Edinburgh owes its existence to the Castle Rock, the glacier-worn stump of a long-extinct volcano that provided a near-perfect defensive position guarding the coastal route from North East England into central Scotland.
Back in the 7th century the Castle Rock was called Dun Eiden (meaning ‘Fort on the Hill Slope’). When it was captured by invaders from the Kingdom of Northumbria in North East England in 638, they took the existing Gaelic name ‘Eiden’ and tacked it onto their own Old English word for fort, ‘burh’, to create the name Edinburgh.
Originally a purely defensive site. Edinburgh began to expand in the 12th century when King David I held court at the castle and founded the Abbey at Holyrood. The Royal Court came to prefer Edinburgh to Dunfermline and, as Parliament followed the King, Edinburgh became Scotland’s capital. The city’s first effective town wall was constructed around 450, enclosing the Old Town as far East as Netherbow and South to the Grassmarket. This overcrowded area – by then the most populous town in Scotland – became a medieval Manhattan, forcing its densely packed inhabitants to build upwards instead of outwards, creating tenements five and six storeys high.
The capital played an important role in the Reformation (1560-1690), led by the Calvinist fireband John Knox. Mary, Queen of Scots held court in the Palace of Kolyroodhouse for six brief years, but when her son James VI succeeded to the English throne in 1603 he moved his court to London. The Act of Union in 1707 further reduced Edinburgh’s importance, but its cultural and intellectual life flourished.
In the second half of the 18th century a planned new town was created across the valley to the North of the Old Town. During the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-1830), Edinburgh became known as ‘a hotbed of genius’, inhabited by leading scientists and philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.
In the 19th century the population quadruled to 400,000, not much less than today’s, and the Old Town’s tenements were taken over by refugees from the Irish famines. A new ring of crescents and circuses was built to the North of New Town, and grey Victorian terraces spread South of the Old Town.
In the 1920s the city’s borders expanded again to encompass Leith in the North, Cramond in the West and the Pentland Hills in the South. Following WWII, the city’s cultural life blossomed, stimulated by the Edinburgh International Festival and its fellow traveller the Fringe, both held for the first time in 1947 and now recognised as world-class arts festivals.
Edinburgh is a must see attraction on your tours of Scotland.