opened in Edinburgh in 1932, Portobello swimming pool was opened in 1933 and the first Edinburgh festival was held in 1947. Today, the Edinburgh festival in August is massive and brings flocks of tourists to the city.
During the 20th century, the old industries of insurance, banking, printing and brewing in Edinburgh continued to flourish. In the late 20th century tourism became an increasingly important industry and today is one of the main drivers for the economy. The Museum of Childhood opened in 1955.
Edinburgh in the 20th Century continued…
Then Traverse Theatre opened in 1963 and St James Shopping Centre opened in 1970. St James Shopping center is currently undergoing a major renovation! The Commonwealth Swimming Pool was built for the Commonwealth Games which were held in Edinburgh in 1970 and The City Art Centre opened in 1980.
Cameron Toll Shopping Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1984 and Princes Mall in 1985. The Gallery of Modern Art opened in Edinburgh in 1984 and The Peoples History Museum opened in 1989.
The Gyle Shopping Centre opened in 1993 and The International Conference Centre opened in 1995. The Scottish Tartan Museum opened in Edinburgh in 1997 and The Museum of Scotland opened in 1998. In 1999 the Dynamic Earth exhibition opened.
Also in 1999 a Scottish parliament opened in Edinburgh after a gap of 292 years.
All these additions to Edinburgh during the 20th century cemented it’s place as a tourism destination.
Edinburgh in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, Edinburgh history is being created as you read this. Edinburgh has continued to thrive. Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre opened in 2001. A tram system was built in Edinburgh. Today, the population of Edinburgh is approaching 500,000. Many exciting new developments are currently being built to the West of the city along with the new St. James centre. It will be interesting to see how the council deal with the ever rising population.