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History of Edinburgh

The earliest human sites recorded in the Edinburgh area date back to 8500 BC and the first signs of habitation on the Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat and surroundings date to 900 BC approximately.

Although the origin of Scotland is fascinating, we are going to skip to the Middle Ages and explain how Edinburgh got its name and explore other interesting dates and information.  

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, a small fort called Dun Eiden was built by the Gododdins probably on the Castle Rock, although the exact location is unknown. In the seventh century the Angles (the tribe which gave its name to England) attacked the Gododdins and invaded the fort. The Angles took the name “Eiden” and joined it to “Burh”, an old English word meaning fort, thus creating the name of Edinburgh. The fort and the region were not re-captured by the Scots until 1018.

Castillo de Edimburgo al anochecer
Castillo de Edimburgo al anochecer

It is uncertain when the royal castle was built on the Castle Rock, but it is believed that it was constructed little before or during the twelfth century, probably during the reign of David I. A settlement began to grow on the east side of the Rock at this time and Edinburgh and Canongate, considered royal burghs, were allowed to conduct foreign trade.

During the Medieval period, the concept of a friar was founded. Friars, unlike monks, worked for a community and could leave the monastery. In Edinburgh there were Dominican friars, dressed in black, and the Augustinian friars, dressed in grey.  Both lived in the southern part of Edinburgh.

During the fourteenth century commerce began to grow and Edinburgh became known for its wool. Wool and leather goods were exported from Port Leith. The cattle were sold in Cowgate and the cereal and hay were sold at the Grassmarket.

Despite the constant battles against the English (the Castle was captured between 1296 and 1322 and in 1385 the Cathedral and the Town Hall were burnt down), Edinburgh developed as a prosperous city. During the fifteenth century Edinburgh was made the royal capital of Scotland and the Palace of Holyrood was built between 1671 and 1678 for Charles II.

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - The gloomy and over-populated Edinburgh

Around the year 1500 approximately 12.000 people lived in Edinburgh. The population grew rapidly and reached 15.000 in less than half a century later.

Mary King's Close
Mary King's Close

After the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the inhabitants of the city built the Flodden Wall around Edinburgh to protect it from the English. However, the wall was not very effective and the English would attack the city in several occasions.

Since Edinburgh was surrounded by the wall, its population that continued to grow steadily built multi-story houses. The first stone high rise buildings were constructed in the Royal Mile and were sometimes up to 12 stories high. When these “lands” (residential houses in Scots) were not enough, the citizens built wooden houses on top of the stone houses.

Edinburgh became a filthy city continually hit by plagues, illnesses and fires. By the end of the seventeenth century, the city had a population of 50.000 people.

The Eighteenth century – The New Town

In the seventeenth century, Daniel Defoe, English author of the novel Robinson Crusoe remarked about Edinburgh “that in no city in the world [do] so many people live in so little room as Edinburgh”.

The bubonic plague, typhus and cholera were present in the everyday lives of Edinburgh’s population. These would shout “Gardyloo” when they would throw waste water from their windows into the street to warn passersby. The citizens would fling their household waste into the Nor Loch (the actual Princes Street Gardens), and many historians believe that it was also used for drinking water. Edinburgh was one of the most unsanitary towns in Europe.

In 1752 it was proposed to expand Edinburgh but it is not until 1767 that the plans of the New Town were designed by James Craig, a young unknown architect who won the competition to design the new part of the city. The architect presented a plan of large parallel streets, squares and gardens. By this period, Edinburgh no longer needed to be circled by a defensive wall since Scotland was united with England in 1707.

By mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh became a popular place for intellectuals, especially in philosophy, history, medicine, science and economics. Between 1768 and 1771, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

During the nineteenth century Glasgow became an important industrial town to the detriment of Edinburgh. The most important industries of the city were the production of beer and the printing industry. Many bankers and lawyers also settled in Glasgow. 

National Monument of Scotland
National Monument of Scotland

The New Town was finished at the beginning of the nineteenth century and attracted Irish immigration, increasing the population to 170.000 in 1850.

Calton Hill, the Scottish National Gallery, the Scott Monument and other interesting constructions were built during this period.

During the twentieth century more museums, department stores and other top attractions for tourists were constructed. This sector grew rapidly and by the end of the twentieth century it had become a popular tourist destination.

On 1 July 1999 the Scottish Parliament was officially opened by the Queen and it reconvened after 292 years. The Scots would be able to make their own laws in health, education and social care. The new building was inaugurated in 2004.