The city of Edinburgh features in The Highlander’s Tale: Alex, and I hopefully managed to give readers a flavour of eighteenth-century Edinburgh, but I thought it was time to write a blog about the history of this fascinating and beautiful city, the capital city of Scotland.
There have been settlements around the area now known as Edinburgh for thousands of years, and almost certainly Castle Rock (now site of the castle) was used as a lookout post. By the 7th century AD the Gododdin, a British tribe decended from the Votadini, dominated the area, and had built a fort on Castle Rock. You need to bear in mind that at this time what we now know as Scotland was a series of Kingdoms, the Gododdin being one of these, which possibly included the Lothian and Border areas of modern-day eastern Scotland.
In 638AD the fort and settlement was besieged by the Angles of Northumbria, and shortly after this the whole area became part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. We don’t know a lot about Edinburgh at this time, other than that the fort was now called Eiden’s Burg and there was mention of a church there, possibly the forerunner of St Giles’ Cathedral.
By the tenth century the Vikings were making frequent attack on Britain, and were settling in considerable areas. Their attacks resulted in the northern part of Northumbria being isolated from the southern part, which led to the area coming under the control of the Kingdom of Scotland. The territory still came under attack from the Angles, but in the early 11th century Lothian was granted to the King of Scots, Kenneth II, by the English King Edgar. In 1018 the Scottish King Malcolm II defeated invading Northumbrian forces, and Edinburgh’s future as part of Scotland was finally secured.
I will look at the history of Edinburgh Castle in a future blog, but by the twelfth century, Edinburgh was established as a royal burgh by King David I, and merchants were granted strips of land there on the condition that they built a house on it. The strips of land were ranged along a long street, and formed what is now known as the Royal Mile, which stretches from the castle at the top, down to Holyrood Palace at the bottom (at that point site only of an Augustinian Priory, built in 1128).
A century later the city, by then consisting of around 400 buildings, was an important manufacturer of woollen cloth, which was exported from nearby Leith. Between 1291 and 1341it saw a lot of action as it went from being Scottish to English and back again. In 1385 the English burnt down St Giles’ Kirk and the town hall, but in spite of these troubles, Edinburgh continued to thrive, and by the fifteenth century was effectively the capital of Scotland, with a population of about 12,000 in 1500, rising to 15,000 by 1550. This made it a significant town at the time.
A suburb was built around the Canongate, and a wall to the south, in an attempt to keep out the English, who continued to attack it periodically, including in 1547 and 1571.
A visitor in the sixteenth century described the city as having one broad and fair street about a mile long, with many side streets and alleys inhabited by very poor people. Anyone who has visited present-day Edinburgh will still recognise this description of the Old Town, with its long main street off which branch numerous wynds and closes!
In 1561 Mary Queen of Scots, on returning to her kingdom from France, found the city a frightening place, in the main because she was a Catholic, and Edinburgh was in the grip of a Protestant frenzy, seeing Mary as a threat to their faith. It was in Edinburgh that the queen’s intensely unpopular husband Lord Darnley was assassinated, and Mary left Edinburgh soon after.
In the following years Edinburgh continued to grow, with a university being established there in 1581, and the tollbooth ten years later. Numerous wealthy people built substantial houses in the area around Holyrood Palace, and in 1633 King Charles I was crowned in Edinburgh. Ironically it was in Edinburgh years later (in St Giles’ Church) that a riot began against his attempted imposition of a prayer book, which then spread to other churches, leading to the National Covenant, which demanded that the king respect Scotland’s religion. As a result of this, King Charles lost control of Scotland.
After King Charles I’s execution by the English in 1649, the Commonwealth period began, and for a time Edinburgh was occupied by the English again.
It continued to grow, and by the mid-eighteenth century, when Alexander is showing his two young sons the glories of the capital in The Highlander’s Tale, it had become very overcrowded, which was causing series problems in terms of hygiene and disease. This overcrowding was caused by the defensive walls that surrounded the city, meaning that people could not spread outwards. As a result of this people built upwards, some of the buildings reaching twelve to fifteen stories on either side of very narrow alleys. This was an incredible feat of construction at the time, and some of these edifices still exist. By this time the population was some 50,000.
In next month’s post I’ll continue the history of Edinburgh, from the 1700s to the present day.