Britain has long had a complicated relationship with its historical links to the slave trade, wherein UK-owned businesses derived huge financial profits from slave plantations in its colonial outposts, such as the West Indies. In recent years this piece of our history has come under renewed scrutiny, and efforts are being made to understand, acknowledge and reconcile the myriad ways in which slavery shaped our industries, cities and culture.
Edinburgh in the eighteenth century was home to a significant number of traders and businessmen whose interests were drawn from overseas. Much of the New Town as we see it today grew from the fortunes amassed by people like Thomas Duncan, who owned 332 slaves on plantations in Grenada; Alexander Murchison, who had two estates in Jamaica where he kept 191 slaves; John McGlashan, who had 194 slaves on his land in Jamaica; and Sir John Sinclair, who owned over 600 slaves in St Vincent in the Caribbean.
These connections are still visible in street names across the city - see Jamaica Street and Antigua Street in the New Town, and Sugarhouse Close in the Old Town, site of a sugar refinery processing sugar from the Caribbean from the 1750s.
In all, Scots owned and operated around one third of all plantations in Jamaica, producing coffee and sugar - that's around 300,000 slaves. Perhaps ironically, we can put quite precise figures on the number of slaves involved in many of these businesses because when slavery was abolished compensation was paid to the slave owners, to recompense them for the property they were losing...
Here are some of Edinburgh's slave trade connections, where the legacy of slavery has left its mark upon the city.
Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was born in Edinburgh in 1742 and became one of the most powerful political figures of the late eighteenth century - the monument to him on St Andrew Square in the New Town is testament to his status as a public figure of the age.
He would become the last member of the British Houses of Parliament to be impeached, but his reputation in recent years has been largely defined instead by his role in the abolition (or not) of the slave trade in Britain and its colonies.
In 1792 Dundas proposed an amendment to William Wilberforce's law to abolish slavery in UK businesses. Whilst he supported the principle of abolition, Dundas's intervention introduced the word 'gradual' to the proposed bill, on the basis that outright abolition overnight would simply drive the slave trade underground, and that other countries would step into the gap left by British businesses - neither of which would be good for the enslaved people themselves.
His proposal was that children born to current slaves working for UK businesses would be freed once they reached adulthood, a suggestion opposed by the House of Lords, who wouldn't approve a bill to abolish UK slavery until 1807 - during which time an estimated half a million more people were born into slavery for British businesses.
By this process, Dundas is considered by some people to have been a supporter of abolition, whilst others argue that he acted to block or delay the end of slavery.
But arguably his more significant impact on slavery in Scotland predates his time as an MP.
Back in the 1770s he was an lawyer in Edinburgh, operating from premises on Advocate's Close in the Old Town, and defended a man named Joseph Knight, who had been sold as a slave to a Scottish trader in the West Indies and brought back to Scotland. After several years of service, Knight wanted to live with his wife (whom he had married in Scotland) and child. But his owner refused the request, and Knight felt no choice but to run away.
When his owner had Knight arrested, the case went all the way to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the highest court in the land. There Dundas argued that, in Scotland, "no man is by nature the property of another," and that principles of slavery as they existed elsewhere were incompatible with Scottish law.
As a result of Dundas's successful legal representations, Knight and his family were freed from slavery, and thereafter any slaves brought to Scotland on trade ships were automatically freed on arrival in the country - it was now enshrined in Scottish law that no person on Scottish soil could be enslaved.
A commemorative plaque, dedicated to this 1778 ruling, was unveiled at the Court of Session in 2022.
TOBACCO AND BOYS
Even before the New Town was built on the profits of such businesses, huge quantities of slave-generated products were generating cash which then circulated in Edinburgh.
One major historical figure was James Gillespie, who operated a snuff and tobacco shop on the Royal Mile in the middle of the eighteenth century - a plaque at the site marks the location today. He was a well-known figure in the late eighteenth century, noted for his frugal lifestyle and miserly ways.
But the plantations which provided him with the product that he sold - and from which he amassed a significant fortune - were slave plantations, located in Virginia in the eastern United States.
On his death, the unmarried Gillespie left a significant estate of property in Edinburgh, and £12,000 in cash - nearly £2m in modern money - from which a quarter was set aside to establish a school for boys, which continues to operate (as James Gillespie's High School) today.
A STEP TOWARDS NATURALISM
When Charles Darwin studied at the University of Edinburgh in the 1820s he was learning medicine under the tutelage of Alexander Monro - a man he disliked (and possibly with good reason).
Darwin lived near to the Old College where he studied, at number 11 Lothian Street, where a plaque commemorates his time in Edinburgh. But he also came to know another of Lothian Street's residents, a freed slave named John Edmonstone. He had formerly been one of over 600 slaves owned by a Scottish trader named Charles Edmonstone (from whom he took his surname) who operated sugar plantations in Demerara, now part of Guyana.
John Edmonstone arrived in Scotland with the Edmonstone family in 1817, and on arrival became automatically a free man. He established himself in Edinburgh, where he lived at 37 Lothian Street and worked for the museum of Edinburgh Zoo, and taught taxidermy to university students.
Darwin is known to have taken private taxidermy lessons from John Edmonstone, for which he paid a guinea an hour, and it is this experience - as well as hearing Edmonstone's stories or the flora and fauna of the South American lands he had visited - that is partly credited with turning Darwin's interest away from human medicine and towards the naturalism for which he is now remembered.
(A plaque in John Edmonstone's name went missing after it was unveiled, and its current location is unknown.)
In St John's churchyard, at the west end of Lothian Road, you can find the only known grave in Edinburgh of a person born into slavery.
Malvina Wells had been born in Granada in 1804, her mother a slave and her father a plantation worked named John Wells.
As with John Edmonstone, Malvina Wells is thought to have travelled back to Scotland with her owner sometime in the early nineteenth century, receiving her freedom on arrival, and by 1851 is recorded as working as a ladies maid for the Macrae family. Thanks to the census records we can track her journey around the city over the next thirty years - she lived on Thistle Street in 1861, was working for the Gordon family on Randolph Crescent in 1871, and in 1881 was back working for the widow Macrae at Gloucester Place.
Malvina died at 14 Gloucester Place on 22 April 1887, at the age of 82. She was buried at St John's church, with a marble stone commissioned by the Macrae family.
A VOICE OF CHANGE
Despite slavery having been finally abolished in the UK (and its overseas territories) in 1833, slave ownership was still occurring across the southern United States, and people were being encouraged to speak out or support American abolitionist causes to secure freedom for the enslaved people across the Atlantic.
Frederick Douglass had been born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, but secured his freedom in 1838 and published his biography - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave - in 1845. He travelled to Britain in 1846 to promote the book and to speak in support of the abolitionist cause, and between 1846 and 1847 lived in Edinburgh.
Douglass had taken his surname from a Walter Scott poem, The Lady of the Lake, and came to Scotland because of the popular imagery of the country that Scott had created. He visited Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock to speak about his experiences and to draw attention to the Free Church of Scotland's acceptance of financial support from American slavers. Inciting crowds to chant 'Send back the money!' he was a popular speaker, even if his efforts to shame the Free Church authorities were unsuccessful.
Douglass spoke at venues including the Assembly Rooms on George Street, and at the Waterloo Rooms (now a restaurant) on Waterloo Place. He lived for a time at Gilmore Place where a plaque commemorates his stay, and a public mural of his face can be found on the side of a building.
AN AMERICAN MONUMENT
Douglass became a familiar and popular figure for his campaigning throughout the American Civil War, when he conferred directly with Abraham Lincoln (and later Andrew Johnson) on issues relating to the emancipation and suffrage of slaves.
On seeing the official Emancipation Memorial, unveiled in Washington in 1876, where he was the keynote speaker for the dedication ceremony, Douglass criticised the design which, he said, represented a freed slave which "though rising, is still on his knees and nude. ... What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
Perhaps he might have approved more of the only American Civil War memorial outside of North America, which can be found in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground.
Topped with a statue of Lincoln - the first statue of an American president to be raised outside of America - the monument shows a figure representing the freed slaves rising, and holding in his left hand a book. This was a subtle (and forward-thinking) way of indicating that this is a man, educated, literate, with his own internal, intellectual world, and not merely an object of property.
It seems fitting for a city like Edinburgh, with such deep links to the horrors of the slave trade, to have a significant memorial to the US Civil War. But it's a minor gesture in the grand scheme of things, and the discussion about effective reparations continues to be ongoing, as well as the debate about how best to handle reminders of the past and the exploitation and suffering that was inflicted on so many, for the betterment of so few.
Some people and advocacy groups want to see monuments to those who profited from slavery to be removed, to have street names replaced. Edinburgh's position is to retain and explain: to keep the monuments and the names and the buildings and the features, but to ensure the stories are told and the history is made visible, so that people can better understand the experiences, effects and consequences of such historical acts and decisions.
It's not a solution which will suit everyone, but feels in keeping with the ethos of a city where history is never far from the surface, and where every detail tells us something of the people who have come before us.
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As Edinburgh grew off the rock of the Old Town in the 1760s, the New Town took shape as a grand, high status residential district for wealthy families who could afford to live there.
Built to a grid plan modified from a vision laid out by the architect James Craig, the original New Town development was relatively modest in scale to a modern eye - just three streets running east-west, with a large private garden at each end, and bisected with smaller streets running north-south. Princes Street was the southern boundary of this new city, and Queen Street was its reflected parallel to the north. In the middle, the grandest street in its original scope, was George Street.
Today this first phase of the New Town project is largely commercialised, and many visitors (as well as locals) overlook it as a source of historical interest. So here's my brief guide to some of the features that can be found on George Street itself, as we traverse the length of the original New Town from St Andrew Square in the east to Charlotte Square at the west...
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Seated in the central reservation of the road is one of the most significant and influential figures of British science. James Clerk Maxwell was a progidious polymath, and made discoveries and innovations in a variety of fields during his lifetime.
In 1861 he took the world's first colour photograph in Edinburgh, demonstrating his knowledge of the different frequencies of light creating different colours of the spectrum. He also used pure maths to prove that the rings of Saturn was comprised of small particles of rock and dust - today one of the gaps between Saturn's rings is called the Maxwell Gap.
Albert Einstein considered Maxwell a more influential figure on his own work than Isaac Newton - without Maxwell we may never have had Einstein! Not bad considering as a young boy Maxwell was nicknamed 'dafty'...
The statue of Maxwell was created by Alexander Stoddart, and features one of Edinburgh's many representations of dogs in statue...
It is possible to pick out the original house structures which were built along George Street - each of the home was just three windows wide, but other than that they weren't built to any conspicuous plan or design. They are often subtly different in height, have their windows at different levels, and don't have the same decorations in the stonework.
That's because the New Town was initially developed by each family buying their own plot of land and commissioning their own architect to build their property - there was no attempt to make them match. The architectural unity that we often associate with the New Town style only came into effect towards the end of the building of the first phase of the New Town, when Charlotte Square was designed by Robert Adam (and later phases in which one architect would be responsible for designing an entire street).
Although shop fronts have been built out at street level, the buildings here still give an indication of what George Street would have looked like as a residential street.
At the junction of George Street and Hanover Street stands a statue of King George IV, by most accounts one of the worst kings Britain ever endured... He's celebrated here because he came to visit Edinburgh in 1822, at that time the first state visit by a monarch to Scotland for nearly two centuries.
But most of the New Town was built and planned during the reign of his father, George III, who was regarded as one of our best kings - much of this new city was named for him, and to celebrate the new union between Scotland and England which was only 60 years old when construction began. Hence George Street, Hanover Street (George's family name), Frederick Street (for George III's father), Queen Street and Charlotte Square (for his wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz). Other national ties are referenced with Rose Street and Thistle Street, the national flowers of Scotland and England.
THE ASSEMBLY ROOMS
Built as a meeting place for the hosting of parties and balls, the Assembly Rooms was a major project funded by public subscription (at a cost of over £6,000, a fortune in the 1780s) and opened in 1787. It was here that George IV was hosted during his momentous 1822 visit.
The builing was subsequently developed and added to several times, including by architects William Burn and David Bryce, and continues to host major events including use as as venue during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
A YOUNG PRIME MINISTER
The statue at the next junction as we move westwards along George Street is that of William Pitt the Younger, the second-longest serving Prime Minister in history, who became PM at the age of just 24 years old. He served under George III and his name distinguishes him from his father, William Pitt the Elder, who was also Prime Minister in the decade prior.
Pitt's time in parliament saw a huge shift in the political landscape across Britain, and he is credited with introducing the cabinet system of governance (where ministers each take a portfolio of specific responsibilities to manage), as well as bringing in a number of taxes which had an impact on Britain.
The window tax, an oft-cited example of Pitt's financial interventions (which he didn't introduce but the rate of which he increased), wasn't either the most dramatic or the longest lasting of his his taxes - the income tax he brought in as a temporary measure in 1799 continues to be levied over two centuries later...
Above the entrance to 84 George Street is a small model of a lighthouses which, if you keep an eye on it, will be seen to flash periodically. It marks the offices of the Northern Lighthouse Board, the organisation which oversees the management and maintenance of the lighthouses around the northern coast of Scotland. At one time each lighthouse required individual keepers to operate them, but with modern technology the function of these essential safety beacons are managed remotely.
A little further along the street is the grand facade of the headquarters of freemasonary in Scotland, and home to the Grand Lodge of Scotland - look for the statue of St Andrew, the patron saint of freemasons as well as of Scotland itself - above the entrance.
The oldest masonic lodge records in Scotland (indeed the world) belong to the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1, which date back to 1599 - and its building is a short walk away from George Street itself.
The statue in the next intersection is Thomas Chalmers, a church minister who led the 'Great Diaruption' of 1843 when a group of church leaders broke away from the central Church of Scotland organisation to establish the Free Church of Scotland - a church which wasn't tied and regulated by same strictures which they felt had limited the spiritual independence of the church's operations.
Ministers and elders met at St Andrew's Church - which we came past earlier on George Street - in May 1843, and announced their protest, leading a march out of the building and down to Canonmills, north of the city centre, to hold the first meeting of their Free Church.
Chalmers was the first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, and his statue on George Street was sculpted by Sir John Steell.
CHURCH OF SCOTLAND OFFICES
Within a stone's throw of Thomas Chalmers are the central administrative offices of the Church of Scotland today. The building itself has an off-centre quality to it, with the entrance positioned awkwardly a third of the way from one end, creating an imbalanced appearance that seems at odds with the New Town's symmetry and style.
In fact, the church offices were originally built in 1909-11 with a symmetrical, balanced front, with the doorway in the centre of the building. Then, two decades later, in the 1930s, an extension was added to the eastern side of the building, creating additional space - on the front oft he building, if you look at the stonework, you can see how this additional third which was added to the original structure was integrated on the outer surface.
A TONTINE HOTEL
The building across the road from the Church of Scotland offices, at 120 George Street, was built originally as an hotel in the late 18th century. It was established as part of a form of investment and development known as a Tontine, and Scotland still has several hotels which bear this original name of their form of funding.
This type of scheme is named after an Italian banker named Lorenzo di Tonti, and operates in a curious way. All the investors in the building contribute the same initial sum as part of the investment, and each of them derive an equal share from the profits generated by the business. But those shares cannot be transferred or passed on to other people, such as children or spouses - when an original investor dies, their share gets split equally between the surviving investors, increasing their respective stakes.
By this means, original investors become wealthier from their investment as time goes on and fewer investors remain. And doubtless you've already spotted the fundamental flaw in this system of funding, which leaves it open to abuse...!
Today the original Tontine hotel on George Street has been converted into office space.
Look up to the two windows nearest the end of the row on both sides of George Street and you'll see the windows have been bricked up and painted over with the illusion of window panes - these so-called 'dummy windows' or 'blind windows' are a common feature of New Town buildings as a result of William Pitt the Younger's raising of the rate of window tax.
Levied in Scotland between 1748 and 1851, the window tax was designed to target wealthy families with large houses (who could therefore afford a higher tax burden), and was charged on a per window basis for houses with over a certain number of windows. If a property owner didn't wish to pay the tax, all they had to do was not have the window - so excess windows would be bricked up, and in cities like Edinburgh where the visual style of street was a paramount concern the illusion of a window would be painted on, becoming known as 'Pitt portraits'.
However, not all blind windows were as a result of the window tax - because these buildings often had to have fireplaces or staircases on the inside of these outer walls, there was often no physical window ever installed, with the window recess being included to preserve the symmetrical patterning of the street. The stone was usually cut to create the illusion of two sash panes, one hanging over the other.
One way to get a sense of whether the bricked up window is a result of the window tax or an internal feature it to look directly above the blind window to the roof - if there's a chimney stack aligned with the window recess, that's the indication that it may never have been a window at all...
And so we arrive at Charlotte Square - originally to have been named St George Square (to parallel with St Andrew Square at the east end of the city), it took the original developers nearly fifty years to get as far as this point in the New Town - at which time there had already been another development in the Old Town named George Square... So St George Square was renamed for the wife of George III.
And that concludes our stroll along George Street! I always try to feature a little of New Town in my customised walking tours, as far as possible, because - as I always say - if you only focus on Old Town you're only getting one half of Edinburgh's story...
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All of Edinburgh's publicly owned museums and galleries offer free entry to their permanent collections, and National Galleries Scotland manage five buildings which provide access to a fantastic array of artworks.
At the west end of the city centre are the two modern art galleries, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street blends classical and contemporary works. In the very heart of Edinburgh, on the Mound, which connects both Old and New Town, is the original Scottish National Gallery itself, alongside its sister gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy building.
These two spaces are connected by an underground concourse, accessible from Princes Street, and while the RSA hosts regular paid exhibitions, the National Gallery provides free access to some of the best-known classic works by globally renowned artists.
The RSA building was the first of these two galleries to be built, designed by William Henry Playfair in the 1820s. The National Gallery building was commissioned thirty years later, again designed by Playfair, and very distinctly in his classical style, with Grecian-style columns and decorations all around the golden sandstone structure - the RSA is Doric in style (the least decorative) while the National Gallery is Ionic (more ornate). Together these two buildings helped earn Edinburgh its nickname of 'the Athens of the North'.
The foundation stone for the Scottish National Gallery building was laid by Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert in 1850 and the gallery opened to the public in 1859.
Inside the building is a sumptuous series of open spaces with works by some of the world's greatest classic artists on display, alongside iconic works by Scottish painters.
Organised by theme and period the collection fills the space with colour and style, with every wall offering something to discover.
Artists like Rembrandt and Van Dyck are represented alongside Monet, Reubens and Titian, as well as British painters like Constable and Turner (whose watercolours are displayed in a special exhibition every January) and Scottish artists like Alexander Nasmyth and Henry Raeburn.
One iconic picture which is often considered a definitively Scottish work is Edwin Landseer's Monarch of the Glen, featuring a majestic stag in front of a Scottish Highland backdrop. The painting was bought by National Galleries Scotland for £4m in 2017 - but Landseer was an English painter, and for some the uniquity of this work has resulted in it becoming a cliched and overly sentimental presentation of Scotland.
The largest painting in the gallery's collection - measuring approximately 5.7m by 4.2m, including its grand gilt frame - is by an American artist named Benjamin West, who was born in Philadelphia and later travelled to Britain as part of his 'Grand Tour' of Europe.
His painting Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag was recently restored in the gallery in full view of the general public, who could watch the conservators painstakingly working on the enormous picture.
Beneath the gallery space, in the modern connecting section which opened in 2004, you can find the Scottish Cafe and Restaurant, a dining space which offers coffee, snacks and light meals with an option for sitting outdoors and enjoying the views across the eastern section of Princes Street Gardens towards the Balmoral hotel.
Ongoing renovation work is extending the gallery's subterranean spaces to offer more gallery rooms, along with the necessary administrative office spaces. This will make the main entrance into the gallery at the garden level.
So be sure to pop into the Scottish National Gallery during your visit to Edinburgh and discover some of the artistic treasures it holds.
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With so much focus on tourism in the city of Edinburgh, it's perhaps easy to forget that the city wasn't built as a visitor attraction - it was a living, functioning city (and still is) which began to attract visitors in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries. The Royal Mile, for example, only became known by that name around 1901 - before that it was (as it still is, officially) five separately named streets which connected the castle and the palace.
But with the rise of tourism in the Victorian period the city began to work to accommodate visitors and provide experiences catered to them. The holy wells of Holyrood Park weren't visitor attractions as such, although they were the main draw for pilgrims for centuries, and St Bernard's Well - a mineral spring in the New Town - became a destination for high status visitors who had the means to travel in the late eighteenth century.
The coach service to and from London which started in the 1630s brought travellers to the city for business and (later) pleasure, but it wasn't until the rise of the railways in the 1840s that there was any kind of easy, affordable means for ordinary, working people to be able to access travel.
The visit of King George IV in 1822 was a huge state occasion which can be seen as one early inspiration for people to travel to Scotland for pleasure, and Queen Victoria followed in her uncle's footsteps and fell in love with Scotland in the 1840s, purchasing the Balmoral estate and spawning the appeal of the Highlands among visitors.
But in terms of Edinburgh, the oldest purpose-built visitor attraction is actually the Camera Obscura on Castlehill, which continues to operate as an attraction purely for the purpose and pleasure of drawing visitors to Edinburgh.
The building of the Camera Obscura itself has origins as a residential property back in the seventeenth century, which has been substantially extended and developed. But for the attraction itself we can look back as far as 1776, when an Edinburgh optician and astronomer leased land on the top of Calton Hill in order to open a building displaying his instruments to the general public.
Thomas Short had inherited a number of telescopes crafted by his brother James, and gave early public demonstrations of them, allowing students to get up close and personal with the stars. He had commissioned James Craig to construct an observatory building to house his collection, the remnants of which still stand at the top of Calton Hill today.
Short died in 1788, leaving a stipulation in his will that no female heir of his could inherit either the property on Calton Hill, or its contents. Short's original observatory eventually closed in 1807, and the Royal Observatory later took over the building.
In 1827 a woman named Maria Short arrived in Edinburgh, claiming to be Thomas's daughter and making an application to become the rightful inheritor of the 'Great Telescope'. Despite opposition she was successful in her efforts to establish an observatory attraction which catered more to the general public than the scientific community.
In 1835 she opened Short's Popular Observatory, and operated it from a smaller structure adjacent to the National Monument at the top of Calton Hill. In 1851, against Maria Short's wishes, the building which housed her observatory was forcibly demolished by the city council, and she used the revenue the business had generated to buy a property on Castlehill. She added two storeys to the structure and in 1853 Short's Observatory, Museum of Science and Art opened to the public.
The main attraction of this observatory was a specially-built wooden structure at the very top of the structure which housed a camera obscura - a small aperture allowed light through a sequence of mirrors and lenses to cast an image onto a white table inside the room. Being able to rotate the camera allowed for a 360-degree view of Edinburgh and its surroundings to be shown to visitors, who gathered around the table in the darkened room and could see the city laid out before them in detail.
Maria Short died in 1869, and her husband continued running the observatory until 1892 when Patrick Geddes took over management of it and refashioned the attraction as a museum showcasing features of the natural world.
Geddes organised the exhibition over the five floors of the building, beginning on the ground floor with maps of the world and artefacts from around the globe, leading to the first floor which focused on European history and geography. Visitors then climbed further up the building to discover aspects of the United Kingdom, and up again to a display about Scotland in particular, before finally arriving at the camera obscura to look out over Edinburgh itself.
He rebranded the attraction as the Camera Obscura and Outlook Tower, and it ran successfully until his death in 1932.
After several years of ownership by the University of Edinburgh, the building was sold on again in the 1980s to the current owners.
Today it is styled as the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and it provides five floors of optical illusions, examples of early photography, mind-bending exhibits like a mirror maze and a vortex tunnel, and a wealth of fascinating displays to engage young and old - plus, of course, the original camera obscura which continues to provide a thrilling way of engaging with Edinburgh.
There's something special about the way the building continues to operate the kind of business its original owner established, and in particular - in this modern age of technology - that something as analogue and 'old school' as a Victorian pinhole camera can continue to draw visitors in Edinburgh, just as it did nearly two centuries ago.
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