History Squared: George Square
Nestled almost in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town is a Georgian-era square more in keeping with the city's terraces and squares to the north of Princes Street Gardens than the narrow lanes of the medieval part of the city.
Today George Square is a bustling garden space surrounded by buildings managed by the University of Edinburgh, and in the summer becomes a haven for theatrics during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Built in the 1760s at around the same time as the New Town was taking shape, the surviving aspects of George Square show it to have been a handsome and well-appointed alternative to the squalid and overcrowded streets of the Old Town.
Ignore the unsightly intrusions of some of the modern university buildings (a hangover from the concrete-centric developments of the 1960s), and you can almost picture the square in its heyday, lit by gas lamps and with horses and carts clattering around its cobbles. The surviving buildings are notable for their decorative stonework, a feature known as cherry cocking, with smaller stones inserted into the masonry in the joints between larger bricks to strengthen the structure.
The construction of the square was overseen by architect James Brown, and it is said the development was named not for his king, George III (as George Street in the New Town was, for example) but for the architect's older brother. The houses here weren't as grand as the properties being built along Princes Street and the rest of the New Town, but they were two- and three-story townhouses that offered a luxurious alternative for grand families who could afford to move away from shared tenement buildings on the Cowgate and the High Street.
Famous occupants of the square include the family of the writer Walter Scott, who moved here in 1774, when the future writer was still a baby, and (much later) another writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been born on the other side of the city, in buildings long since demolished on Picardy Place.
George Square was also home to Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, whose monument dominates another of the city's squares, St Andrew Square in the New Town.
In 1792 George Square fell victim to attacks from an angry mob, rebelling against Dundas's efforts to obstruct the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. As well as Dundas's home, windows were smashed in surrounding properties on the square, and Dundas is broadly 'credited' with having the abolition of slavery blocked until nearly twenty years later.
George Square remained a popular area for wealthy occupants well into the nineteenth-century. Today the buildings around the square all belong to the University of Edinburgh, including the George Square Theatre and central university library, dominating the southern side of the square.
Explore George Square and other highlights of the Old Town with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh's Plague Laws
In November 1498, the city authorities in Edinburgh announced a sweeping new set of rules and regulations to protect residents of the city from the latest outbreak of plague.
Five years previously Edinburgh had been effectively quarantined (by medieval standards) as a safeguard to limit the spread of plague, and some of these practices were reinstituted in 1498 as a further effort to control the outbreak of this deadly pestilence.
Specific measures brought in by law included:
Anyone caught harbouring visitors without having received permission to do so were not only banished from the city, but their goods and possessions would be seized by the authorities and redistributed for the greater good of the community. Travellers who were discovered to have visited Glasgow without permission would be refused re-entry to Edinburgh for forty days - the Latin for which helps give us the modern word 'quarantine' - and any English cloth discovered in the city would be confiscated and burned. Perhaps most severely of all, parents of unaccompanied children in the streets would be fined forty shillings (approximately £1,000 in modern currency) - children without parents would be taken into custody.
The effects of the plague on the city were devastating. It is known that victims of the plague were isolated by shipping them to Inchkeith island in the Firth of Forth, where they surely would have died lonely, painful, deaths - the last outbreak of plague in Edinburgh in 1645 saw plague pits being dug in the Burgh Muir (near Bruntsfield and Morningside today) and on Leith Links.
A once-popular story of victims being bricked up in their houses on Mary King's Close is now largely considered to be an urban myth and not an accurate retelling of the history, although visitors to Mary King's Close today will find out more about the city's history of plague illness and the precautions, treatments and consequences of the illness during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Find out more about the city's history of illness, death and disease with my customised Edinburgh walking tours!
The Great Fire of Edinburgh - 1824
It may be hard to imagine today, walking the lanes of Edinburgh's Old Town, winding between stone tenements along the Royal Mile, but the city was originally constructed in wood and timber, long before stone was being quarried to build houses in more permanent material. This rendered the town especially vulnerable to fire, as its buildings were crammed tightly together along the spine of rock between two glacial valleys.
Certain precautions were taken to minimise the risk of destruction, with most industrial premises being located outside of the city walls, in areas which still bear names like Candlemaker Row or Bread Street. By minimising open fires within the city in this way, Edinburgh was kept relatively safe, and once the buildings became clad in stone they acquired a new level of durability.
But several instances of conflagration exist on the historical record, during which large portions of the city were entirely destroyed by fires which spread rapidly through the narrow streets.
In 1824, one such break out of fire occurred on the Royal Mile, near Parliament Square, adjacent to St Giles' Cathedral. In this Great Fire, over 400 people lost their homes as an entire range of buildings, running the full width of the city between the High Street and the Cowgate, was lost to the flames. Thirteen people lost their lives, including two members of the recently established city fire brigade who were formally charged with protecting the city from fire.
James Braidwood, aged just 24 and recently appointed as head of the fire department, considered that the city was ill prepared for events such as these, and in particular that the men who were to tackle such blazes had little or no formal training to aid them in their work. With a unique set of skills and previous experiences in the building trade, Braidwood understood something of the methods by which buildings could be constructed to minimise their vulnerability to fire, and he was the first person to set down some of the core principles of fire fighting which still inform the work of modern firemen.
Braidwood's work in Edinburgh, and later in London, are considered to be the first coherent municipal fire services of the modern world, with his methodologies and guidance for preventing and fighting fire becoming a standard text in the development of many emergency service departments.
As one who lived his life in such a dangerous environment, it was perhaps inevitable that Braidwood should himself die in a fire, in London in 1861. His body was recovered from the burned out building and he was buried in a full public ceremony, with a reported cortege stretching one-and-a-half miles behind the hearse bearing his coffin as it was driven through London.
Braidwood is today commemorated with a statue at the head of Barrie's Close on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, adjacent to the area devastated by the Great Fire of 1824. He is also notable for having been a principle witness at the trial of William Burke in 1828, attesting to the layout of the lodging on Tanners' Close where many of Burke and Hare's murders took place.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with my private Edinburgh city tours - contact me for more details!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!
Search the blog archive...