The most enduring image of Scotland to most people who have never visited it, was not even made by a Scot.
Those above 25 would probably recall seeing the movie Braveheart, where Australian Mel Gibson reprised the role of Sir William Wallace, a Scottish nationalist who led the Scots against the English in 1305.
Wallace and his men won the battle but lost the war, only for others to pick up where he left off. In 1314, one of the most important persons in Scottish history, Robert the Bruce brought a Scottish Army and faced the English off at the Battle of Bannockburn, a battle vital to reclaiming Scottish Independence. Robert the Bruce won that battle decisively, taking back the last major Scottish Castle in the hands of the English a vital victory in the Scottish War of Independence.
Hence the romance of plucky little Scotland, against the snobbery and ‘tyranny’ of the English yolk continues to this day.
It is not just a romantic notion but one that hits you when you step into Edinburgh. For while the flag that flies highest is that of the Union Jack the national flag accompanying it is not St George’s Cross, but St Andrew’s, while the people speak English they speak it with a proud (and rather charming) Scottish accent, while London is the capital of the Kingdom Edinburgh is the true capital of the nation.
And it is in Edinburgh, the historical heart of Scotland that the story of Scotland unfolds. Edinburgh is the seat of power in Scotland and has been recognised as the seat of Scottish government since at least the 13th century and now the home of the Scottish Parliament, Supreme Court and the Palace of Hollyrood.
Edinburgh’s story goes back much further though, back to 8500 BC. It was settled by Celtic tribes called the Votadini in the 1st century AD when the Romans arrived. While England and the rest of continental Europe was swept under Roman control (Zurich and Barcelona being examples of the earliest Roman conquests), the Romans stopped when they met the fierce Celts in the land of Caledonia. The Picts were fierce and tough, fiercer and tougher than anything the Romans had every faced. Chastised, the Romans retreated to present day north England and built a wall instead – Hadrian’s Wall.
That began a different development trajectory of the Scots, separate from the Romanised Angles. The Votadini peoples evolved into a group called the Gododdin and it was the Gododdin who first settled in the area we know as Edinburgh today, it was originally called Din Eidyn. The choice of Edinburgh was a military one. Even though the Romans had built a war and decided not to cross it, the Anglo-Saxons had no such qualms. The dissolution of the Roman Empire led to the rise of Kingdoms all across the British Isles, by the end of the Roman era, there were four major kingdoms present day England – Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia. Present day Scotland too had four kingdoms the Pictish Kingdom of Fortiu, the Gaelic Kingdom of Dal Riata, the Britons of Strathclyde and Angles (of the English).
Peace was not an option.
The choice of Eidyn was therefore appropriate since the hill, known today as Castle Hill, was a rock formation with steep and deep falls on three sides and sloping only to the East and the sloping hill was cut off from all sides by an equally long lake (the Norr Loch). This meant that the city could be easily defended from a height, and so a burh (or burgh, fortress) was built on the hill. It was this burh, that gave the city the name, Edin-burgh.
Edinburgh Castle, the fortress and foundation of the city
Rome’s fall meant that a period of instability would have to take place before peace would be found. And it began in 840 with the rise of Kenneth MacAlpin and the Kingdom of Alba. The Kingdom of Alba would take the Roman religion, and adopt it as their own in 900 AD, from there they expanded throughout Scotland, and eventually annexed and united the majority of present-day Scotland under the Kingdom of Alba in the 10th century.
It is here that the story of a unified Kingdom of Scotland with Edinburgh as the capital begins to take shape. The Kings of Alba liked Edinburgh for the same reasons as the Picts and Gododdins liked it and soon enough it was the capital of the Scots, being described as such in the 14th century by the French historian Jean Froissart.
Scotland was constantly at war with the English and that meant that the defence of the city was of paramount importance. First, the whole of the city was therefore built in the old town that was fortified by walls. Second was an Alliance with the traditional enemy of the English, the French – the enemy of my enemy is my friend – called the Auld Alliance.
Being the capital of the nation also meant that it was the scene of some of the most defining moments of Scottish history, including the the Scottish Enlightenment, Scottish Reformation in the 16th Century led by John Knox and the 17th Cenutry War of the Convenant.
St Giles Cathedral, central to the religious story in Scotland
Since the city was clearly important, people moved in to live, work and make a name for themselves. The only way to house the people was to build up, as such Edinburgh was one of the few old cities that pioneered ‘high rise’ housing. Unique to the time however, instead of creating ghettos, all the apartments in Edinburgh were home to all income groups, the rich lived on the lower floors (much safer in a fire or disaster) and the most wretched squeezed 30 into a tiny room. Being in such close contact between the rich and poor meant that the social fabric of Edinburgh was therefore rather unique. It was not safe to allow people to come in and out of the city easily and so a tax was levied on those leaving the city. The city population therefore grew, since generations of poor people grew up never leaving the tiny area bounded by the fortified walls.
The Royal Mile of the Old Town, now one of the most important tourist sites in the city
The machinations of politics however meant that the natural antagonism between Scotland and England was put to a halt in 1707 when Scotland and England signed an Act of Union bringing both Kingdoms under the rule of a single monarch.
The loss of a threat meant the boundaries of a castle were not a priority, this enabled the city to develop and allowed the rich and mercantile class to develop a new town next to the old town. The new town was everything the old town wasn’t. Large grand squares, beautifully paved and spacious walkways, neat grids and bright alleys. It was the height of design of the time.
Edinburgh’s New Town
Because all power was centralised in London, Edinburgh lost all of its political faculties – including its own parliament and government. But this was not seen as a problem, because 18th century Scotland was entering a golden age.
The 18th century was perhaps a golden age for Scotland because Scotland’s intellectual enlightenment occurred then, with great minds such as Adam Smith the father of modern Economics, philosopher David Hume and Scotland’s foremost literati Robert Burns among a sea of geniuses to be nurtured in the nation.
Scots were vital to the British colonial enterprise especially with an outsized role in the establishment and running of places such as Singapore, and cities like Glasgow becoming the industrial powerhouses during the period.
But the gradual decline of the British Empire threatens once again to change all this, the decline of empire after World War II, saw Scots begin to call for devolution and devolved government. The calls got louder over time. In 1997, the curtains closed on the British Empire in 1997 when the last significant colony, Hong Kong, was handed back to China.
That same year, the Scots voted for a devolved parliament.
In 1999 the Scots got that devolved government, and their own Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh regained its political importance once again.
In two elections, the Scottish National Party – an Independence leaning party – won control of the Scottish Parliament and has governed Scotland for the last 12 years. The Act of Union came under great threat in 2014, when a Scottish Independence Referendum saw 45% of Scots vote for Independence from the UK.
What will happen in the future in the continuing story of Scotland and the UK? I don’t know.
What I do know is that whatever will happen, Edinburgh will be at the heart of the story. It’s time to explore what makes Edinburgh so special.
p.s: England and Scotland do feel a bit like two different countries, funnily enough, there is perhaps an actual geographical reason for the difference.