Edinburgh’s Part in History’s Road Trip

History is a road trip through time. It is far from smooth with potholes aplenty and there is no ban on U-turns. Most of the time the route is tortuous, and the pace slackens. To the side are dead ends into which some travellers still choose to turn despite the warning signs, and from dark alleyways come the screams of those who were forced into them. Occasionally the road is cleared of obstacles and the crowd rushes forward, but even though it may open into three lines not everyone travels at the same rate. Some find themselves forced to move over by the big and powerful, while others working hard find their speed is restricted and they cannot keep up. An ever- growing group sits focused in the middle lane travelling at a steady speed busy working, consolidating and learning. Their numbers are occasionally added too from the slow lane, but the fast lane is dismissive at their peril. Although crashes litter the route and some fall back hampered by the ever- changing road signs or lack of inclusiveness the direction is still unmistakably forward.

The evidence of this journey that is history is all around us.

Edinburgh is a wonderful city, and like other places the evidence for this historical road trip is very much in your face. The city is physically divided into the old and new. As you stand in Princes Street Gardens, to your one side is the darkened stone tiered wedding cake of tall, mismatched, heavily turreted and castellated old Edinburgh, appearing to cling on to the unforgiving slope through the straps of well- worn walkways, and to the other side is the orderly exercise in town planning that is new Edinburgh with regular grids of timelessly elegant Georgian buildings and an indulgence of space.

The reasons behind the construction of the New Town are told in the Museum of Edinburgh housed in a building that is a history lesson in itself. Edinburgh Old Town was physically prevented from expanding by the separate “burghs” that buttressed its limits, and it became a mass of overcrowded tenement dwellings some many storeys high with narrow side streets knowns as closes or “wynds” that bred disease and filth.

In response to this and to a need to attract the rich and powerful back to Edinburgh a competition was launched to design a New Town, and in 1766 22- year old James Craig was awarded the prize of undertaking what was then the largest planned city development in the world at the time. The New Town, built between 1760-1830, was to have symmetrical streets, terraced town houses, shops, open squares, gardens and wide cobbled streets. Although the Old Town continued to be overcrowded and victim to outbreaks of cholera, the new town was an outstanding success that attracted the rich and powerful who shopped on Princes Street and included George IV who made a state visit in 1822 stage managed by Sir Walter Scott that saw the King dressed in tartan.


The two towns were separated by a stretch of water called “Nor Loch” that was covered by a mound created from the excavations for the New Town. Today you can stand overshadowed by Sir Walter Scott’s enormous memorial in Princes Street Gardens which were created by the draining of Nor Loch and in a 360 degrees panorama take in the visual evidence of these moments in history’s road trip.

greyfriars bobby

In the  Museum of Edinburgh you can see the lead, bowl and a photograph of a legendary little dog called Bobby whose devotion to his late master saw him spend 14 years next to his gravestone in the Kirk that christened him “Greyfriars Bobby”. Bobby was cared for by the landlord and his family from the neighbouring public house, and they taught him to appear for his lunch at the sound of the one o’clock cannon fired from the walls of Edinburgh Castle. The story inspires many to make a visit to his memorial, and the cannon still sounds at one while visitors eat at the pub that bears his name as he once did. But it is perhaps not to pay their respects to the Tom Riddell whose remains lie in the adjoining Greyfriars Kirk that thousands have worn away irreversibly the grass that once covered the muddied track to his headstone …

museum of edinburgh

Museums map this historical road trip for us and few do it better than The Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh which includes The Wohl Pathology Museum that houses the largest and most historical collection of surgical pathology in the world. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was founded in 1505 and expanded rapidly in 1699 following a publicised request for “curiosities”, and again in the 1800s with the addition of the collections donated by surgeons and anatomists Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay. To see the specimens, view the paintings or drawings and read the accompanying notes is to physically feel this quest for medical knowledge in action as it took its slow and winding journey of understanding on an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster that in turn tantalised, disappointed, frustrated and exhilarated in equal degree.

The accounts that accompany the specimens highlight the human suffering and stoicism, as well as the successes, eccentricities and achievements. Our complacency in the face of growing antibiotic resistance is challenged by the pathological evidence of tuberculosis infection in every part of the body rather than just the lungs, the skulls eaten away by ear infections that finally killed by rupturing the carotid artery and the numerous gangrenous limbs amputated as the only option in the face of rampaging infection. The malignant cancers that corrupt the specimens show the battles the medical profession had with this destructive disease that still devastates lives today, and the whole and part skeletons illustrate both a thirst for knowledge and the deaths that funded it.

Film footage of former medical student Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sees him explain how his professor Dr Joseph Bell’s question driven and observational approach to diagnosis was his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. The pitiful and morbidly fascinating hair with the skin attached of a woman trapped in machinery brings home the costs of industrialisation, and the hugely distended bowel of an eight- year old child whose suffering could not be explained or prevented conveys the helplessness of those desperate for him to live and their grief at his death.

Although the graphic specimens are not to everyone’s taste and photographs are forbidden, they are a necessary part of an incredible intellectual journey which includes the work of army medics and the treatment of battle injuries. Full size oil paintings show soldiers with gunshot wounds received at the Battle of Waterloo, and from a cabinet the eyeless face of a man stares back at you his upper lip topped by a ginger military moustache. Prosthesis were not unknown, and a shiny metal face mask that concealed devastating facial injuries completed with a military moustache evidences an understanding of the mental turmoil and needs of those who wanted to live a “normal” life.

surgeons hall museum

Standing next to these exhibits you can view a short film about the treatment of a British soldier who received traumatic life changing injuries while serving in the Middle East. This stands as a reminder of the horror of war, a tribute to those of the past who began this medical journey and as a signpost to the future for those who will continue it.

The past is very much in the present in Edinburgh and being used too. A Sunday morning walk along the Georgian crescents and ruler straight roads of Edinburgh New Town beyond Princes Street brings you to Stockbridge with a thriving Sunday morning market and the Stockbridge Colonies. Looking at the Colonies was one of those moments when history surprises and it shouldn’t because it’s ignorant and presumptive to assume that today’s ideas have no past or a precedent that has brought them to their present state. Guilty as charged again of the unconscious assumption that the past was a different land cast adrift without a docking line.

stockbridge market, edinburgh

The Stockbridge Colonies are properties started in 1861 by a Co-operative Building Society set up by craftsmen locked out of work due to a dispute about working hours. It was based on the idea that workers should club together savings and buy land around the edge of towns to build their own houses using the skills they had between them.

The houses were a deliberate break with the slums of the tenements: giving each owner a front door and garden by a clever design of upper and lower flats on the opposite side to each other, as well as keeping down costs by sharing a roof and foundations, and maximising space with an external staircase to allow four rooms inside and an outside WC.

stockbridge colonies

The Society which raised £10.000 in shares of £1 each subscribed to by 836 members built 400 houses for 2,000 individuals. The houses cost between £100 and £130 to buy and could be secured by a £5 deposit and installments paid over 14 years. Houses were built for both rent and purchase which provided income to build more houses and pay dividends.

Spread across Edinburgh, today The Colonies are thriving communities with Resident Associations. They are a legacy of an individualistic and localised response often church and temperance driven to social concerns and needs in the nineteenth century, which became more joined up and countrywide in the twentieth century after the Government acknowledge that it was their role to fill. It is said that the name “Colony” might have come from their location outside of the city, but also from the idea of like minded people working together for the common good.

Edinburgh is built on and around an ancient extinct volcano with the largest part being Arthur’s Seat, and the others Calton Hill and Castle Rock; the latter providing the formidable foundations for Edinburgh Castle. Calton Hill, with echoes of the 21st century concerns over healthy lifestyles, was kept as an open place in the city for exercise. Any attempts to formalise or landscape this volcanic gorse strewn hill face through history have been fiercely resisted by locals who cherish its windswept ruggedness.

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The only landmarks on Calton Hill, with their emphasis on Greek antiquity, are replicated throughout the city and celebrate the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and Scotland’s prominent role within it. The period saw a focus on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, the promotion of the ideals of liberty, progress and tolerance, and the questioning of the roles of the Church and State. This emphasis on reason was coupled with advances in science.

The geologist James Hutton applied the Enlightenment’s focus on Science with its testing of ideas through observation and reason to his study of the rocks of Scotland and proved that it was natural forces that had shaped the Earth over millions of years rather than God’s unique act of Creation.

At 28 years of age David Hume published “A Treatise on Human Nature” applying the scientific reasoning of The Enlightenment to moral subjects. He argued that morality was a human construct not God given and as such was based upon and defined by reason, knowledge and experience. He incurred the wrath of the Church when he claimed that it was not possible to trust the miracles recorded in the Bible because they were not based upon verified observations and reason. Sentiment and reason were the essence of morality for Hume and he argued that morality was instrumental for the happiness of mankind.

Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” has been a constant in economic decision making and development since its publication in the historically significant year of 1776 and still dominates the world we live in today. The book recognised the transformative nature of commercialism and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. As an advocate of free trade Smith had argued for an end to the American War of Independence claiming Britain would make more money through trade with a free rather than a servile America.

The National Monument of Scotland stands on Calton Hill dedicated to the soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. It was started in 1826 and due to lack of funds was left unfinished in 1829.The monument is a “rocky” metaphor for the road trip of history highlighted at the start. It represents the decisions and consequences of history, but also in its unfinished state the promise of more to come and our ability to both learn and ignore our forebears. Edinburgh is a wonderful visual celebration of this journey and the city’s contribution to both the smooth and rough parts of it.

Places to eat in Edinburgh:

The Witchery by the castle – situated at the gates to Edinburgh Castle a wonderful (and pricey) meal and location.A must but book in advance.

Fig Tree Bistro St Mary’s Street EH1 1SU –  serving snacks and meals with an idyllic enclosed courtyard that is a real sun trap.

Usquabae – enjoy quality local food, and sample whisky specially selected by super knowledgeable staff to match your menu

The Last Drop – situated in the historic Grass Market serving a wide variety of ales and meals (try the steak salad).

Mother India’s Cafe 3-5 Infirmary Street EH1 1LP 0131 524 980 – busy and vibrant cafe serving tapas sized dishes







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