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 - indeed, Victoria remains the only female historical figure to be celebrated in statues in Edinburgh...
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 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...
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.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND
On Chambers Street, the largest and grandest of the city's museum spaces was designed 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.
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!
Visitors arriving into Edinburgh generally do so via one of two routes - fly into the city's airport, with the opportunity to peruse the city from the air as the planes come in to land, or disembark from a train at Waverley Station, the largest and most central of the city's two major stations.
Waverley offers by far the most dramatic welcome into the city, with visitors emerging right into the heart of Edinburgh, with the castle ahead of you, the Old Town to the left, and the Scott Monument and New Town along to the right:
Here's a few things worth knowing about Waverley Station!
First of all, it's the world's only railway station named after a work of literature. Waverley was the first prose novel published by Walter Scott, who followed it up with a series of similar stories which became, collectively, the Waverley Novels. Scott originally published the story anonymously, and later went on to give the world titles like Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, and Ivanhoe. Waverley himself is a character in the stories, an English soldier named Edward Waverley.
It may seem remarkable that Scotland's capital city has a station named for an Englishman, but prior to the station being named Waverley, it was formerly the North British Railway Station - run by the North British Railway company. There was a time when Scotland was referred to as 'north Britain', which may shed light on some of the country's identity issues!
In 1901, the North British Railway company built a grand hotel to serve customers and staff arriving into the city off its trains. This was the North British Railway Hotel, which today is the iconic Balmoral Hotel. When the hotel passed from being under the ownership of the railway company, the hotel was named the New Balmoral Residence - carved into its stonework around the building are the letter NBR, initials of both its prior incarnations before it became known simply as the Balmoral.
And back in the days of individual railway companies, the site of today's Waverley Station was the meeting point of three separate railway lines, each with their own stations - the North British Railway was the terminus for trains from London, Canal Street station served a subterranean line connecting north to Leith, Newhaven and Granton, whilst the Edinburgh and Glasgow General line connected through to Glasgow. All three stations on this site were later amalgamated into Edinburgh Waverley in 1866.
Prior to the development of this major transport hub, the valley in which it sits was occupied by a historic settlement which originally had been outside of the city of Edinburgh. Calton sat in the shadow of Calton Hill, and was on the main entry route into the city for travellers arriving through the port at Leith.
In the 1840s, the North British Railway wanted to expand their operations, and Edinburgh Council granted permission for the demolition of Calton to create space for the new station. Today almost nothing survives of the former settlement of Calton - it has been lost to history, save for a reconstruction of its historic church, the former Trinity College Church, which can be found on a lane between Jeffrey Street and the Royal Mile.
So, this is where you may wish to spend your afternoons doing actual trainspotting - perched on the grass adjacent to the Mound, watching the locomotives pulling into and out of the station. On a lucky day you may catch a glimpse of the Flying Scotsman! More likely you'll just witness the regular Scotrail services running between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Explore Edinburgh with my private walking tours of the city - featuring locations used in the Trainspotting films!
Recently I had the pleasure of joining a 'hard hat' tour of one of the city's historic works in progress, a renovation and restoration of Riddle's Court on the Lawnmarket.
The project is being undertaken by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (here's my previous blog about the Glasite Meeting House), a charitable body dedicated to protecting, preserving and providing access to some of the country's historic structures.
The development of Riddle's Court has been a long term project, and will be run by SHBT as the Patrick Geddes Centre, an educational resource centre for heritage and history groups in the city.
This tour was the final opportunity for visitors to explore this site before the building work is completed, and it was genuinely thrilling to be exploring such an historic building, in the company of Sarah Gear, the lead architect who has been responsible for designing and integrating the development around the core historic building.
Patrick Geddes had been a conservator and educator who had previously undertaken his own preservation and development of Riddle's Court, in the nineteenth century. He had transformed what by then were dilapidated structures into functional spaces for student accommodation, so the tradition of maintenance of these buildings in adherence with Geddesian philosophy is in itself honouring a part of Edinburgh's history.
Riddle's Court was previously a 16th-century mansion house complex near the top of the Royal Mile, occupied by high-status residents who benefited from being close to the castle for access to the monarch, King James VI. Indeed, this future king James I of England held a grand banquet in Riddle's Court in 1598, and one of the most exciting moments on the tour of the buildings was to be standing in the small antechamber where is it thought King James would have dined during that event.
A large number of decorated ceiling beams are some of the most historically interesting features of the site, with some of the decoration only discovered during the current renovation process. Adaptations had to be made to some of the plans for the internal structures of the building to avoid damaging these newly discovered features.
Another discovery during the works was an enormous stove area hidden behind masonry on the ground floor, where the banquet served to King James VI and his guests may have been cooked and prepared. Once the renovation of Riddle's Court is coplete, this area will be in the public toilets area of the building, so visitors will be able to explore this unusual feature for themselves!
As well as its royal history, the building has associations with other historical figures, including the philosopher David Hume, who lived on the site in the 1750s.
One particular privilege was being among the last members of the public to walk along the original line of Riddle's Close itself, the narrow lane along and around which the collection of buildings was developed. Once the renovation is finished, the steps of the original close won't be accessible to walk down, but will be preserved under glass for visitors to see.
This will be a feature of the finished building, with many original aspects of Riddle's Court remaining visible behind glass panels and sections, reflecting the integrity of the original structures and preserving them for observation and study by those who will be using and visiting the complex in the 21st century, over four hundred years after the original buildings were constructed.
Take one of my private Edinburgh walking tours to learn more about this historic site.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21