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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter I - A Short History of Edinburgh


THE history of Edinburgh is for long the history of its Castle. During another period it is the history of Scotland, so much are all the events concentrated here. The incidents are usually connected with some famous spot, thus Holyrood, St Giles’s, the Parliament House, Old Greyfriars have each an impressive story which will be set forth in due course.

It will be serviceable to connect our beads by a string, and without attempting to write the history of Scotland, to say a few words on the history of Edinburgh.

The ground which it now covers is profoundly interesting to the geologist, and many authorities have described how it came to have that peculiar conformation.

To a plain man it is something like this :—On the north, some two miles away, is the Fifth of Forth; the ground is fairly level when you turn your back on that arm of the sea and walk southward towards the city, then it swells upward till you reach George Street in the New Town. Now you begin another descent, and presently come to Princes Street. This was the first of the New Town building scheme. In the valley below, where is now garden and railway, there once lay the Nor’ Loch. Before you rises the Old Town on the other side of the Loch, and that is simply the Castle Hill on the west sloping down towards Holyrood on the east. Two other hills must be noted. Blocking up the east end of Princes Street is the Calton Hill, and away to the south and east of Holyrood is Arthur’s Seat. To the south of the Old Town the ground falls rapidly down to the Cowgate, and then there is a short rise until you come to the College, beyond which all is fairly level for some two or three miles, where you have the Braid Hills to the south, then to the south-west is the huge mass of the Pentlands.

A city of hills in truth is this same Edinburgh!

Not merely is she built on the heights, but other heights, as Arthur’s Seat and the Calton Hill, are close at hand, tower right over the streets. And in the further distance the Braids and the Pentlands affect you in a remoter and different way. All these you see from many points, but you must go to places like the Castle Rock to catch the finer influences of hill scenery, to see not merely the Lomonds of Fife, but beyond Fife itself the great rampart of the Highland hills, concealing within their depths more mystery to the old inhabitants than Africa or the Poles do for you to-day.

Mine own romantic town, so Scott in one nappy phrase described Edinburgh. The site is picturesque, the history exciting and adventurous, but happy is the nation that has no history. Edinburgh has bought its glory at a terrible price: she has many a story of heroism and bravery, but there is always the confused noise of battle and garments rolled in blood. The stones have been washed again and again with tears.

It was not an easy life those old Edinburgh folk lived, their career was short and touched with ill-fortune; it was tragic, interesting, pathetic, before all emphatic; they lived much if not long, and their heroic, extravagant souls had not changed their crowded hour of glorious strife for the dull commonplace tedium of to-day.

It strikes you rather oddly how the name of the city and its great hill smacks of English earth. Edwin and Arthur are of the south. The early annals are misty and uncertain. Stow places its origin at 989 B.C., but that is a part of the mediæval romance which links the history of Britain with the history of Troy. You jump over a thousand years and find the Castle emerging as (possibly) taken from the Picts in 452 A.D., and then with Edwin, King of Northumbria (585-633), you reach something like firm ground.

The Castle Rock made an almost unparalleled natural fortress. To-day, as then, you gain access to it by a narrow ledge. Draw a barrier across that, and up to our own time you were safe from everything but trick or famine, and in fact it was only thus it fell.

It seems that Edwin, having got as far north, fortified the place, and extended into the beginning of a town the huts that must always have gathered outside the Castle. Thus from him it derived its name, unless in this, as in some other cases, an old Celtic root has been twisted into an English form. Other terms have been claimed for it. It was Mynyd Agned in the "Language of the ancient Britons," the Hill of Agned, whoever this was. Some have explained it as the Christian St Agnes, and again these same curious words have been translated Castrum Puellarum or Maiden Castle, because the Pictish Kings here stored away as in a place of safety the Princesses of the blood royal. The legend is not improbable, and it is worth noting that some excavations in 1853 on the summit of the Castle Rock discovered a huge quantity of human bones, all of which were the bones of women. But Buchanan, who was as sceptical in one way as he was credulous in another will have this "Maiden Castle" an invention of romance, and to the same untrustworthy origin he traces the term Dolorous Valley, which at least has a highly romantic sound. In our own day affectation describes it as the Modem Athens, but its quaint and familiar title of Auld Reekie is that wherein those who love it delight most. It smokes like a tall chimney. Far off, in Fife or the Lothians, you note its murky crown, or rather flag, for according to the airt of the wind it sends out a long line in one particular direction. Not that its reek was worse than that of other big towns, but it was more obvious, and perhaps in the old days of peat and wood fires it even brought an agreeable odour to distant fields.

Thus the balance of evidence is in favour of Edwin as name giver, and Dunedin is, you observe, a Celtic version of the same thing. As for Arthur’s Seat, here conjecture is again let loose. The Dictionary of National Biography is by no means sure that Arthur ever existed, and with considerable hesitation it gives a shadowy biography.

High Street, Edinburgh

Then, was he a King of Cornwall or Lowland Scotland? If he were the latter, and you take Mynyd as a name for Edinburgh you can place one of his battles hereabouts. And so you account for Arthur’s Seat.

As you slip down the centuries the light grows more and more, though it does not reach Edinburgh as the city of Scotland even after the Picts and Scots were united, nay, even after the boundaries of the kingdom were delimited as they practically exist to-day. Your early Scots monarch was of a peripatetic turn of mind; he skipped hither and thither with wondrous agility,— Dunfermline, Stirling, Perth, Scone came as natural to him as Edinburgh. Nay, William the Lion showed a remarkable and what might seem—for we have not the key of the mystery — an inexplicable fondness for Haddington, where he spent all the time he could. It was not till David I. (1084-1158) founded the Abbey of Holyrood, and Alexander II. (1214-1249) endowed the growing town with the Blackfriars Monastery, of which Blackfriars Street between the High Street and the Cowgate still preserves the memory, and the church of St Mary in the Field, afterwards to acquire such an evil repute as Kirk o’ Field, that things began to turn decidedly in favour of Edinburgh as the Scots capital - nor does it bulk large in the War of Independence. In 1291 Edward I. took it after a siege of fifteen days, but in 1312 it fell, like many other fortresses, again into the possession of the Scots.

In the previous century the Treaty of Falaise (1174), by which William the Lion, to save his own skin, confessed the English King as overlord, surrendered it to England, but it was peacefully recovered twelve years later.

By the time of the James’s, which began in 1406, it was fairly acknowledged as the Scots capital. Up to then English annalists had sneered at it as a village, and Froissart tells us it had only four hundred houses. James I. seems linked with Perth, because there he met his tragic end, but his chief murderers were executed, with hideous tortures, in Edinburgh, and there the boy prince was crowned as James II. In his reign Edinburgh was enclosed by a wall (temp. 1456) that took in little more than the High Street, as starting from the Castle Rock it ran east between that and the Cowgate, turned north by the Netherbow and ended at the Nor’ Loch, its length was but a mile or so. The Wellhouse Tower in Princes Street Gardens, right under the Castle, is the only substantial remaining part.

James III. (1460-1483) was peculiarly the patron of Edinburgh. He granted its "Golden Charter," making the Provost and Bailies, Sheriffs in their own territories, giving them jurisdiction over Leith, a jurisdiction not shaken off till the middle of last century. And the Queen and the ladies of her court knitted with their own fair hands a gorgeous flag for special Edinburgh use. This was the famous Blue Blanket, for centuries the burgher standard.

The reign of James IV. has one impressive memory for Edinburgh, for in 1513 the King, and for some time it was thought the Kingdom, fell at Flodden. Even yet the memory of that memorable field—a calamity it has been said, rather than a disgrace—stirs within you as you move through the town. At the Cross the ghostly herald appeared at midnight and announced well-nigh every famous name in Scotland to appear before his Master within forty days, and all those named fell at Flodden save a certain Mr Robert Lawson who, ill and sleepless, paced uneasily the wooden gallery of his house near by, at the dread hour. How his hair stood on end when the ghostly voice rang through the silent street! How terrible to hear his own name among those proclaimed; yet lost he not his presence of mind. Hastily procuring a coin, he dashed it on the pavement, and appealed to his Maker against the powers of darkness and destruction. A strange legend truly, with its exact observance of Scots legal forms mixed with classic imagery and mediæval superstition! A summons and proclamation at the Cross was a sight and sound of all others the most familiar to an Edinburgh citizen, and the tabling of a coin as a sign of protest and appeal is still in use in grave Scots’ assemblies.

In the Flodden Wall Edinburgh has one material sign of this terrible year. The rulers rose to the occasion; vain lamentation was sternly put down, the women went to quiet prayers and the men to the sword and the trowel, and in desperate haste—a haste of which it is said you can still see traces in the wall itself—a huge buttress, so to speak, was run round the whole city. It began at the Castle Rock, went south to the west end of the Grassmarket and up the Vennel to where is now George Heriot’s Hospital—indeed the west wall of the Hospital grounds contains the chief existing part of that great wall. It then ran east to the College, thence north by the Pleasance and like the old wall, which no doubt it used when available, entered the High Street at the Netherbow, and making a loop to include Trinity College, ended at the Nor’ Loch. And for centuries it determined the peculiar conditions of Edinburgh life.

In those times of stress and turmoil, when an English invasion was a possibility or a probability for many a long day, and when all sorts of forces from the unknown might suddenly rise up against the hard-working burgher, it made all the difference in the world on which side of the wall he lived. Until that wall was finished no citizen on the height scanned the horizon without dread and terror. And afterwards he gazed on the fair prospect of hill and dale and sea with anything but longing, nay, rather you fancy he hugged himself in his cosy though malodorous den, in the recesses of some dark close, for was he not safe within the circuit of the Flodden Wall? Yet the town needs must grow in wealth and folk, and as it could not widen it lengthened, hence those tall lands, where storey rose on storey in endless succession; those narrow passes between them, known as closes, that careful economy of space everywhere, so that the centre of the very High Street was seized upon for houses and shops in  the Luckenbooths and parliament chamber and law courts, and afterwards prison in the Tolbooth. It has been well said that every Edinburgh land was a street, not flat but perpendicular! Flodden was not a subject that poets were like to leave alone. In its own time we have Sir David Lyndsay and the balladists of whatever era; and a later age, almost our own in fact, gave us Scott’s Marmion and Aytoun’s Edinburgh after Flodden—to name but these.

Of James V.’s reign nothing need here be said. He died in 1542, and immediately began around his infant daughter, the new Queen Mary, those intrigues and movements of war and politics that were to hang about her whole life. First was the rough wooing by which Henry VIII. tried to win her for his son Edward. In 1544 Hertford came north. Spite of the wall he took and destroyed Edinburgh, and that so thoroughly, that it is said that nothing private of that day remains. Three years afterwards he was here again, won the Battle of Pinkie on Black Saturday, 10th September 1547, and for spoil loaded himself with the leaden roof of Holyrood, the only available thing it would appear left for booty. Then follow the troubles of the Reformation time. Mary of Guise made a brave fight for the old faith. As Regent for her infant daughter she proved herself a woman of uncommon ability; she lived much in Edinburgh—indeed her splendid palace on the Castle Hill lasted until it was made the site of the Free Kirk College. The new forces were too much for her, however, and when she died in 1560 she must have known herself defeated. Next year, on the 19th August, Mary landed in Edinburgh, and as by magic the scene was changed. The following six years were the most important in the town’s history. Up to this time it had been a provincial capital, far out of the current of European thoughts and interest, now it leapt into vivid light. Suitors for Mary’s hand came from England, France and Spain; the intrigues of Holyrood were watched and noted in all the Courts of Europe, nowhere more anxiously than at the Vatican. A mere chronicle of dates recalls the great events. On 9th March, 1566 Rizzio was murdered; three months later James I. was born. The February of next year witnessed the death of Damley at Kirk o’ Field; in May, Mary was married to Bothwell. On the 16th June was her last night in Edinburgh, and she herself fades from the history of the town. Kirkaldy of Grange and Lethington long held the Castle for her, but it fell in 1573, and Mary’s power so far as Edinburgh is concerned was a thing of the past. The memoirs of that time are exceedingly voluminous, a significant mark of the interest and importance of current events. We are able to trace what happened from day to day with minuteness, but with Mary’s departure the centre of interest shifted, and when in 1603 James VI. and I. went south to the English throne, the importance of Edinburgh of necessity lessened. There were great rejoicings and pageants when James and his son Charles returned to their native land, but such things do not make history. More important was the signing of the Covenant in 1638, the mark of a great national movement. The struggle was mainly religious, and Edinburgh was the scene of its most tragic trials and executions. Here Montrose and the Argylls were put to death, here the Covenanters were confined after Rullion Green, and here a long succession of them "glorified God in the Grassmarket." Here too was the centre of the Revolution drama with its striking and impressive figures: the Duke of Gordon in the Castle, Bonnie Dundee clattering at the head of his troops along the High Street, Sir George Mackenzie facing a hostile audience in the Parliament House, the bishops of the Scots Episcopal Church expelled and rabbled at the door by the mob. But the Revolution triumphed and things fell quiet again. The Darien scheme was at least directed from Edinburgh, and its house hard by the Bristo Port long retained its memory, and that led to the Union of 1707, hated and feared, fortunate for the country but disastrous for Edinburgh, destined now to be scarce even a provincial capital. The year 1736 was noted for the riot called the Porteous Mob, of little real importance, but marked by its mystery and romance, and enshrined for ever in The Heart of Midlothian. 1745 saw Prince Charles at Holyrood, and for a flash Edinburgh might believe itself again a European capital, but the Stuarts faded away, and Cumberland’s presence in Edinburgh next year seemed commonplace and prose after poetry and romance. The remaining years of the century gave Edinburgh intellectual triumphs greater and more enduring than the others, for it was then that men like David Hume and Adam Smith did work that was to last for all time; and if Principal Robertson as an historian has now lost his vogue it was at least great enough in his own day. It was then also that the town refused to be chained any longer within the Flodden Wall; it crept a little way to the south, and to-day George Square is the most expressive mark of that extension. But in 1767 the New town, to the north of the ravine, was planned, and its first house was built in 1769, and in time Princes Street succeeded to the whins and pasture and rock of the Lang Dykes.

The next century showed that a new era of literary splendour was still reserved for Edinburgh. In 1802 the Edinburgh Review was founded, and in 1817 Blackwoods Magazine, still controlled and managed at any-rate from the north and so more faithful to its traditions than the Review or even the Encylopadia Britannica, since both once smacking so strongly of Edinburgh, are now altogether London. Then in 1843 came the Disruption, which rent, not for the first tithe, the national church in twain, and produced the Free, now with additions, the United Free Church. It was a genuinely Scots movement produced by a condition of things impossible to recur. It was impressive and noble. It was really the end of an auld sang, to use a phrase of the Union time. Edinburgh has not since been the theatre of an historic event. It is less and less likely that she will be so, and thus the great interest of this unique and remarkable town lies in its past. You must know what those stones mean as you tread them.

This is the narrow theatre on which so many great and memorable tragedies were played. Everything happened in the Castle or Holyrood or in the short historic mile between the two faithful friend and devoted foe jostled each other daily in that crowded street. From near the very confines they could have shouted to restless wind, that o’ winter nights wails and moans and sobs round the tall lands of old Edinburgh as if it tried to utter the secrets of past years. Spite its grime and: squalor, you accept the Old Town as the finest bit of Edinburgh. It is not now quite so squalid as it was some thirty years ago; changes in the manners of the people, stricter sanitary laws, a return of better class business to it, have all worked in this direction.

As regards the New Town, a stranger once remarked to me that it seemed built of rather small houses. We stood beside the Bank of Scotland in Bank Street, and were preparing to descend the Mound. When it was built, Scotland was richer than it had been, and not at all so rich as it is now. Standards of living rise, and houses are the most sensitive to the change, and the change in Edinburgh seems to go ever faster. Middle-aged men remember when the town terminated at Newington and Morningside on the south. There was still a piece of country between it and Leith, and it scarcely stretched beyond Abbeyhill on the east and the Haymarket to the west of Princes Street. There are miles of new streets now in all directions, the Braid Hills are terraced, the Pentlands are threatened. Leith is one with the capital, the two miles between Edinburgh and the sea are rapidly filling in, and the building and growing keeps steadily on and on. And the old changes: poverty and inaction, are the only things that keep a nation or a town as it is. You have that in Spain and in remoter parts of Italy; you have an almost perfect example in Bruges, but how to find it in the capital of bustling, eager, active Scotland? Here is no longer a political capital, here is the wealthy city. The town seems to dislimn and change before your very eyes. You scarce know what will be left. The great historic monuments, the Castle, Holyrood, St Giles, and so forth are safe, but what shall we say of the old historic lands and closes? You sometimes get a glimpse sideways as it were of an old close, or yard, or street-corner that brings before you the Edinburgh of other days, but how long even that will be I know not. Also the New Town has suffered change. Princes Street is not as it was first built; an edifice like the North British Hotel foreshadows a more mammoth style of architecture. Here the changes, notably on the slopes of the Calton and in the ravine, have been improvements, nor do they disturb august associations as every stroke of the pick does in the Old Town: there so memorable is the history that the bare theatre, though stripped of all its furnishings, would still command our attention; yes, restore those hills to their first desolation, mighty ghosts would abide amid the solitude, the history of the ruin would ever hold our attention.


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