As a medieval city, Edinburgh's Old Town is popular with people seeking a glimpse back in time, whilst the New Town still offers a visual sense of life during the Georgian age. But much of the city also owes a debt of influence to the Victorian era, as the city was significantly re-shaped, 'improved' and rebuilt over the nineteenth century - indeed much of the surviving Old Town is rather newer than might be expected, with large swathes of the Royal Mile area dating back only as far as the 1860s - 70s.
Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, fell in love with the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s, and Edinburgh itself became a popular place for them to spend time away from London. Key developments were made to the city during their time here, and some parts of the city today only exist because of their royal intervention and patronage. So here's my brief introduction to Victoria (and Albert's) legacies to the city.
This large parkland, including Arthur's Seat, is also known as the King/Queen's Park and is crown property, owned by the British monarch but with open access for the public. The land at Holyrood had long been a relatively unattractive area, low-lying and so with a tendency to being marshy and damp, and it was under Prince Albert's supervision that the area was first drained, with a track run around the perimeter of Arthur's seat itself - Queen's Drive - to allow access through the park to pleasure carriages.
Part of this development of the landscape was to create two artificial ponds - St Margaret's Loch and Dunsapie Loch - adjacent to the track. And so the layout of this popular park area today is directly thanks to Albert's vision and effort.
Also in the Holyrood area is the geological exhibition Our Dynamic Earth, and around its eastern edges a decorative wall with gun loops and castellated turrets which predates the late 1990s structure above it. Historically this area was the city's brewing district, and Victoria was understandably not keen to open her curtains at Holyroodhouse every morning, and gaze directly onto this heavily industrial site.
The royal household paid for an artificial wall to be built around the brewery, creating the illusion of a property with a much higher status - a castle or palace, perhaps! It has also been suggested that during special visits by important guests, Victoria paid for a team of men to parade along the battlements dressed as soldiers, to further the illusion...
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND
On Chambers Street, the largest and grandest of the country's museum spaces was designed by the architect William Playfair in the 1860s. In 1861, Prince Albert laid the foundation of the museum building, and shortly after succumbed to the illnesses which had dogged him through his short life. This being his last public act, Victoria always held the museum in special regard, and it may have helped keep Edinburgh in her mind as a place to spend time. Carvings of Victoria and Albert can be found on either side of the central doorway at the top of the steps at the front of the building, originally the museum's main entrance.
In the heart of the Old Town is a street named for Victoria herself, created during the improvements of the 1830s, when West Bow, the historic main road into Edinburgh, was extended to join the newly constructed George IV Bridge. The top end of this new development was named Victoria Street to mark the queen's ascension to the throne, and the buildings which still stand near the head of the street were named India Buildings, a reference to Victoria's title of Grand Empress of India.
PRINCE ALBERT MEMORIAL
Victoria famously spent the last forty years of her life in mourning for her dead husband, and one of the memorials commissioned to celebrate his life can be seen in Charlotte Square at the west end of the New Town. The statue was designed and created by local artist John Steell, and it was said that Victoria was so enamoured with the final statue that she knighted its sculptor on the spot. Certainly Steell became a favourite artist in Victoria's household, rising to the post of her official sculptor - although she was not uncritically appreciative of his work...
SCOTTISH ACADEMY BUILDING
At the top of the portico to the National Gallery building on Princes Street is a carving of Victoria in the role of Britannia, produced by Sir John Steell, her official sculptor. A popular legend goes that Victoria was not pleased by the statue when it was unveiled to her at Buckingham Palace, considering that it made her look larger than she already was, and accordingly instructed her staff to take the statue and "put it where no one can see it". That it was then brought to Edinburgh to be put atop this most prestigious and high-profile building in the centre of the city seem a cruel joke at Victoria's expense!
Probably the most significant influence that Victoria had on Edinburgh is hiding in plain sight, immediately at the front of the city's most popular attraction.
The gatehouse at Edinburgh Castle has the classic appearance of a medieval fortress, but is actually the least authentic (or at least newest) part of the whole castle complex! Dating to the 1870s, the gatehouse was built at Victoria's request to create a more impressive, imposing frontage to the castle, which previously had no such grandeur - historically the castle would not have wanted to create a welcoming effect on visitors, being designed in large part to keep invaders out!
The construction of the gatehouse coincided with the castle's rise in popularity as a visitor attraction, and correspondingly today creates exactly the right impression on the thousands who pass over its drawbridge each year...
Explore Victoria's Edinburgh in more detail with my private walking tours of the city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 19 years of experience living and working in the city...