Edinburgh's Lost and Hidden Towns
Most visitors to Edinburgh come to grasp the notion of its divided identity pretty quickly - the city is split into an Old Town and a New Town area, two contrasting sectors, each with their own history and style. And other visitors become intrigued by the concept of Edinburgh's 'underground' city, a slight misnomer for the above/below divide of the city's development.
But what is less apparent to visitors (and even many locals) is the way that Edinburgh is made up of an accumulation of former towns and settlements across the landscape which have been amalgamated into the city as it grew and expanded. Here's a quick introduction to some of the lost and hidden formerly separate towns which today make up the city of Edinburgh...
First and foremost, probably the most apparent conjunction between an independent town and Edinburgh. Leith grew up around the port on the coast to the north-east of Edinburgh, and although the port was a major feature in Edinburgh's existence it wasn't formerly brought within the city itself until 1920, when nearly 90% of the respondents to a referendum voted in opposition to joining Edinburgh - before the two districts forcibly brought together anyway! Many of those who live and work in Leith still identify as 'Leithers', and the area retains a quite distinct sense of identity and function from the city of Edinburgh itself.
One town which was thoroughly wiped off the map (and the landscape) was the village of Calton, in the valley to the north of the city, nestled between the ridge of the Royal Mile and Calton Hill. This town was on the main route into Edinburgh from the port of Leith, the site of the Trinity College Church, founded in the 1460s, and one of the original locations of the royal botanical gardens.
In the 1840s, Calton was sacrificed to the march of progress as the railways came to Edinburgh, when the village was demolished in order to create land for building the North British Railway Station - today it's Waverley, the city's main railway station.
Up until the sixteenth century, New Bygging was a small settlement just beyond Edinburgh's city wall, but on one of the main routes into the city from the west. It was also a convenient place where Edinburgh held its markets, offering a flat, open patch of land that wasn't available within the city itself.
Following the Battle of Flodden in 1513, as Edinburgh sought to more effectively fortify itself against the prospect of an English invasion, an extension to the existing city wall was planned, which would bring New Bygging within the provision of Edinburgh for the first time. The area today is the Grassmarket, one of the city's most popular social hubs - but for much of its history would have operated as a separate town outwith Edinburgh itself.
Another former town beyond the walls of the city, Canongate was the name for the town on the main road out of Edinburgh to the east, the lower end of the stretch of street known today as the Royal Mile. This section of the Mile is still called Canongate, but the town remained distinct from Edinburgh itself - just a few hundred yards from the city gates - until 1856.
The name, incidentally, doesn't refer to any weaponry or cannons, but describes one of the positions in the church, the canons of Holyrood Abbey, who would have made their way along this route to get up to St Giles' Cathedral. Hence the area became known as the walk - or 'gait' - of the canons. It has long since been corrupted to Canongate.
Another church connection, the 12th-century mill town down the hill to the north of the city was also associated with the abbey at Holyrood. When the city's guild of baxters (bakers, and specifically breadmakers) was established they were compelled to have their flour supplied from these mills, thereby guaranteeing support and maintenance of the church-associated properties.
Only a part of one of the original mill buildings survives in this area, but a small piece of stonework marking the Baxter's Land and dated 1686 was discovered during developments in the 1960s, and is preserved in the buildings of the petrol forecourt at the Canonmills junction.
A bustling and thriving suburb of Edinburgh today was originally a town which grew up around the original wooden bridge - the stock bridge - which provided access over the Water of Leith and up into the city itself.
Today the area is a local haven for shops and cafes, with a regular farmers' market, just a short stroll from the heart of the New Town.
A fascinating contrast with nearby Stockbridge, the Dean Village was another town on a route into the city, on a bridge across the steep valley worn away by the Water of Leith, transformed in this area into a power supply for a string of mills along its banks. The area was another main supplier of flour and milled products for the city, thriving on the through-traffic forced through the area by the access road into Edinburgh.
After the 1830s, developments to the New Town led to the building of a major bridge across the valley, cutting the Dean Village off the main traffic route, and the area went into terminal decline as businesses (and residents) moved away. Today the Dean Village is a remarkable little rural haven almost in the heart of the city, and offers an alternative image of Edinburgh from the tourist heartland that most visitors see.
Take a New Town tour or explore some of these hidden towns of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
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