Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, two stages of Scotland

It seemed as if stepped out of the plane and took a bus back in time.

Or at least that was what the journey from the Edinburgh Airport to the Old Town felt like. I had traded modern glass domes and bright white lights for cobbled stoned streets, tall stone buildings and mysterious looking passages in a labyrinthine maze, darkly lit with an orangey tinge, that alternated between romantic and sinister.

I had arrived in Edinburgh’s famed old town.

This is the old town that people like Adam Smith, John Napier, George Heriot, Alexander Graham Bell lived in when they made their careers.

The old town that inspired JK Rowling in writing her world famous Harry Potter series.

The same old town with its strange characters (Deacon Brodie) that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The old town is centered around the main walking street, The Royal Mile is the iconic street that features on every tourist brochure of Edinburgh and for good reason, it was the Royal Mile that gave birth to the city. Edinburgh was founded because it was a crag, that provided a great site for a defensive fortification. A crag and tail formation is a geological formation, described here as, “a tadpole-shaped landform developed by glacial erosion of rocks on unequal resistance. The crags are cliffs developed in near-cylindrical masses of strong rock. The tail is formed in softer rocks sheltered from erosion in its lee.” This means that the Royal mile is a gentle slope from the Edinburgh Castle surrounded on all sides by a steep rock formations and rivers (Nor Loch), therefore the only way any invading army could take control of Edinburgh was to come through the Royal Mile and march on the castle, no easy feat.

Just as the castle became more and more important to the Scots identity, the city then grew around it. Therefore, housed along The Royal Mile are vital parts of Scots history – St Giles Cathedral, where the Scottish Reformation was fought; Hollyrood Palace, where the Royal Family stays when in Edinburgh; Hollyrood Abbey and the modern Scottish Parliament. Apart from streets that branch out from the Royal mile, running off from the Royal Mile are many alleyways known as closes, each of which opens up to different worlds all of which make up the old town.

St Giles Cathedral

But old Edinburgh was first and foremost a castle, and one of the most important fortifications in the medieval era were walls. As such the whole of the old town, was ensconced within a wall. If the world outside was dangerous than it was vital for everyone to live within the walled city, because of constant wars with the English, leaving the city was made difficult and people had to pay prohibitive fees to leave and enter the city. Many of the poorest people therefore lived their whole lives within the walls of the city. Walls created boundaries of expansion, so Edinburgh could not expand outwards, it could only expand upwards. Edinburgh in the 16th century was, therefore, one of the pioneers in high-rise skyscraper living. In 1750, more than 57000 people lived in an area no more than 3 square kilometres, this during a time with poor sanitation, mobility and hygiene.

Edinburgh in the medieval era was a dysfunctional riot. All sorts of functions of life had to take place within this small space, no larger than a few city blocks in any city today. Sex, birth, delivery, marriage, illness, death. Rich and poor lived in the same high rise buildings but on different floors – the richest had whole lower floors to themselves, while the poorest squeezed into overcrowded small rooms. Burial sites were located in the city.

Greyfriars Kirk and the Cemetery within the Old Town, one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world

Markets, where produce was sold and criminals were hung as justice and entertainment combined, were found within walking distance to hospitals. People had to throw their human waste (there were no flush and toilets then) on the streets and let it was down to the nearby lake. The city was ripe for the ravages of pestilence (especially during the Bubonic Plague).

The proximity of souls trapped over centuries in the same small space means that many strange things have happened, with it many gory stories of the past. It’s no surprise then that Edinburgh’s old town is one of the most haunted places in the world. It’s easier to find a documentary about haunted Edinburgh then it is to find of just Edinburgh.

All humans want to live in the best conditions they can afford, what separates the rich and the poor is that the rich can afford to do so. And Edinburgh’s rich had already thirsted for better living conditions, by moving out of this old town. The ground was softened during periods when England and Scotland were ruled under the same monarch when permits were sought to expand the size of the city.

Then came the Act of Union in 1707.

The threat from England greatly reduced (to zero in fact), it became feasible to build a new city outside the city walls. And so the rich abandoned the ‘wretched’ in the old town and established for themselves a new town north of the place. The new town was to be everything the old town wasn’t – spacious instead of claustrophobic, wide instead of narrow, orderly instead of chaotic, quiet instead of noisy, classy instead of crass. The buildings in the new town were large and modern for the time, a design called Georgian. The streets were not named after functions (like the closes were in the old town, or the various markets) but were instead named after royalty (thoroughfares such as Queens Street, George Street, Princes Street).

In between the main streets were smaller ones, all ran parallel with occasional crossings, some like Rose Street are now the centre of nightlife in the city.

This new town took shape from 1767 and has remained this way every since.

People do not stay in the New or Old Town today, these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and massive attractions – the New Town is likewise the central business district and the financial district of the city (Edinburgh is the second most important financial hub in the United Kingdom, after London).

If the Old Town is Scotland as an Kingdom of its own, the New Town represents Scotland as a key player in the then newly formed United Kingdom. Both filled with a sense of history and the smell of the age they were built. The old town, rich with the stories of a people – the Scots; the new town, designed to showcase the confidence of a rising global player.

ON THE MAP (Edinburgh Old Town)

ON THE MAP (Edinburgh New Town)

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