In last month’s blog I looked at the history of Edinburgh from early times, until the early 18th century, when I have Alexander MacGregor showing his two young sons the wonders of the city. Alex is fascinated, Duncan horrified, and on a personal level, I think most of the people reading this would have shared Duncan’s opinion!
If you combine narrow, gloomy streets in which the sun never penetrated, no piped water or sanitary facilities and a lack of knowledge about bacteria or viruses, you can get an idea of what life was like! Chamber pots were emptied out of the window directly into the streets, along with all other refuse, in the hopes that it would slowly run down the steep street into the Nor loch, a body of water that covered the area that is now Princes Street Gardens. Add to that the smoke from the huge number of fires, and it quickly becomes obvious why Edinburgh earned the nickname ‘Auld Reekie’.
Of course all cities at this time had similar issues, but they were exacerbated in Edinburgh by the overcrowding. As there was a fee to be paid to enter the most populated part of the city, many poor people could not afford to leave the crowded, polluted streets to take a walk in the countryside, so lived their whole lives there. This resulted in the Netherbow Port Gate (which imposed the charges) being thought of as ‘The World’s End’, as for many poor souls, it was. This spot is now marked by metallic tiles in the road, and The World’s End pub.
During the Jacobite Rising led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart in an attempt to regain the crown for his father, James, Edinburgh was occupied by the Jacobites for six weeks in 1745. Following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746, Edinburgh was eager to show its loyalty to the victors. With this in mind the council planned to expand the city beyond the existing walls (which now seemed superfluous, as Scotland and England were united politically as well as monarchically), and to renovate along the lines of London.
In 1767 a competition was held to determine the best design for a new town, to be built to the north of the existing town. This was won by a young architect called James Craig, and a series of broad streets and crescents were constructed. It was hoped that this expansion would improve commerce, and the attempts to curry favour with the Hanoverians is shown in various street names, such as George Street, Queen Street, Hanover Street etc. This resulted in many professional people abandoning the old town in favour of the fashionable buildings of the new town. The architect Robert Adam continued Craig’s work, with Charlotte Square, built in 1791.
The Nor Loch was drained, part of it in the late eighteenth century and the western end in the nineteenth. That area is now Princes Street Gardens, and the North Bridge and Waverley Station now stand where the far end of the horrendously polluted loch once was.
Although it never became an industrial city as many others did in the nineteenth century, (Glasgow becoming Scotland’s premier industrial town), it was famous for its numerous literary figures, including Sir Walter Scott, JM Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. For a time it was known as the Athens of the North. It was also a renowned centre for medical practitioners and for the legal profession, as Scotland’s legal system was not taken over by England. Universities were expanded to educate these professional people, and soon Edinburgh became renowned as the first class learning centre of Europe. As a result of this the period known as The Scottish Enlightenment began, with great advances being made not only in medicine and the law, but in science, philosophy and economics, making it an exciting time to be living in the city, if you were an educated person.
However, another result of this expansion was that the old town became completely neglected, making conditions for the poor souls living there even worse than they had been. Properties were not maintained at all, were insanitary and often dangerous, and living conditions for many were unbelievably appalling. This led to the rather less salubrious statistic of Edinburgh having one of the highest mortality rates in Europe.
Some properties were rebuilt following the great fire of 1824 in Edinburgh, but following a damning report on conditions, in 1865 attempts were finally made to address this state of affairs, with many of the most dilapidated buildings being demolished and replaced with new ones in keeping with the mediaeval architecture, but with good living conditions, and many people being rehoused into affordable housing, which reduced overcrowding, and brought the mortality rate down dramatically.
It was also in the nineteenth century that many iconic buildings that can be viewed today were built, including the Sir Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street, The Nelson Monument, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Infirmary.
We are lucky in that the bombing campaigns of World War II left Edinburgh mainly unscathed, so that visitors today can wander along the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle and marvel at the beautiful buildings, wandering down fascinating narrow wynds and closes, and take numerous tours to discover more about the fascinating history of this beautiful city. Although it has changed greatly in many respects since the characters in my novels visited it in the 1720s, if Alex and Duncan were to walk along the Royal Mile today, it would still feel very familiar to them, which is wonderful, I think!