One of the paradoxes of Edinburgh's historic Old and New Towns is that neither is as old or as new as their name suggests... The 'New' Town dates from the 1760s, whilst the bulk of the 'Old' Town was redeveloped and rebuilt by the Victorians from the 1860s onwards.
The major inciting incident that led to the wholesale reconstruction (or destruction) of the original medieval city took place on 24 November 1861. At that time many of the structures in the city had grown to heights of eight or ten storeys on average, with some of the taller structures reaching twelve or fourteen storeys above street level. They had not been well built, having been adapted over time to accommodate increasing numbers of people, and by the nineteenth century were both dangerously overcrowded and in terrible states of repair.
A property sandwiched between Baillie Fyfe's Close and adjacent Paisley Close was one such property, reaching to seven storeys at the level of the Royal Mile itself. Local legend has it that a baker on the ground floor of the property had made efforts to install a larger oven, for which he had removed part of an internal supporting wall, and in the early weeks of November 1861 residents had reported alarming noises coming from the building as timbers and floors began to shift and twist.
Finally, in the early hours of 24 November 1861, the building lost all structural integrity, and was reduced to rubble, crushing many of its residents to death in their beds as they slept.
As rescuers rushed to the site on that freezing cold night, they managed to pull a number of survivors from the rubble and debris, along with 35 bodies of people who hadn't been lucky enough to survive the destruction. They were about to call off the search for further survivors, when they heard a young voice shouting from under the rubble:
"Heave awa' lads, ah'm no' deid yet!"
The voice belonged to a twelve-year-old boy named Joseph McIvor, and thanks to his cries he was pulled alive from the mangled rubble of Paisley Close.
Following this incident, Edinburgh's authorities realised that they couldn't allow the population to continue living in such poor quality housing that presented such a danger to their lives (and livelihoods). And so began the redevelopment of Edinburgh's Old Town.
A series of laws were passed called the Edinburgh Improvement Acts, and they made specific provisions for the city to systematically and proactively replace the old, medieval-style houses with better quality, modern tenements. The replacement building on the site of the Paisley Close on the High Street collapse features the face of Joseph McIvor above the entrance to the lane, along with the words he shouted carved in the stone above his head. The building later became known locally as Heave Awa' House.
(Actually the text on the carving is a slightly anglicised version of the Scots words McIvor would have shouted - no young boy in nineteenth century Scotland would have used a word like 'chaps'....!)
These are the majority of the buildings that you'll find across the Old Town today - a small number of the original buildings survive, but the vast majority of the city's structures along the Royal Mile date from the 1860s onwards (and most of them have handy dates to confirm their year of construction!).
As these buildings are a full century newer than the original New Town houses, those labels of 'Old' and 'New' Town seem curiously inaccurate...
Explore more of the contrasting Old and New Town architecture and history with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
The Scots are anecdotally a very thirsty nation, with a reputation for drinking (to excess, on occasion) - and one of the greatest cultural exports from Scotland is, of course, Scotch whisky, although Scottish gins have come very much to the fore in recent years, too.
One of the greatest honours that can be bestowed in Scotland is having a pub named after you, and so it's handy that the city remembers many of its former inhabitants with drinking holes, allowing me to link two popular pastimes - history and alcohol!
Here are five establishments named for former inhabitants of the city....
Notable for being the highest pub in Edinburgh (geographically speaking), the Ensign Ewart is situated near the top of the Royal Mile on the Lawnmarket.
It is named for a former solider with the Royal North British Dragoon Guards, Charles Ewart, who played a crucial role in the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Ewart seized the ceremonial eagle standard of one of the French regiments, helping to break up the cavalry forces and leading to the final defeat of Napoleon's armies.
After his death, Ewart's body was buried outside Manchester before later being exhumed and reburied on the esplanade at the front of Edinburgh Castle. The eagle standard that Ewart captured is still on display in the regimental museum of the Royal Scots inside Edinburgh Castle.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Born on Charlotte Square in the New Town in 1847, Bell is today best known for his work inventing the telephone, for which he was granted a US patent in 1876.
Both his mother and his wife were deaf, and so his initial intention was to create a device that would enable better communication for people who were hearing impaired. He would later establish the American Telegraph and Telephone Company (which survives today as AT&T), although he is less well-known for his views on compulsory sterilisation and his membership of several high-profile eugenics organisations...
Today Bell has a branch of a Wetherspoon's pub named for him at the west end of George Street, just around the corner from the building in which he was born.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
Another figure celebrated not far from his birthplace is the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, born in a building on Picardy Place in Edinburgh's New Town, which has since been demolished.
Doyle trained as a medic at the University of Edinburgh, and after relocating to London he became famed for writing the Sherlock Holmes stories, featuring the world's greatest consulting detective. Holmes was based on one of Doyle's tutors at university, although none of the stories are set in Scotland.
Edinburgh famously has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women, but one particular woman has been given a pub instead - Maggie Dickson was one of the last people to survive an execution in the city, and her pub on the Grassmarket overlooks the site where she nearly met her death in the 1720s.
Accused of murdering her newborn child, Dickson was sentenced to be hanged, and after the execution took place her body was being transported out of the city for burial in the village where she came from. Part way along that journey, the coach driver bearing her coffin had cause to stop, and in doing so discovered that Dickson wasn't 100% dead - despite having been hanged, she was able to be revived, causing a significant legal discussion to take place in the city: should the authorities seek to hang her again, to complete the botched job? Or would that be in breach of the law, since she had - technically - already been hanged, as per her sentence...?
In the end Dickson was allowed to live, but the law changed with the sentence being amended to "be hanged until dead" for subsequent executions.
Dickson allegedly lived until her early 80s, and bore another six children in the latter half of her ife.
Another convicted criminal who was not so lucky as to survive the gallows was Deacon William Brodie, a locksmith and cabinet maker with premises on the Lawnmarket.
Brodie was discovered to have been living a double life, and went on to inspire the creation of one of literature's most influential creations as the prototype for Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde...
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...
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