This year's Meadows Festival takes place this weekend, so here's a bit of a history of one of Edinburgh's most popular and best known public parks.
Sitting in a natural dip in the land to the south of the Royal Mile, adjacent to the old infirmary buildings and behind Edinburgh University's George Square area, for many years a small stream ran through the Meadows area from east to west. This rendered the area a shallow loch at best, and a swampy marshland at worst. This helped to keep the city supplied with fresh water prior to the first piped supply being brought into the city from Comiston in the 1670s.
In the eighteenth century the land was drained by Sir Thomas Hope, who had rented the land the loch stood on for £800 per year. The parkland that we enjoy today began to be created. Middle Meadow Walk, the tree-line avenue which cuts across the park, was created, and over 1,200 trees planted around the area to provide colour and shade. One of the gardeners who helped to create the park was William Burnes; later in life Burnes's son would be adopted as one of Scotland's most famous sons, the poet Robert Burns.
The Meadows have survived many attempts to develop the area - in the late nineteenth century Middle Meadow Walk was threatened with being widened to allow the faster passage of carriage across the area, and as recently as the 1960s city planners considered running a six-lane motorway through the Meadows.
In 1886 a grand public exhibition hall was built on the Meadows, a glass structure to rival the Crystal Palace in London. This hosted the first of Edinburgh's many public events with an international flavour, the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art. The Exhibition ran between May and October of that year, and attracted over 2.7 million visitors. Notable exhibits included detailed and life-size recreations of some of Edinburgh's Old Town streets, including long vanished features like the Netherbow Port.
At the end of the exhibition the glass pavilion was dismantled, and today the only surviving features of the exhibition are a number of tall sandstone pillars topped by unicorns, at the west end of the park. Another feature that survived the exhibition was an arch constructed from four enormous whale bones, which stood at the edge of the park on Melville Drive. In 2014 the arch was removed for maintenance and restoration - Jawbone Walk now no longer features the bones which gave it its name!
At one time the Meadows was considered as a viable site for the construction of a grand new concert hall - the Usher Hall was later built on Lothian Road.
The Meadows also has a place in the city's grand sporting history, having hosted the first local derby between the Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian football teams, on Christmas day in 1875.
During the Second World War, land on the Meadows was given over for allotments, so that local people could cultivate fruit and vegetables to help sustain their community during the war. The last of these allotments survived until the 1960s.
Today the Meadows is popular not just for its open space and public walkways, but also its sports facilities - tennis courts and cricket pitches are available, and well sued by the local community. During the summer the air across the Meadows can be thick with barbecue smoke from those seeking to dine al fresco, and the area also hosts a variety of public fairs, festival and one-off events throughout the year.
The Meadows can be featured on my Up-Close and Personal Tour of the Old Town - contact me for more information!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...