Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a venerable, cosmopolitan and cultured city famed worldwide for its superb annual festival. The setting is wonderfully striking: perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north. “My own Romantic town”, Sir Walter Scott called it, although it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of his “precipitous city”, declaring that “No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects”. Edinburgh’s ability to capture the literary imagination has seen it dubbed a “World City of Literature” by UNESCO, who have also conferred World Heritage Site status on much of the centre.
The area north of the castle, the dignified, Grecian-style New Town was laid out in the eighteenth century after the announcement of a plan to improve conditions in the city. The Old Town, on the other hand, with its tortuous alleys and tightly packed closes, is unrelentingly medieval, associated in popular imagination with the city’s underworld lore of murderers Burke and Hare and of schizophrenic Deacon Brodie, inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Set on the hill which sweeps down from the fairy-tale castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Old Town preserves all the key reminders of its role as a historic capital, augmented now by the dramatic and unusual new Scottish Parliament building, opposite the palace. A few hundred yards away, a tantalizing glimpse of the wild beauty of Scotland’s scenery can be had in Holyrood Park, an extensive area of open countryside dominated by Arthur’s Seat, the largest and most impressive of the volcanoes. Among Edinburgh’s many museums, the exciting National Museum of Scotland houses 10,000 of Scotland’s most precious artefacts, while the National Gallery of Scotland and its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, house two of Britain’s finest collections of paintings.
Beyond the centre, Edinburgh’s liveliest area is Leith, the city’s medieval port, whose seedy edge is softened by a series of great bars and restaurants, along with the presence of the former royal yacht Britannia. The wider rural surroundings of Edinburgh, known as the Lothians, mix rolling countryside and attractive country towns with some impressive historic ruins.
It was during the Dark Ages that the name Edinburgh – at least in its early forms of Dunedin or Din Eidyn (“fort of Eidyn”) – first appeared. The strategic fort atop the Castle Rock volcano served as Scotland’s southernmost border post until 1018, when King Malcolm I established the River Tweed as the permanent frontier. In the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the late eleventh century, the castle became one of the main seats of the court, and the town, which was given privileged status as a royal burgh, began to grow.
Turbulent Middle Ages
Under King James IV (1488–1513), the city enjoyed a short but brilliant Renaissance era, which saw not only the construction of a new palace alongside Holyrood Abbey, but also the granting of a royal charter to the College of Surgeons, the earliest in the city’s long line of academic and professional bodies. This period came to an abrupt end in 1513 with the calamitous defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden leading to several decades of political instability. In the 1540s, English king Henry VIII’s attempt to force a royal union with Scotland led to the sack of Edinburgh, prompting the Scots to turn to France: French troops arrived to defend the city, while the young Scottish queen Mary was dispatched to Paris as the promised bride of the Dauphin, later Francois II of France. While the French occupiers succeeded in removing the English threat, they themselves antagonized the locals, who had become increasingly sympathetic to the ideals of the Reformation. When the radical preacher John Knox returned from exile in 1555, he quickly won over the city to his Calvinist message.
The Scottish Enlightenment
James VI’s rule saw the foundation of the University of Edinburgh in 1582, but following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James assumed the throne of England in addition to that of Scotland, the city was totally upstaged by London: although James promised to visit every three years, it was not until 1617 that he made his only return trip. The Union of the Parliaments of 1707 dealt a further blow to Edinburgh’s political prestige, though the guaranteed preservation of the national church and the legal and educational systems ensured that it was never relegated to a purely provincial role. On the contrary, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that Edinburgh achieved the height of its intellectual influence, led by natives such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Around the same time, the city began to expand beyond its medieval boundaries, laying out the New Town, a masterpiece of the Neoclassical style and grand town planning.
The nineteenth century and beyond
Industrialization affected Edinburgh less than any other major city in the nation, and it never lost its white-collar character. Through the Victorian era Edinburgh cemented its role as a conservative bastion of the establishment, controlling Scotland’s legal, ecclesiastical and education systems. Nonetheless, the city underwent an enormous urban expansion in the nineteenth century, annexing, among many other small burghs, the large port of Leith.
In 1947 Edinburgh was chosen to host the great International Festival which served as a symbol of the new peaceful European order; despite some hiccups, it has flourished ever since, in the process helping to make tourism a mainstay of the local economy. During the 1980s Glasgow, previously the poor relation but always a tenacious rival, began to challenge the city’s status as a cultural centre, and it took the re-establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 for Edinburgh to reassert its status in a meaningful way. With debates and decisions about crucial aspects of the government of Scotland taking place in Edinburgh, there was a notable upturn in the city’s standing, augmented by significant achievements in scientific research and the arts. The financial sector burgeoned, with the Royal Bank of Scotland becoming the second largest banking group in the UK in the early years of the new century. Its near collapse and subsequent bail-out by the government during the 2009 economic crisis dented not only the city’s self-confidence, but also the arguments made by nationalist politicians that Scotland has the stability and economic prowess to prosper as an independent country.