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Blog - From hill fort to high jinks: Edinburgh Old Town history

Posted on 09/10/2013

Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, is one of the most iconic cities in Europe. The historic Royal Mile, with the beautiful Edinburgh castle at one end and the grand palace of Holyroodhouse at the other, forms the heart of Old Town. Along the length of the Royal Mile and the labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets branching off it, are a host enchanting tenement buildings, homely restaurants and historical sites, many dating back to the Reformation. Beneath the streets are subterranean chambers which once housed the poor of the city. St Giles' Cathedral, with its ornate tombs and vaulted ceiling and the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, with its many priceless artefacts are also among Old Town's many tourist attractions. During the month of August the Edinburgh Fringe and Festival bring an added dimension to the streets.

Prehistoric Times

The land on which Edinburgh now sits was inhabited as early as the bronze age. It began its life as a settlement during that time and was later a Celtic hill fort settlement.

Medieval Times

In the 10th century, Edinburgh became part of the Kingdom of Scotland and burgh charters were granted by David I and Robert the Bruce. During the Middle Ages Edinburgh expanded and became Scotland's biggest merchant town. The town was was well established as Scotland's capital by the European Renaissance and James IV's reign. Due to limited space, the Old Town become home to many early multi-story residential buildings, which became the norm here during and after the 16th century.

By the 18th century the population of Old Town was approximately 80,000; today it is just 4,000! The Great Fire of 1824 resulted in the destruction of many of many buildings. The rebuilding which followed led to changes in the ground level and the creation of vaults and passages and the construction of new streets, including South Bridge and North Bridge. Political power shifted to London following the 1707 treaty of Union.

Great fire of Edinburgh

A royal castle has occupied the site of the present Edinburgh Castle, on the volcanic Castle Rock, since at least the 12th century. The site continued as the royal residence until the 1603 Union of the Crowns and by the 17th century it had become a military base and large garrison. The Palace of Holyroodhouse has served as the main residence of the Scottish queens and kings since the 16th century and today is the main venue for state occasions and official entertaining.

Modern Times

Today, together with the 18th-century New Town, Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It maintains much of its original street plan and many of its original medieval and Scottish Reformation houses. Unfortunately, a major fire in 2002 destroyed a number of buildings, including the famous comedy club and sections of the informatics department at the University of Edinburgh in Cowgate, a street parallel to High Street. Devolution in 1997 has seen a return of the Scottish parliament at Hollyrood and with it the rise of Edinburgh in the political landscape. With a range of historical buildings and museums, it's not difficult to see why Edinburgh Old Town is the heart of Scotland's tourism industry.