Like many medieval settlements, Edinburgh at one time was a walled city.
Defences were essential to keep the city safe, and to protect its occupants from attack and invasion, as well as providing a boundary for the administration for taxes and laws which were levied on those within.
Edinburgh had always utilised the natural landscape for its protection, initially occupying the raised plateau of rock where Edinburgh Castle sits today, keeping the tribes living there safe from invasion by the virtue of up to 80 metres of sheer rock, which provided a pretty effective barrier against invasion!
As the city grew, the two glacial valleys north and south of the ridge along which the city expanded became integral to keeping Edinburgh protected. The valley to the north was flooded to create an artificial lake called the Nor Loch, which was, in effect, a castle moat protecting the whole city from invasion from the north. With no way across the valley, any would-be attackers were forced around to the east and western edges of the city.
With the castle rock to the west and the Nor Loch to the north, only the south and eastern edges of the city needed more substantial defences, and at different times in its history the southern side of Edinburgh was defended by a succession of three walls. Portions of each of these walls survive today, providing a sense not just of how well protected the city was, but the phases in which is grew and expanded.
The King's Wall
The first wall was built just after the city took on the mantle of capital for the first time, in 1437. Built in the reign of James II around the 1450s, the King's Wall was the first wall constructed as a defence, running along the length of the city from the castle down to near where the World's End is today. To give a sense of how narrow Edinburgh was at this time, the King's Wall ran between the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket and Cowgate which were, originally, beyond the city limits.
Two sections of this 500 year old structure still survive amongst the tangle of buildings and lanes of the Old Town. Just behind the Grassmarket, up the Castle Wynd Steps, you will walk along a length of the wall running east-west, demonstrating how the Grassmarket (or New Bygging as the area was known originally) was outside of the city. One further section of the King's Wall surviving on Tweeddale Court, running north-south as it returned to the line of the main street, forming the eastern boundary of the city.
The Flodden Wall
The King's Wall was superseded by the Flodden Wall, built in the aftermath of the devastating Battle of Flodden, in 1513. Expanding the city southwards for the first (and really only) time in its history, the Flodden Wall was built primarily by women, old people and children, as the working age, fighting age men of the city were all killed in the battle with England.
The Flodden Wall was built as a defence against any renewed attack by the English, and was 2 to 3 metres thick in places, and 7 metres high on average. It took around 60 years to finish building, and is made up of predominantly small pieces of stone, reflecting the less heavy workforce who constructed it.
Major sections of this wall have survived, notably along the line of the Vennel, just to the south of the Grassmarket, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and along the line of the Pleasance at the eastern edge of the old city. The wall itself ran along the lane of St Mary's Street, to join back onto the Royal Mile at the World's End today, where a large fortified gateway called the Netherbow Port acted as the most heavily defenced entrance into the city.
The Flodden Wall has survived primarily because it was never tested in battle - the English never did push the advantage gained at the Battle of Flodden - and a century later the wall itself was extended.
The Telfer Wall
In 1624, following the death of George Heriot, a major figure in the court of James VI, the city was gifted a huge chunk of money to construct a hospital in Heriot's name. The city had no space on which to build a major hospital building, so part of the money was used to purchase land just outside the Flodden Wall, and to build an extension to that wall to run around it.
The wall was engineered by a man named John Taillfer, and in time became corrupted to Telfer, the name the wall has today. Sections of this short, third wall can still be found along the Vennel, where it joins with the Flodden Wall, and along Lauriston Place, along the edge of George Heriot's school today. It's interest to compare its style and colouring to the earlier wall, and to contrast the size of the stones form which its built - a century after Flodden the city had a heavy workforce available once again, and the Telfer Wall is made of predominantly large blocks of stone.
Together these three walls give a sense of the city's limits and protections, and offer an insight into how the city would have looked at different times in its history. To be able to touch stones which have stood on Edinburgh's streets for up to half a millennium also gives a palpable connection to the city's past.
Explore more of Edinburgh with a private city walking tour!
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...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20