Town Guide

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, 4K
Edinburgh has played a pivotal role in Scottish, and British, history for many hundreds of years. And today it is still one of the UK's most important, and popular, cities, attracting over a million visitors every year.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Bronze Age, 1K The origins of the city lie in the Bronze Age, when a small settlement was founded on the site of today's Castle. It was an unsettled and precarious time and so it is highly probable that the birth of Edinburgh was firmly founded in the need for defence.

With one glance at the strategic position of today's Edinburgh Castle - perched atop a rocky outcrop of volcanic rock - anybody can see why the first settlers were attracted to this dominant spot.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Romans and Celts, 1K During the Roman period there were several Roman settlements in the area around Edinburgh, some within 5 miles of today's castle. However the Romans never actually occupied the Castle Rock. Instead it remained a Celtic stronghold under the rule of various tribes, including the Gododdin.

It is believed that the origins of the name Edinburgh lie in this period for many historians claim that it was the Gododdin tribe who named the settlement Dun Eidyn, meaning "hill fort".

By the 7th century, however, the English had captured most southern parts of Scotland, including Dun Eidyn, and as a result the name became anglicised to Edinburgh. It was also during this period of Edinburgh's history that the first Castle was built on Castle Rock, although no trace of the earliest buildings remains today.

The Castle continued to be expanded over the following centuries, and it became the centre of a thriving community. Then, by the 10th century the English had been driven south and so Edinburgh was once again a Scottish city.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Malcolm III, 1K In 1058 Malcolm III (1058-93) became King of Scotland and in 1076 he built a small chapel on the highest point of Castle Rock for his wife, Queen Margaret. This chapel, St Margaret's Chapel, has survived to this day, making it the oldest building in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, David I, 1K Malcolm and Margaret had several children, three of whom became subsequent kings of Scotland. David I (1124-53) was one of them and under his reign 12th century Edinburgh thrived.

In 1125 he declared the city a Royal Burgh, indicating that it was large enough to be worthy of taxation. And by the end of his reign, Edinburgh was one of the most important towns in Scotland, even having its own mint.

In terms of Edinburgh's history, however, David's reign is perhaps best remembered for the Augustinian Abbey that he founded at Holyrood in 1128.

Legend has it that whilst out hunting one day, David was attacked by a stag and thrown from his horse. However he was saved when a cross, or "rood", appeared in his hand. In order to thank God for saving his life David founded the Abbey, naming it after the "rood" that saved him.

These two major establishments, the Castle and the Abbey, dominated the early development of the city of Edinburgh. The Abbey was situated outside the city of Edinburgh to the east of the Castle and over the next few hundred years as the city expanded it did so towards the Abbey.

And as a result a natural thoroughfare developed between the two. This road was to become Edinburgh's most famous street - today still known as the Royal Mile.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, The Church, 1K After the Abbey was founded Edinburgh attracted several other religious orders, including the Black Friars who arrived in the city in the 11th century. As a result Edinburgh gained a reputation as an ecclesiastical town, the lasting legacy of which is several interesting churches and chapels, including the High Kirk of St Giles' which dates from the 12th century.

The ever dominant presence of Edinburgh Castle would suggest that throughout its early history the city had been subject to attacks, however much of this was, in fact, relatively peaceful.

But then in 13th century the situation began to deteriorate. Increasing tensions between the Scots and the English led to the English King Edward I attacking Edinburgh in 1296, the outcome being the capture of Edinburgh Castle by Edward.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, William Wallace, 1K The result of this was a War of Independence led by the Scottish rebel William Wallace (yes - he of Braveheart fame!). Wallace was eventually captured and executed in 1304, however the Scots' resolve remained undiminished.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Robert the Bruce, 1K The Scottish hero Robert the Bruce then led a second War of Independence in 1306, with the Scots achieving victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1328 the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed by Robert I of Scotland and Edward III of England, which recognised Scotland's independence.

For the next hundred years or so, however, Scottish politics remained turbulent and bloody. A series of weak kings were succeeded by children too young to take the throne and so the period was characterised by a series of power struggles, Edinburgh being the venue for many of them.

And of course, all the time the Scottish throne was continually threatened by various English Kings who were looking to take power in Scotland.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Renaissance, 1K Nevertheless, Edinburgh flourished. The city was ever expanding and many of the twisting closes and wynds of the Old Town date from this period. Commerce in particular was thriving, not least because of Edinburgh's proximity to the busy port of Lieth.

Then, in 1480, James IV ascended to the throne of Scotland, and under his reign Edinburgh experienced a glorious period of renaissance. In 1498 he founded the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the site of the Abbey, and a few years later he founded a Scottish navy based in Edinburgh.

The arts and sciences also flourished - the first Scottish printing press was built in Edinburgh in 1507; Edinburgh's surgeons and scientists gained a world-wide reputation for excellence; and writers and poets such as Robert Henryson and William Dunbar lived in the city.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Battle of Flodden, 1K This period of renaissance, however, was short lived and in 1514 the Scots were again defeated by the English in the Battle of Flodden. As a result the Flodden Wall was hurriedly built around Edinburgh in the expectation that the city would be attacked by the English king, Henry VIII. Remains of this wall can still be seen today.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Mary Queen of Scots, 2K However, an attack didn't happen. Instead Henry VIII planned to conquer Scotland by means of a marriage between his son and Mary Queen of Scots. In order to "encourage" the marriage, Henry's forces looted Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, events that are known as the "rough wooing".

In response the Scots turned to France for support - French troops were sent to help defend Edinburgh and the young Mary fled to Paris. The initial aim was a success - the English threat was eliminated, and in 1560 a Treaty of Edinburgh was signed between France and Scotland.

However, all was not well. The French became increasingly unpopular amongst Edinburgh's citizens, and a new problem emerged - religion. The French were staunch Catholics, however Scotland was increasingly moving towards Protestantism.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, John Knox, 1K In 1555 the Calvinist preacher John Knox had become minister of Edinburgh's High Kirk of St Giles, and the city's citizens were soon converted. The culmination of this meant that in 1560 the Scots expelled the French from Edinburgh and Scotland was declared a Protestant country.

Thus when the Catholic Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 she faced a turbulent time. Without the support of her protestant nobles, Mary was soon defeated and so her son James VI became King of Scotland.

The tragic reign of Mary Queen of Scots has become one of the most famous periods of Edinburgh's history, and the fated queen has gone down in history as one of Scotland's most romantic figures.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, James VI, 1K James VI's reign started off well enough for Edinburgh, for example he founded the University of Edinburgh in 1582. However, it was not long before events in England were to have a profound effect on Scotland's, and Edinburgh's, history.

The English Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 without leaving an heir, and so James VI of Scotland was nominated as a successor. The result was the Union of the Crowns, whereby James VI of Scotland also became James I of England.

Although James had promised to continue to spend time in Edinburgh, in reality he spent most of his reign in London only visiting Edinburgh once. This result of this was that Edinburgh lost much of its political power and status to England.

Nevertheless Edinburgh continued to be a significant influence in Scotland. For example, in 1695 the Bank of Scotland was founded in Edinburgh, leading the way for the city to become the major financial centre that it is today.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Act of Union, 1K But then in 1707, Edinburgh's position was again to be severely undermined by the Act of Union which merged the Scottish and English parliaments. Scotland was subsequently to be governed from London, essentially underlining the fact that Edinburgh (and Scotland) no longer had any independent political power.

Despite this, the Act of Union promised to guarantee Scotland's independent religious, educational and legal systems. And so whilst it was politically overshadowed by London, Scotland retained its own culture and traditions, and so Edinburgh remained a distinctly Scottish city in its own right.

During this period of political uncertainty, Edinburgh was still renowned as a centre for writers, philosophers, scientist and other intellectuals. For example it was during the 18th century that some of Scotland's most famous writers and artists were frequenting Edinburgh - Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns being among them.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, New Town, 1K In the 18th century Edinburgh also continued to expand rapidly - the medieval part of Edinburgh, now known as the Old Town, no longer being large enough to contain the city's rapidly growing population.

A solution to the problem was sought in the form of a public competition inviting plans to develop the city. The young architect James Craig won - his plan being an elegant Neo-classical development located to the north of the Castle.

The building work was carried out between 1767 and 1830, and immediately became known as the New Town. These original parts of the New Town are now some of the most famous streets in Edinburgh - the three parallel streets of Queen Street, George Street and Princes Street.

The initial New Town development was a huge success, so much so that more developments were added throughout the Victorian period. The result was one of the most attractive cities in the whole of Europe, and Edinburgh was soon dubbed the "Venice of the North".

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, George IV, 1K At the same time Edinburgh was entering a new phase politically. By the early 19th century, the political tensions between England and Scotland had quietened to such an extent that in 1822, George IV became the first reigning British King to visit Scotland for nearly 200 years.

In celebration of his arrival in Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott organised a celebratory pageant at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. As part of the celebrations Scott dressed many participants in tartan kilts - thus single-handedly establishing the romantic figure of the Scottish Highlander.

Scotland, and in particular Edinburgh, became instantly fashionable, and English society developed a thirst for all things tartan. This period can therefore be seen as the start of Edinburgh's life as a major tourist attraction.

For the Scots there was a subsequent surge of national pride and as a result the Honours of Scotland, which had been hidden in Edinburgh Castle since 1707, were put on public show.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Industrialisation, 1K By the end 19th century Edinburgh, like most of Britain's other major cities, was beginning to be transformed by another great force - industrialisation. For example the railway first reached the city in 1842 and the Forth Bridge opened in 1890.

As a consequence of industrialisation Edinburgh underwent huge urban expansion, transforming it into the sprawling city that it is today.

However, whilst many cities became transformed by heavy industry, Edinburgh retained its association with professions such as law and banking - giving it the distinctly "white collar" feel that remains to this day.

Edinburgh is particularly unusual amongst British cities in that much of today's architecture dates from before the 20th century.

This is because unlike many southern British cities, Edinburgh survived the two World Wars relatively unmarked. And as a result it also escaped the blight of post-war architecture that has affected many of the UK's other cities.

This means that Edinburgh is one of the most aesthetic, and historically most "complete", of the UK's major cities, a fact recognised in 1995 when the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Festival, 1K The outstanding beauty of the city is undoubtedly the main reason that Edinburgh is one of the UK's most visited cities. But one of the other main reasons that Edinburgh has become such a big tourist attraction is its strong association with international events.

It has twice been host to the Commonwealth games (1970 and 1986). And of course there is the world famous Edinburgh International Festival that was first held in 1947.

Edinburgh Town Guide, History, Scottish Parliament, 1K In more recent years, Edinburgh is once again playing a central role in Scottish history. When Tony Blair's Labour government was elected in 1997, there were renewed demands that Scotland should have its own parliament, and that it should be held in Edinburgh.

As a result, after nearly 300 years of English domination, Edinburgh is set once more to be Scotland's political centre - ensuring its continuing significance in Scottish, and British, history.

Edinburgh A-Z

| A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | W | Y | Z |

Edinburgh Town Guide Home Page

Travel Advice | Accommodation in Edinburgh | Other Town Guides