A Layered History: Ten Cultural Sites of Edinburgh
Central New Town
The Central New Town, as the name suggests, is a later addition first designed in 1767. Considered to be an exquisite example of Georgian town planning, the New Town boasts both Georgian and Neoclassical architecture accommodating elegant squares and grand houses. It has been said that accomplished figures from the Scottish Enlightenment sought out this district as a form of escape from raucous city life. Charlotte Square, the Assembly Rooms and Princes Street Gardens are unmissable when wandering through the Central New Town. As impressive architectural feats they provide a delicious slice of Georgian life.
The Scottish Parliament Building
The Spanish architect Enric Miralles designed the famed Scottish Parliament building, but unfortunately passed away during its construction. The building was eventually completed in 2004 and this modern architectural feat provokes a juxtaposition which refreshes Edinburgh’s cultural identity. The granite, steel and oak construction, however, was criticised for being overambitious and over budget. Nevertheless, the diverse materialities and postmodern details add another layer to the city’s history. Miralles designed features of the building to visually reference elements of Scottish life and is successful in incorporating a spectrum of architectural styles. The building houses the Scottish Parliament and won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2005. Other notable contemporary buildings in Edinburgh include The Scottish Storytelling Centre and the Scottish Poetry Library.
This extinct volcano is situated proudly in the heart of Edinburgh, sculpting the skyline with its bold natural form. It is the main hill in Holyrood Park rising 823ft above the dynamic urbanity of Edinburgh. Home to a multitude of unusual flora and fauna it is a site of particular scientific interest, attracting hikers, joggers and amblers who embark on the pilgrimage up the hill to admire the panoramic views. Its name supposedly originates from the legends of King Arthur himself. Yet despite the air of mystery surrounding the hill, it is certain nowhere else in the city can supply such spectacular views of Edinburgh.
The Grassmarket is a dynamic area of Edinburgh bursting with historic pubs and independent shops. Its history oozes bloody tales of execution, and its drinking haunts are famed for attracting historical figures such as Robert Burns and Dorothy Wordsworth. Its architectural identity has undergone modern updates, yet the area is punctuated with historic pubs, such as Maggie Dickson pub – simply ask the locals for her story. Explorers of the Grassmarket area will find Bow Well located at the entrance to Victoria street. Built in 1681, it is reported to be the original source of piped running water in Edinburgh. Carved on the well is Edinburgh’s motto ‘Without God Everything Fails’.
The Castle dates back to the 12th century and has since witnessed generations of Scottish monarchy and battles between the Scots and the English. During the 13th and 14th centuries it played a key role in the War of Scottish Independence due to its ideal elevated position. The Castle then became a military base as far back as the 1600’s and even housed a prison. Visible from the streets of the city, the castle has a constant historical presence which dominates the skyline. Today it is extremely popular with tourists, especially at one o’clock when a gun is fired. The roots of this tradition go back to the days when sailing ships needed to know the accurate time.
The Old Town
The preserved medieval architecture and narrow winding streets epitomise the historical character of the Old Town which dates back later than the Central New Town. The Royal Mile is considered to be the backbone of the Old Town connecting historical streets like Castlehill, Lawnmarket, Cannongate, High Street and Abbey Strand. Branching off these streets are narrow, winding lanes lined with tenement buildings. Due to the compact nature of this once overcrowded area, residents were forced to build up, and today visitors can marvel at some of the world’s tallest tenement buildings. Structures of historical significance in the Old Town include the 17th century house of Gladstone’s Land, St Giles Cathedral and Canongate Tolbooth.
This historic monument is a commemoration to the Skye Terrier Bobby, whose story has been orally passed down from generation to generation. In the 19th century Police Constable John Gray worked alongside his dog Bobby. Together they would patrol Edinburgh’s streets preventing crime. When Gray passed away, Bobby famously remained by his master’s graveside for 14 years, withstanding the harsh Scottish winters. His dedication to Gray touched the people of Edinburgh to such an extent that Bobby became a celebrity, and a statue of him was erected in 1873, commissioned by Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts.
In the 16th century legal boundaries were blurred and verged on non-existent, with punishment being spontaneously decided on public impulse. Hanging, torture and shackling were spectacles which frequently took place in Edinburgh’s squares. If an occurrence could not be explained through rational thinking, women could be accused of witchery, a statement which required no evidential support. Justice was served to these ‘witches’ as they were commonly drowned or burnt at the stake. Witches Well is a monument located at the entrance of the Castle dedicated to over 300 women who were falsely accused of witchcraft and subsequently burnt alive. The monument is exceptionally easy to miss due to its small size and unobtrusive nature.
The British artist Antony Gormley is revered for his steel sculpture The Angel of the North whose outstretched wings keep guard over commuters along the A1. Gormley unveiled his first commissioned piece in Scotland in 2010 titled 6 Times. Two figures figure can be found; one chest deep outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, whilst the other stands firmly at the end of a pier in Leith Docks gazing out towards the open expanse of the sea. These permanent installations are interwoven into the fabric of Edinburgh and map out the journey from the city centre towards the sea. Gormley’s figures engage with identity, memory and the relationship between urbanity and nature, whilst exploring the human figure itself. The piece is usually comprised of six figures. However, four have been removed to undergo technical improvements.
Calton Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which sits east of Princes Street. Its views almost rival those of Arthur’s Seat, but the real attractions of Calton Hill are its historic monuments. One of the most recognised monuments is the National Monument, who’s design strikingly resembles that of the Parthenon in Athens. The monument was intended as a dedication to the Scotsmen killed during the Napoleonic Wars. The City Observatory is an unmissable landmark designed by William Henry Playfair in 1818. Its design was inspired by Greek temples, and is home to several historic Astronomical discoveries.
By Bethan Morgan
1: Bjørn Giesenbauer/Flickr, 2: PaulJoseph/Flickr, 3: Przemograczyk/Wikimedia Commons, 4: Helen Simonsson/Wikimedia Commons, 5: Saffron Blaze/Wikimedia Commons, 6: Geograph, 7: Geograph, 8: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons, 9: MichaelDuxbury/Flickr, 10: Saffron Blaze/Wikimedia Commons