A Minute History Of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland; part of the United Kingdom lying directly north of England. While this city is not as well-known as some others in Europe (such as London, Paris and Rome) it is a thriving city with a rich history reaching back all the way to c. 8500 bc. Since then, however, the city has been continuously changing and growing into the exciting hub of culture that it is today. And while there are many modern elements to Edinburgh, the rich history is often intertwined in some way, making each experience, whether at a restaurant or in a tiny shop, an opportunity to surround yourself with the cities past.

Edinburgh city

The city of Edinburgh began as a fort, which makes sense due to the many hills and crags that are still present in the modern city. While initial settlers were of Roman descent, in the centuries that followed control of the area passed back and forth from the English to the Scots many times since its founding. The actual city of Edinburgh, however, was not established until the 12th century by King David I. This was mainly the area directly below the fortress, with other burghs being established in close proximity (which would eventually all be combined into the area of modern Edinburgh).


For much of its early history, Edinburgh was held under English control. However, after the Scottish Wars of Independence, it returned to Scottish hands. Edinburgh became a hub of trade, because of its access to the ocean through the port of Leith, and most of the kingdom’s trade (mainly wool) was routed through the city. It was during this time that Edinburgh began to emerge as the most prominent burgh in the Scottish kingdom, and when many began to think of it as a capital.

During the tumultuous reign of Mary Queen of Scots, the city found itself split into several different religious factions. These differences came to a point during the 17th century during the Wars of the Covenant, where the city of Edinburgh played a prominent role. After this time King James VI (son of Mary Queen of Scots), succeeded to the throne of England, merging the two crowns (but basically keeping everything else about the two countries separate until the Acts of Union were passed, which merged the parliaments of the two countries).

Because of the enclosed nature of the city, Edinburgh couldn’t expand outwards in order to accommodate the increasing number of people living there. Instead, it built upwards. Some buildings were constructed to reach up to 15-stories high! However, this lead to Edinburgh becoming one of the most densely populated (and therefore one of the dirtiest) towns. This dense population led to the unescapable interaction of social classes, which some believe had an impact of the thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment in the city.

Edinburgh was also briefly occupied by the Jacobites during their uprising against the more Anglicised lowland Scottish population. Eventually, however, the city was won back by the Scots, and the Highlander “barbarians” defeated, leading to the passage of the “Highland Clearances” by the government in Edinburgh, which broke up the Highland lifestyle, and was one cause of mass immigration to the city which began around this time.


More recently, Edinburgh became a hub of industrial activity, producing traditional products like beer as well as new-to-the-time products like rubber. Also around this time, the two sections of the city (New Town and Old Town) began to see vast changes. The New Town area became a district focused on shopping, with frequent updates to the architecture and even making room for the new railways that were making their way into the city. The Old Town area, however, fell into disrepair. As an area mainly made up of immigrants, this portion of the city was socially segregated from the rest. However, the area was slowly cleaned up to became a thriving neighborhood.

During the World Wars, the city was left fairly untouched save for a couple of bombings which, despite hitting their designated targets, didn’t cause any major damage. After the wars, the city saw a lot of its old buildings turned to rubble to make room for new ones. The University of Edinburgh was built around the George Square area. While some of the original Old Town and New Town buildings have been saved, many have been leveled over the years in the name of progress, leading to an interesting landscape that is a mix of classic and new age architecture.


In modern times, the city is still changing rapidly. After a vote in 1998 led to the reinstatement of a Scottish parliament separate from the British parliament, the political presence in Edinburgh has heightened. There also continues to be a strong brewery and distillery scene throughout the city and its surrounding area. Much of Old Town is now dominated by tourism driven businesses and the university, which continues to thrive. Walking around the city today, you can still see many of the beautiful sites on which the city was originally founded. While some of the old buildings have fallen into ruin, many of these, such as Edinburgh Castle and St. Giles Cathedral, remain largely intact and are ready to be explored by curious travelers in one of the UK’s most beautiful cities.

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Hannah is a senior at Wheaton college in Massachusetts. She just returned from spending a semester studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland (which she loved every minute of!). At school she is studying biology and is also a member of the field hockey team. Out side of school Hannah loves photography, baking, telling horrible jokes, and petting other people's dogs.

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