Edinburgh — History


Edinburgh (i/ˈɛdɪnbʌrə/ ed-in-burr-ə; Scottish Gaelic: Dùn Èideann) is the capital of Scotland and seat of the Scottish Parliament and Government. It is Scotland’s largest city by area and second largest by population. As one of 32 local government council areas in Scotland, the City of Edinburgh Council governs urban Edinburgh and a surrounding rural area of 30 square miles (78 km2). The city is located in the south-east of Scotland, on the Firth of Forth in the Central Belt, 26 miles (42km) inland, as the crow flies, from the east coast and the North Sea.

The city was one of the major intellectual centres of the 18th century Enlightenment, helping it earn the nickname Athens of the North.[3] The Old Town and New Town districts of Edinburgh were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 in recognition of the unique character of the Old Town with its medieval street layout and the planned Georgian New Town. It covers both the Old and New Towns together with the Dean Village and the Calton Hill areas. There are over 4,500 listed buildings within the city.[4] In May 2010, it had a total of 40 conservation areas covering 23% of the building stock and 23% of the population, the highest such ratios of any major city in the UK.[5] In the 2011 mid-year population estimates, Edinburgh had a total resident population of 495,360.[6]

The city hosts the annual Edinburgh Festival, a group of official and independent festivals held annually over about four weeks beginning in early August. The number of visitors attracted to Edinburgh for the Festival is roughly equal to the settled population of the city. The best-known of these events are the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest performing-arts festival in the world; the Edinburgh International Festival; the Edinburgh Military Tattoo; and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Other annual events include the Hogmanay Street Party and the Beltane Fire Festival. Edinburgh attracts over 1 million overseas visitors a year, making it the second most visited tourist destination in the United Kingdom.[7]

Humans settled the Edinburgh area from at least the Bronze Age, leaving traces of primitive stone settlements which have been found at Arthur’s Seat, Craiglockhart Hill and the Pentland Hills.[21] The culture of these early inhabitants bears similarities with the Celtic cultures of the Iron Age found at Hallstatt and La Tene in central Europe. By the time the Romans arrived in Lothian towards the end of the 1st century AD, they discovered a Celtic Brythonic tribe whose name they recorded as Votadini, likely to be a Latin version of the name they called themselves. At some point before the 7th century AD, the Votadini or the Gododdin, who were presumably their descendants, built a hillfort known as ‘Din Eidyn or Etin almost certainly within the bounds of modern Edinburgh. Although the location of the Din Eidyn or Etin hillfort has not been identified, scholars have postulated that it may have been on the Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat or the Calton Hill.[22]

Early history

The Angles of the Kingdom of Bernicia had a significant influence in what would successively be Bernicia, Northumbria and finally south-east Scotland, notably from AD 638 when it appears the Gododdin stronghold was besieged by forces loyal to King Oswald of Northumbria. Whether or not this battle marked the precise passing of control over the Etin hillfort from the Brythonic Celts to the Northumbrians, it was around this time that the region of Edinburgh passed to the Northumbrians. Writing c. 1130, and copying from earlier texts, the English chronicler Symeon of Durham mentioned that there was a church at Edwinesburch in 854 which came under the authority of the Bishopric of Lindisfarne.[23] Though far from exclusive (cf. Picts and Scots), this Anglian influence continued over three centuries. It was not until c. AD 950 when, during the reign of Indulf, son of Constantine II, the city, referred to at this time in the Pictish Chronicle as «oppidum Eden»,[24] fell to the Scots and finally remained under their jurisdiction.[25] During the period of Northumbrian rule in what is now south east Scotland the city’s name gained its Germanic suffix, ‘burgh’, and the seeds of the language we know today as Scots were sown.

By the 12th century Edinburgh, founded upon the famous castle rock, the volcanic crag and tail geological feature shaped by two million years of glacial activity, was well established becoming one of the earliest Scottish Royal Burghs. Founded in the mid 12th century, a separate burgh of regality, known as the Canongate and held by the Abbey of Holyrood, developed to the East. Through the late medieval period, Edinburgh grew quickly and continued to flourish economically and culturally through the Renaissance period. It was at the centre of the 16th-century Scottish Reformation and the Wars of the Covenant a hundred years later.

Union of the Crowns

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England in a personal union known as the Union of the Crowns. Scotland remained a separate kingdom retaining the Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh. King James VI moved to London where he held court, relying on a Privy Council to effect his rule in Scotland. Despite promising to return to his northern kingdom every three years, he returned only once, in 1617.

Presbyterian opposition to King Charles II’s attempt to introduce Anglican forms of worship in the Church of Scotland led in 1639 to the Bishops’ Wars, the initial conflict in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1650, following the decision of the Scottish Presbyterians to support the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, Edinburgh was taken by the Commonwealth forces of Oliver Cromwell who went on to inflict a final defeat on the Scots at the Battle of Worcester.

In the 17th century, Edinburgh’s boundaries were still defined by the defensive Flodden Wall, built mainly in the 16th century as protection against a possible English invasion after James IV’s defeat at Flodden. Due to the restricted land area available for development, the houses increased in height to accommodate a growing population. Buildings of 11 stories were common; some, according to contemporary travellers’ accounts, even taller, as high as 14 or even 15 stories.[26] These were often described by later commentators as forerunners of the modern-day skyscraper. Most of these old structures were later replaced by the predominantly Victorian buildings of the Old Town.

In 1706 and 1707, the Acts of Union were passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland uniting the two kingdoms into the Kingdom of Great Britain. As a consequence, the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain, which sat at Westminster in London. The Union was opposed by many Scots at the time, resulting in riots within the city.[27]

Coat of arms

From early times, and certainly from the 14th century, Edinburgh (like other royal burghs of Scotland) used armorial devices in many ways, including on seals. In 1732, the ‘achievement’ or ‘coat of arms’ was formally granted by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. These arms were used by Edinburgh Town Council until the reorganisation of local government in Scotland in May 1975, when it was succeeded by the City of Edinburgh District Council and a new coat of arms, based on the earlier one, was granted. In 1996, further local government reorganisation resulted in the formation of the City of Edinburgh Council, and again the coat of arms was updated.[28]

Edinburgh Castle from the Grassmarket, 1865
During the Jacobite rising of 1745, Edinburgh was briefly occupied by the Jacobite «Highland Army» before its march into England. Following its ultimate defeat at Culloden, there was a period of reprisals and pacification, largely directed at the rebellious clans. In Edinburgh, the Town Council, keen to emulate London by initiating city improvements and expansion to the north of the castle, re-affirmed its loyalty to the Hanoverian monarch George III by naming streets in the New Town in honour of the royal family, for example George Street, Frederick Street, Hanover Street and Princes Street (named in honour of George’s two sons).


The city was at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment[29] when figures such as David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton, Joseph Black, Robert Adam, William Robertson and Adam Ferguson could be seen in its streets. Edinburgh became a major intellectual centre, earning it the nickname Athens of the North because of the Classical architecture of the New Town and the city’s reputation as a «hotbed of genius» (Smollett) similar to Ancient Athens.[30]

In the 19th century, Edinburgh, like many cities, witnessed some industrialisation, but did not grow as fast as Glasgow. The latter benefited from the Atlantic trade with North America, becoming a major manufacturing centre of the British Empire and replacing Edinburgh as Scotland’s largest city.


The Scotland Act 1998 which came into force in 1999 established a devolved Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive (formally renamed as the Scottish Government in July 2012), both based in Edinburgh, which are responsible for governing Scotland with reserved matters such as defence, taxation and foreign affairs remaining the responsibility of Westminster.

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