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!
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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