The historical events that shaped Edinburgh

An overview of Edinburgh's history provides further insight into Scotland's capital

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The historical events that shaped the city of Edinburgh

Edinburgh has had a chequered past, seeing off invaders from the Vikings and Romans to the English to become Scotland’s first city

In prehistoric times, our ancient ancestors hunted and farmed on the plain between the Forth and the Pentland Hills, and settled on the heights of Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat, strengthening these rocky outcrops with primitive ramparts. Later, in the first centuries AD, the Romans marched north. They built straight roads along the line of St Mary’s Street and Princes Street, leading to a fort at Cramond harbour.

After the Roman empire fell, Castle Rock became Eidyn, the citadel of a local tribe known as the Votadini or Gododdin. Around ad600, the fortress was conquered by Anglo-Saxons from the south, who changed its name to Edinburgh. They also founded St Cuthbert’s Church at today’s West End, and established a farming settlement at Broughton, around the head of Leith Walk.

Eventually, perhaps in the 950s, Edinburgh came under the rule of the Scots, who sometimes called it Dunedin. Around 1080, King Malcolm III and his wife Margaret built a small church in the castle – St Margaret’s Chapel, now the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. David I, the son of Malcolm and Margaret, built the abbey at Holyrood down the Royal Mile, and the town flourished between these two landmarks.

Attacks by the English continued, but Edinburgh prospered, developing from a fortress to a city. By the 1130s, a small town of craftsmen and traders had appeared outside the castle gates, around St Giles’ Church. At Holyrood, King David I was in the process of building a monastery as a place of prayer and scholarship, while in Canonmills and the Dean Village, waterwheels ground oats and corn for porridge and bread. The port of Leith was one of Scotland’s main harbours, where traders and noblemen imported foreign goods and exported wool and fish. Edinburgh was surrounded by farming villages and proud castles, and was emerging as Scotland’s capital.

By the 1280s, the castle was the location of the state archives, and after another phase of war with England, Edinburgh was rebuilt in the 1360s by King David II, with a castle of white towers on its dark rock, above a walled town of merchants’ houses. War continued – the English invasion in 1544 was particularly devastating – but the city grew, and the 16th century saw the establishment of printing presses, the law courts and the university.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, but the government of Scotland remained in Edinburgh. The parliaments of Scotland and England merged in 1707, with Scotland retaining its legal system and Edinburgh remaining a centre of commerce.

In other ways, the 16th and 17th centuries were unkind. Edinburgh’s wealth and population grew dramatically, but people were crowded inside the confines of the Flodden Wall, living on top of centuries of filth – parts of the Old Town are built on several metres of human waste. Dirty, jumbled tenements rose upwards from the muck – the largest of them all, known as Babylon, began on the Cowgate and rose as high as the steeple of St Giles’. Not surprisingly, plague and other diseases repeatedly devastated the city’s population.

In the 18th century, the situation became intolerable to the intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment. They decided to build a New Town to the north, on the romantically named slopes of Barefoot’s Park. In 1766, a street plan was produced by a young architect called James Craig, and construction soon began on a spacious neo-classical city of straight streets, elegant rows and grand buildings. It was created by a whole generation of brilliant Scottish architects, but the most famous of all was Robert Adam, whose masterpiece is Charlotte Square.

The 19th century saw the city grow beyond the New Town, with railways, factories and new tenement blocks for the workers. Edinburgh became ‘Auld Reekie’, its air dark with smoke. In response, Victorian philanthropists created open spaces such as Inverleith Park and built “happy homes for happy workers” in the Colonies projects.

The 20th century saw the decline of industry and pollution, and the rise of tourism and culture. The Edinburgh Festival began in 1947. Through it all, the city has remained the centre of Scotland’s finance, legal system and political life, symbolised by the creation of a renewed Scottish Parliament on the eve of
the millennium.

Edinburgh through the centuries


  • c. AD80 - The Romans invade Scotland

  • c. AD600 - Warriors of Gododdin ride out from Castle Rock to a heroes’ death

  • c. AD960 - The Scots conquer Edinburgh from the English

  • 1093 - Queen Margaret dies in Edinburgh Castle, having built the chapel there that still bears her name

  • 1314 - The castle is liberated from the English by Thomas Randolph, nephew of Robert the Bruce

  • 1329 - King Robert the Bruce issues the town with a charter of rights

  • 1357 - After 60 years of war with the English, David II begins rebuilding the castle and city

  • 1457 - Mons Meg arrives at the castle

  • 1507 - Scotland’s first printing press is licensed in Edinburgh

  • 1544 - The English burn the city

  • 1570-73 - The Long Siege: supporters of Mary Queen of Scots hold the castle, while the regents of James VI try to defeat them

  • 1583 - Edinburgh University is founded

  • 1637 - Attempts to introduce a new Episcopalian prayer book cause Presbyterian riots

  • 1688 - James VII is deposed. The castle is besieged again

  • 1707 - The Scottish and English parliaments unite. Government moves to London

  • 1726 - First lending library opens in a luckenbooth – a small shed – beside St Giles’

  • 1744 - Bonnie Prince Charlie holds court at Holyrood

  • 1766 - The New Town is designed

  • 1822 - King George IV visits Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott reinvents Scottishness

  • 1828 - Burke and Hare are put on trial

  • 1920 - Edinburgh and Leith become one city

  • 1947 - The Edinburgh Festival begins

  • 2004 - The new Scottish Parliament building is completed

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