A History of Edinburgh

By Tim Lambert

Edinburgh in the Middle Ages

Edinburgh began as a fort. Castle Rock is an easily defended position so from the earliest times it was the site of a fort. In the 7th century, the English captured this part of Scotland and they called this place Eiden’s burgh (burgh is an old word for fort). In the 10th century, the Scots re-captured the area. Late in the 11th century, King Malcolm III built a castle on Castle Rock and a small town grew up nearby. By the early 12th century Edinburgh was a flourishing community.

In 1128 King David I founded Holyrood Abbey. The Abbey was manned by Augustinian canons who gave their name to Canongate. (Gate does not mean a gate in a wall it is from the old word ‘gait’ meaning road).

In the Middle Ages, there were friars in Edinburgh. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Edinburgh, there were Dominican friars (called black friars because of their black costumes) and Augustinian friars (known as grey friars). Both orders lived in friaries on the southern edge of Edinburgh.

Medieval Edinburgh was famous for making wool cloth. Nearby was the settlement of Leith which acted as Edinburgh’s port. The main export was hides. Cattle and sheep were sold at a market in Cowgate. They were then butchered in the town. After 1477 grain and hay were sold in the Grassmarket.

In 1329 Edinburgh was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights) a sign of its growing importance. However, in 1296, the English captured Edinburgh Castle. They held it until 1322. Edinburgh suffered in constant warfare between the Scots and the English. In 1385 the English burned St Giles Kirk and the Town Hall. Despite this Edinburgh continued to grow and by the 15th century, it was Scotland’s de facto capital.

At the end of the 15th century, the king built Holyrood House. John Knox’s House was also built at the end of the 15th century.

Edinburgh in the 16th century and 17th century

By 1500 Edinburgh probably had a population of 12,000. It rose to about 15,000 by 1550. It seems very small but towns were tiny in those days. By the standards of the time, Edinburgh was a large town. As it grew a suburb was built around Canongate. Between 1513 and 1560 a wall was built south of Edinburgh to keep out the English.

However, the English attacked in 1547 and they sacked Edinburgh castle. They returned in 1547. Edinburgh was also besieged in 1571 during a civil war. Edinburgh also suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There were severe attacks in 1585 and 1645. However, each time Edinburgh recovered.

In the late 16th century an English writer described Edinburgh: ‘From the King’s Palace in the east the city rises higher and higher to the west and consists mainly of one broad and very fair street. The rest of the side streets and alleys are poorly built and inhabited by very poor people. And its length from east to west is about a mile while the width of the city from north to south is narrow and cannot be half a mile’. Huntly House was built c. 1570 and Edinburgh University was founded in 1583. Canongate Tolbooth was erected in 1591. Lauriston Castle was built in 1593.

In the 17th century, Edinburgh grew in size and prosperity. This was despite outbreaks of plague in 1604 and 1645. Meanwhile in 1621 thatched roofs were banned in Edinburgh as they were a fire hazard.

Gladstone’s land was built in 1620 by Thomas Gladstone. Lady Stairs House was built in 1622. In 1623 George Heriot, a merchant left money in his will to found the Heriot School. Moray House was built c. 1628-1630. Acheson House was built in 1633. Parliament House was built in 1632-39.

In 1633 Charles I was crowned in Edinburgh. However, he alienated the people of both England and Scotland. In Scotland, the last straw was when he tried to change the people’s religion by introducing a new prayer book. A riot began in St Giles cathedral when somebody threw a stool at the Dean’s head. The rioting spread to other churches in Edinburgh. After months of unrest, a national covenant was drawn up demanding the king respect Scotland’s religion. Prominent Scots signed it in Greyfriars Kirk. After that, the king effectively lost control of Scotland.

In 1650, after the battle of Dunbar, the English occupied Edinburgh. However, after their departure, Edinburgh continued to grow in size and prosperity. By the end of the 17th century, the population of Edinburgh had probably risen to about 50,000.

Meanwhile, the Botanic Garden was founded in 1670 (it moved to its present site in 1823) and Holyrood House was rebuilt in 1672. In 1685 a statue of Charles II was erected in Edinburgh and Canongate Kirk was built in 1688.

Edinburgh in the 18th century

During the early 18th century Edinburgh continued to grow. By mid-century, it was severely overcrowded. The Lord Provost decided to build a new town on the land north of Edinburgh. In 1767 a competition was held to decide the best plan. The winner was a young architect called James Craig. Accordingly, new broad streets, circuses, and crescents were erected in the New Town.

In 1759 the city fathers also drained the Nor Loch, a body of water north of Edinburgh. North Bridge was built in 1772. The Assembly Rooms were built in 1787. Craig’s work was continued by men like Robert Adam who designed Charlotte Square in 1791.

The Royal Edinburgh Society was founded in 1783. One of the founding members was the great economist Adam Smith.

Although 18th century Edinburgh was not a manufacturing center there was an important shipbuilding industry at Leith the city’s port.

Edinburgh in the 19th century

In the 19th century, Edinburgh did not become a manufacturing center and so lost its position as Scotland’s number one city to Glasgow. The only significant industries in Edinburgh were printing and brewing. Edinburgh remained a city of lawyers and bankers.

Edinburgh was also famous for its literary figures and was called the Athens of the North. Yet alongside upper and middle-class elegance there was a great deal of poverty and overcrowding. Like other cities, Edinburgh suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1848-49.

Despite its failure to become an industrial centre, Edinburgh grew rapidly during the 19th century. The population was under 100,000 in 1801 but it grew to 170,000 in 1851.

Princes Street was finished by 1805 and by the early 19th century the New Town was complete. In the mid-19th century, many Irish immigrants arrived in Edinburgh fleeing from famine.

Meanwhile, amenities in Edinburgh improved. The Nelson Monument was erected in 1816 and The National Monument was erected in 1829. The Scott Monument followed in 1846. The National Gallery was built in 1857.

Furthermore, the railway reached Edinburgh in 1842 and The Royal Infirmary was founded in 1870. The National Portrait Gallery opened in 1889. Furthermore, after 1895 Edinburgh was lit by electric street lights.

In 1847 Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh. Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes was born in Edinburgh in 1859.

Edinburgh in the 20th century

In the 20th century, Edinburgh remained a city of banking, insurance, and other service industries. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s famous floral clock was made in 1903. Edinburgh Zoo opened in 1913. Usher Hall opened in 1914. The Scottish National War Memorial was built in 1927.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Edinburgh council began the task of slum clearance in Edinburgh and built council houses on the outskirts of the city to replace them. Many more council houses and flats were built after 1945.

Meanwhile, amenities in Edinburgh continued to improve. The Museum of opened in 1932. Portobello swimming pool was opened in 1933. The first Edinburgh festival was held in 1947.

During the 20th century, the old industries of insurance, banking, printing, and brewing in Edinburgh continued to prosper. Then in the late 20th century tourism became an increasingly important industry. The Museum of Childhood opened in 1955.

Then Traverse Theatre opened in 1963 and St James Shopping Centre opened in 1970. The Commonwealth Swimming Pool was built for the Commonwealth Games which were held in Edinburgh in 1970 and The City Art Centre opened in 1980.

Cameron Toll Shopping Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1984. Waverley Market Shopping Centre followed in 1985. The Peoples Story Museum opened in 1989.

The Gyles Shopping Centre opened in 1993 and The International Conference Centre opened in 1995. The Scottish Tartan Museum opened in Edinburgh in 1997.

In 1999, a Scottish parliament opened in Edinburgh after a gap of 292 years.

Edinburgh in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Edinburgh continued to thrive. Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre opened in 2001. The National Museum of Scotland was formed in 2006. The Edinburgh tram system began in 2014.

A view of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

In 2023 the population of Edinburgh was 517,000.

A Timeline of Edinburgh

1100 A town grows up near a castle in Edinburgh

1128 David I founds Holyrood Abbey

1296 The English capture Edinburgh Castle

1300 Edinburgh is well known for making wool cloth. It is exported from Leith.

1322 The Scots recapture Edinburgh Castle

1329 Edinburgh is given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

1385 The English burn St Giles Kirk and Edinburgh Town Hall

1500 Edinburgh is a flourishing town with a population of about 12,000. (By the standards of the time it was a large town).

1513-1560 A wall is built south of Edinburgh

1547 The English sack Edinburgh Castle

c. 1570 Huntly House is built

1583 Edinburgh University is founded

1585 Plague strikes Edinburgh

1591 Canongate Tolbooth is built

1593 Lauriston Castle is built

1604 Plague strikes Edinburgh again

1620 Gladstones land is built

1621 Thatched roofs are banned in Edinburgh because of the risk of fire

1633 Acheson House is built. Charles I is crowned king in Edinburgh.

1645 Plague strikes Edinburgh once more

1650 The English occupy Edinburgh

1670 The Botanic Garden is founded

1685 A statue of King Charles II is erected in Edinburgh

1688 Canongate Kirk is built

1700 The population of Edinburgh is about 50,000

1759 The Nor Loch, a body of water north of Edinburgh is drained

1767 A competition is held for the best plan to build a new town on the land north of Edinburgh (because the old town is getting very overcrowded). The competition is won by James Craig.

1772 North Bridge is built

1783 The Royal Edinburgh Society is founded

1787 The Assembly Rooms are built

1791 Charlotte Square is built

1801 The population of Edinburgh is approaching 100,000

1816 The Nelson Monument is erected

1832 Cholera strikes Edinburgh

1842 The railway reaches Edinburgh

1846 The Scott Monument is erected

1848-49 Edinburgh suffers another outbreak of cholera

1851 The population of Edinburgh reaches 170,000

1870 The Royal Infirmary is built

1889 The National Portrait Gallery opens

1895 Edinburgh is lit by electricity

1903 The Floral Clock is made

1914 Usher Hall opens

1927 The Scottish National War Memorial is built

1932 The Museum of Edinburgh opens

1933 Portobello Swimming Pool opens

1947 The first Edinburgh Festival is held

1955 The Museum of Childhood opens

1963 Traverse Theatre opens

1970 St James Shopping Centre opens

1980 The City Art Centre opens

1984 Cameron Toll Shopping Centre opens

1985 Princes Mall opens

1989 The Peoples Story Museum opens

1993 The Gyles Shopping Centre opens

1995 The International Conference Centre opens in Edinburgh

1997 The Scottish Tartan Museum opens

1999 The Scottish Parliament opens in Edinburgh

2001 Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre opens

2006 The National Museum of Scotland is formed

2014 Edinburgh tram system begins

Last revised 2024