An A - Z of Edinburgh: P to R
This instalment of my alphabetic introduction to Edinburgh features the letter P, Q and R.
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
THE LETTER P
P is for Princes Street, one of the original three main streets of the New Town. Today the street is a rather depressing line of mobile phone shops and department stores, but originally this would have been a long residential street with fantastically wealthy families living in the three- and four-storey townhouses which stretched from end to end.
In the initial plans for the New Town in the 1760s, the street was designated simply South Street, being the southern most one of the planned development. A little later its planned name was to be St Giles Street, named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, but the name was blocked by George III.
At that time St Giles in London was a run-down, slum district, and the king perhas felt that the associations were unbecoming for what was intended as a desirable residential district in this new development. As the streets began to take their names from the new union with England (just six decades old when they began building), Princes Street was named for the sons of George III. (George Street and Queen Street were named for the king and his wife.)
One original plan had been to have houses on both sides of the street, maximising the amount of properties that would be built, but the New town's designer, James Craig, argued that blocking the view between the Old and the New Town would be detrimental to the city's character, and that keeping the space open would help unify the two sides of the city. And so an Act of Parliament was secured to prevent development on the south side of Princes Street, ensuring that this line between the two halves of Edinburgh is kept open and clear, a key moment in the development of the New Town project.
THE LETTER Q
Q is for Quartermile, a major development taking shape to the south of the Royal Mile. The site at the heart of Quartermile was Edinburgh's old Royal Infirmary from the 1870s up until 2005, when the site was sold for development and the hospital moved out of town. Over the last decade the former hospital buildings and grounds have been turned into contemporary accommodation, shops and office spaces, with the final phase of development - the main infirmary building itself - still to be completed.
The buildings on this site now represent a collision of styles and textures, with the original sandstone and red brick hospital buildings interspersed (and extended into) glass and steel structures which offer panoramic views across the city (to the north) and over the green space of the Meadows (to the south). Some will find the combination of contemporary architecture with nineteenth-century buildings too much of a clash of cultures, but the site is fast becoming a popular and well recognised feature in the city's landscape.
Edinburgh, as with any old city, must continue to develop and grow as a living centre for people, and Quartermile represents one of the key transformations in the town in the twenty-first century.
THE LETTER R
R is for Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, whose work as a poet and author helped to shape the city's great literary legacy to the world. The family home at 17 Heriot Row is where Stevenson spent much of his childhood, with the popular story that he first span the early working of the story that became Treasure Island as he played around a pond in the gardens directly across the road from his home.
The city has many other Stevenson connections - Cramond and Corstorphine both featured in Kidnapped, the Old and New Towns (along with one of the city's famous residents) inspired The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Hispaniola restaurant is named for the ship from Treasure Island, being a place where Stevenson spent plenty of time drinking - but, at his own request, lacks a major memorial to the man. Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Western Pacific, and was buried out there when he died.
Edinburgh' Princes Street Gardens has a modest - often overlooked - memorial tucked away in a grove of birch trees, but artefacts from his life and career can be viewed at the city's Writers' Museum, on Lady Stairs Close, just off the Lawnmarket.
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For many years Edinburgh lacked a safe, clean and reliable fresh water supply. Beginning with its early settlement on the castle rock, the people who lived here were reliant on rain water for drinking, washing, and for raising and cultivating crops. And whilst Scotland is known for its precipitation, Edinburgh gets less rain than the rest of the country, on average!
Even into the medieval period this left the great fortification of Edinburgh Castle at a significant disadvantage - whilst it was militarily safe from attack, its great weakness was its limited space for raising food, and its limited supplies of fresh water.
Of the many times that Edinburgh Castle changed hands between the Scots and the English, it was most common for the handover to happen as a result of the castle surrendering due to its lack of resources. The relatively small well, just a few metres deep, and serving as a cistern for storing water rather than accessing an underground aquifer, is still visible at the top of Edinburgh Castle today.
In the fifteenth century, the valley to the north of the castle rock was dammed, and the stream which ran into it created an artificial lake called the Nor Loch. This valley is today Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens. This artificial lake served a number of purposes, both defensive and practical - not only was the lake effectively a large castle moat, preventing access to the city from the north, it also provided the city with a regular supply of water.
This was not a particularly effective solution to the city's water issue, however. The valleys on either side of the Royal Mile were also sewerage outlets, where all the waste drained off the streets. Long before the consequences of drinking contaminated and dirty water were understood, the citizens of Edinburgh would have been drinking water which would have been heavy with human and animal waste that had washed down from the city. As the population of the city rose, this supply of water became increasingly insufficient.
In 1624, the city was granted an act of parliament which allowed them to bring fresh water into Edinburgh for the first time. Springs in the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh were connected to the city via a network of wooden pipes - basically hollowed out tree trunks - across the landscape and up to the top of the Royal Mile, where a reservoir had been built to store the water.
The reservoir is still there on Castlehill - today it's the city's only surviving tartan weaving mill - five storeys deep into the ground.
In 1674, after fifty years of engineering work to connect the supply, fresh water flowed to Edinburgh's residents for the first time, from the reservoir on the Castlehill to twelve wells around the Old Town. Some of those wells still survive, with two of them in their original locations, on the Grassmarket and outside John Knox's House.
This revolutionary system improved Edinburgh's health and hygiene immeasurably into the eighteenth century, paving the way for the city to become the seat of learning and innovation during the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Today there are several Victorian-era reservoirs in the hills to the south of Edinburgh, from where fresh water was piped into the city during the nineteenth century.
These reservoirs today are a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, and offer visitors the chance to take advantage of Edinburgh's proximity to the countryside. They no longer supply water to the city, but remain as evidence of the remarkable and industrial efforts made to transform Edinburgh's public health and wellbeing in the recent past.
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Cramond: The Romans in Edinburgh
Britain has long been recognised as the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire, with Hadrian's Wall across the north of England considered the final frontier of their global occupation.
But the Romans also came into Scotland briefly, and evidence remains of their occupation of the area around Edinburgh, especially at Cramond. The area is a sleepy coastal suburb today but in the second century AD the fort here was the Romans' largest military settlement in Scotland.
At this time, around 140AD, the site of Edinburgh Castle today was occupied by a tribe called the Goddodin, known to the Romans as the Votadini. The Goddodin were known to be a fearsome and war-hungry group, with records suggesting they spent a full year feasting on the castle rock before heading south to fight the Angles - it's also considered that the Romans actively feared the Goddodin and so avoided engaging them directly in the territory of Edinburgh itself, instead establishing a settlement on the coast to the north.
Some historians suggest that Edinburgh's Dalkeith Road is a remaining section of Dere Street, the road built by the Romans to connect their settlements north of the border with York (Jorvik). Running through the south side of the city, the road then branched westwards along the edge of an ancient lake (where the Meadows are today) along the line of modern-day Melville Drive. It then ran out to the fort at Cramond, built on the edge of a natural harbour on the shores of the Firth of Forth.
Few, if any, physical structures of the Roman fort at Cramond survive today, but the foundations of a huge network of buildings are marked out in the area adjacent to the medieval Cramond Kirk, a later church built on the site of the Roman encampment. Concealed beneath thick foliage lie the remnants of an immense Roman bathhouse, a major feature of Roman settlements.
The fort at Cramond was active during the period of construction of the Antonine Wall, the defence built between Scotland's east and west coasts as a defence against the Picts (another tribe of which the Romans seemed to live in fear!). The infamous story of the 'Eagle of Ninth', a mythical, ill-fated mission by a legion of 5,000 soldiers who ventured into the misty Highlands of Scotland, never to be seen or heard of ever again, provides some context for their fear of the tribes occupying the highlands of mainland Britain, and the Antonine Wall was constructed to keep the Roman forts safe from attacks from the north.
The size of the encampment here, and the importance of the site as a militarily strategic river port, is reflected in some of the finds and archaeology which has been uncovered here. Beyond the traces of the buildings themselves, in 1997 the ferryman who ran a passenger service across the River Almond had to steer around what he thought was merely a rock jutting above the surface of the water. At low tide, however, the stone was examined and found be the tip of an immense carving of a lioness, a huge creative feature that archaeologists think may have been created as a grave marker or decorative tombstone for a significant general or military figure stationed at Cramond.
The Cramond Lioness, as she is now known, has since taken pride of place in Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Carvings like the lioness indicate that Cramond was established as a major, and permanent, settlement for the Romans. But records suggest that Cramond was only actively occupied for about thirty years, between 140 and 170AD, and then briefly again from 205 to 214AD
Ultimately the Romans retreated south from Cramond, taking up residence around the English boundary defence of Hadrian's Wall which was a more effective (and better established) site. Some have suggested that Scotland's unforgiving (and unpredictable) climate may have proven too much for the Romans, for whom the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean could hardly have seemed further away!
Whether they were defeated by the Scottish weather or the fearsome people, the Romans left their mark on Scotland, and Cramond offers just one accessible site for historians to explore.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Roman Cramond is located not in the village itself, but about a half mile further along the coastline (accessible only via a longer path which runs inland to cross the River Almond over the old Cramond Brig) on the Dalmeny Estate. Walking along the beach here brings you to a small outcrop of rock, in which is carved the outline of an eagle, a symbol beloved of the Romans whose legions each had their own eagle emblem behind which they marched.
The Cramond Eagle - if that's what it is, the carving is too weathered to say for sure - is a firm marker of the occupation of this area by the Romans, and it's quite remarkable to think about the young men who may have carved this design in between their patrols of the Antonine Wall, standing on this rocky shore and looking out over a landscape that can only have changed rudimentally in the nearly two thousand years since.
Perhaps the carving was only a form of graffiti, the way modern cities are 'tagged' with spray paint, but nonetheless it gives a truly human shape to the Roman presence here.
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