I often introduce tours by explaining that Edinburgh's New Town isn't as new as people expect, and its Old Town isn't as old as people expect - in fact much of the Old Town is up to a century newer than the New Town, creating an interesting paradox! Edinburgh is a city where 'old' and 'new' are only ever relative terms.
My tours explore this paradox in much more detail, to uncover the various levels of illusion that make up the city centre, and in the Old Town we often spend time talking about how the Victorians acted to 'improve' the city in the late nineteenth century.
The overcrowding and squalor of the mid-eighteenth century had led to the development of the New Town in the 1760s, the first time Edinburgh had been able to expand in any substantial way from the narrow strip of rock of the Old Town. But by a century later again the Old Town was once more coming under scrutiny for the parlous state of its streets and houses.
Figures like George Bell, an early kind of sociologist, led the calls for the Old Town to be overhauled and modernised, to bring it into a kind of status with the New Town.
His studies, such as Blackfriars Wynd Analysed, published in 1850, used direct research and interviews with residents of the Old Town to make the case for improvement. Streets like Blackfriars Wynd had in excess of a thousand people living on them, with most families living in single rooms, and having to subsist on the average salary of £5 per year - money that was almost entirely spent on basic commodities like food, leaving them having to turn to increasingly desperate means to raise the other money needed to pay rent, buy clothes, feed their children...
The city authorities at the time were not unsympathetic to the conditions people are living in, but couldn't see a way to develop the city - with so many people living in such dense slum districts as Cowgate and West Port, they can't imagine how substantial renovation can occur without displacing many people from their homes.
Only after the collapse of Paisely Close in November 1861, when people are killed as they slept by the building being reduced to rubble around them, does the city realise it has to find proactive ways of renovating Edinburgh's Old Town to prevent further tragedy.
Lord provost William Chambers is the man who oversees the implementation of what were known as the Edinburgh Improvement Acts, specific pieces of legislation that laid out the principles by which the city could proactively grow and develop.
Spreading into the suburbs, developing southwards towards Marchmont, Bruntsfield, Southside and Morningside, and northwards past the New Town in areas like Stockbridge, allowed the city to grow substantially from the very tight city centre.
Building associations of local businesses were formed to manage the development of specific local streets. The narrow closes and wynds - typically having been just three or four feet wide - were knocked together to create wider, more open streets, and modern tenement housing was put up to accommodate people in better quality, more secure properties which were then managed locally.
Instead of paying rent to a landlord who didn't necessarily live nearby, and so wasn't invested in actively maintaining the spaces, now tenants could rely on the businesses who had helped fund the development to provide a more hands-on attitude to their lettings.
Although 'tenement' is often thought of as poor quality housing in some parts of the world, Edinburgh's tenements were (and often still are) much better housing than earlier properties. Housing multiple families in a single stair, they were a form of communal living that created shared responsibilities for the space, and allowed even relatively poor families the luxury of warm, dry accommodation.
Edinburgh's tenements were originally styled by an architectural partnership of David Cousin and John Lessels, and the buildings on St Mary Street, just off the World's End on the Royal Mile, are noted as the first properties erected as part of the cohesive Improvement of the city centre.
Today the bulk of Edinburgh's city centre accommodation are still these Victorian tenement properties erected between the 1860s and the 1890s. Very often the buildings have dates in the stonework marking the precise year in which they were built, but the Scots Baronial styling can help date any building without a specific date stone.
Some estimates of the Improvement Acts suggest that in excess of 75% of Edinburgh's original Old Town buildings were lost and demolished in this process of upgrading the city.
Whilst it is undoubtedly a loss to the city's visible heritage that so many of these structures were dismantled and replaced, it is important to note that the motivation for doing so wasn't wanton vandalism (which the Victorians also had a habit of) but for the very necessary and important improvement of the ancient city.
Some of the original buildings still survive - on Bakehouse Close, for example, where the Museum of Edinburgh is housed in one of the sixteenth century buildings, and on Advocate's Close, where the original doorways into the property are still marked with the date 1590, as well as with individual structures surviving on lanes like James Court and Riddle's Court.
This is why I always encourage visitors to get off the Royal Mile itself and to explore the lanes of the old city, as this is where the more interesting, historical structures often survive. Those visitors who go looking are rewarded by discovering these more original features of the Old Town.
Discover the old and 'new' elements of Edinburgh's Old Town with my private city walking tours!
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