Edinburg- Scotland - History

Edinburg- Scotland - History

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Edinburgh Airport - Scotland

The site of today's Edinburgh Airport was initially used around 1916 by the Royal Flying Corps. It came to be known as RAF Turnhouse, and the 77 Squadron was based here. The first paved runways were laid in 1939. Later, in 1947, a civil air transport service to London began. In 1956 a Civil Aviation terminal with the capacity to handle 100,000 passengers a day was opened. Yet another terminal became available in 1977. This one was designed to manage more than 1.5 million travelers per year. Passenger numbers exceeded 1.6 million in 1986, and that number hit the 3 million mark by 1994. In 1995 the Stakis Edinburgh Airport Hotel opened.

West End, Edinburgh

The West End (Scottish Gaelic: An Ceann Siar, IPA:[ˈanˈkʰʲaun̴̪ˈʃiəɾ]) of Edinburgh, Scotland, forms a large part of the city centre. The West End boasts several of the city's hotels, restaurants, independent shops, offices and arts venues, including the Edinburgh Filmhouse, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and the Caledonian Hotel. [1] The area also hosts art festivals and crafts fairs. [2]

The northern half of the West End forms part of Edinburgh's World Heritage Site. [3] As can be inferred by its inclusion in this, this area of the city contains many buildings of great architectural beauty, primarily long rows and crescents of Georgian terraced houses.

Final Thoughts on the History of Edinburgh

From soldier bears to knighted penguins, Edinburgh is filled with plenty of curious and bizarre things to discover! Just maybe don’t dig too deep into the dark history of Edinburgh. There are just too many skeletons still around that it’s better not to go looking in any more closets!

*** Some of the links on Hotel Jules are affiliate links, which means if you do make a purchase, we may make a small commission (at no extra cost to you.) Thank you for using our links! Your support keeps the site going***

About the Author Aaron Hovanesian

Born in Los Angeles, Aaron Hovanesian is one of the original staff writers for Hotel Jules. Having backpacked the world as a young man, Aaron now prefers to travel the world in luxury, proudly staying in the world's most amazing hotels and properties. When Aaron is not traveling he lives in Western Colorado he can be found brewing his own beer (probably an IPA) or spending time with his two amazing golden retrievers.

Edinburgh Vaults

Edinburgh’s South Bridge is a monumental, albeit fundamentally flawed, feat of 18th century engineering and design. The city itself straddles seven major hills. Only two of these high points are visible in the city centre today – Castle Hill, atop which sits Edinburgh Castle, and Calton Hill, fondly referred to by locals as Edinburgh’s disgrace (but that’s another story…) The original hills of this ancient fortified city are now masked by five bridges which span the resulting valleys and seamlessly integrate their undulating contours into the landscape.

One of the most fascinating of these five bridges (and the second to be constructed after the North Bridge) is Edinburgh’s famous South Bridge a modern highway of its day, built to link the Old Town’s High Street with the University buildings on the south side of the city.

Three closes* (Marlin’s Wynd, Peebles Wynd and Niddry’s Wynd) were demolished in the Cowgate area of the city to make way for this grand scheme. These closes dominated an area considered to be one of Edinburgh’s poorest and most run-down quarter – and at the time that was really saying something! The winding, crowded streets were knocked to the ground and the stones reused in a commendable, yet money conscious version of Georgian recycling.

Building work commenced in 1785. The bridge consisted of 19 stone arches, spanning a chasm just over 1000 feet long. At its highest point it stood 31 feet above ground and had foundations which penetrated Edinburgh’s bed rock as far down as 22 ft.

However, Edinburgh was a fearful and superstitious place at the turn of the 18th century, both of real and imagined harm. The citizens fear of what the unearthly and supernatural could inflict was exacerbated by their inherent mistrust of the invading English, a long held belief that resulted in the building of the defensive Flodden Wall after the disastrous Battle of the same name in 1513. This man-made barrier around the outskirts of the city, combined with Edinburgh’s natural geography, forced residents to live virtually on top of one another – in some cases in houses 14 stories high – rather than expanding outwards as with most developing cities.

This air of claustrophobia, fear and mistrust bred an atmosphere of anxiety among the locals. When the South Bridge was finally completed in 1788 it was deemed to be an appropriate and fitting honour that the Bridges’ eldest resident, a well known and respected Judges’ wife, should be the first to cross this fine architectural structure.

Unfortunately, several days before the grand opening, the lady in question passed away! But promises had been made, hands had been shaken and the city fathers felt obliged to honour their original agreement, and so it was, that the first “body” to cross the South Bridge crossed it in a coffin.

The locals were aghast! The bridge was now cursed! The majority of the townsfolk refused point blank to cross the bridge for many years, preferring instead the awkward and impractical route through the deep valley of the Cowgate. 18th century Edinburgers may seem overly superstitious by today’s standards, but over the following centuries it slowly became apparent that they might, in fact, have had a point…

As time passed, space on Edinburgh’s South Bridge started to sell at premium prices land was fetching more per square foot than anywhere else in Europe. Businessmen started to build shops along the top of the bridge, to make the most of passing trade. To accommodate these shop fronts, tenement houses were built along both sides of 18 of the original 19 arches, leaving only the Cowgate arch visible, as it remains today. To maximise space further, floors and ceilings were built beneath the blocked-in arches constructing dark, airless, vaulted chambers. These areas were originally used as workshops for the businesses above while the vaults below ground level were used for storage.

Records from the day, recent excavations and various artefacts which have since been discovered, all point to the fact that in the early days of the bridge many businesses thrived in these man-made, “underground” spaces taverns, cobblers, cutlers, smelters, victuallers and milliners, all left evidence of their trades. However as time passed, the quality of life in these spaces deteriorated. The bridge (which had never been waterproofed due to it being built on such a tight budget) began to leak and the businesses were slowly forced to move out. Several years passed during which time the function of these spaces began to change.

In the absence of legal trade and licensed businesses, the dark, damp wet vaults started to become home to only the very poorest and most disreputable sections of society. This included immigrant Irishmen and Highlanders seeking refuge from the clearances, mercenary landlords, and even body snatchers!

While little documentary evidence exists to support this theory – (technically, these people weren’t supposed to be there in the first place) – when the vaults were eventually excavated several corners revealed “middens”* containing household items such as old toys, broken medicine bottles, clay pipes, buttons, horse shoes, snuff boxes, cracked stoneware and ceramic jars, pots and plates all visible signs of dwelling and inhabitation.

Even so, long after the workshops and businesses moved out and its new residents moved in, the vaults started to become completely unusable. A lack of light, air, heat, ventilation and sanitation and a slow, steady seepage of water through the cracks in the bridge made these areas not only impractical, but uninhabitable and within 30 years of the bridge opening, the abandonment of the Vaults was more or less complete.

The vaults were filled in with rubble, both for security for the businesses still operating above on street level and also to discourage squatters making home in what was effectively a place to die, not to live… and so the vaults fell into the dim distant memory of generations past.

However, in 1985, these long, lost, forgotten spaces came to public attention after a chance excavation revealed the labyrinthic network of rooms and dwelling spaces contained within. These spaces have lost none of their original atmosphere. They are still dark, occasionally claustrophobic and, when it rains in Edinburgh they can still be very damp. The Vaults today ooze memories of the past, their stones seep water as well as stories, invoking memory and provoking the imagination.

Over the years visitors who experience Mercat Tours’ history and ghost tours have recorded some very curious and unexplained activity. Further excavation over the last 20 years has revealed more of the Vaults secrets and today, groups test their nerve as they descend into what has been described by the BBC as “possibly one of the most haunted places in Britain.” Now, during Edinburgh’s festival you have the chance to experience what exists down there for yourself!

These very special overnight “Vaults Vigils” will open the doors of the Vaults to the general public every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in August from midnight until dawn. Intrepid souls will be given the chance to brave the Blair Street vaults with a trained Mercat Guide and shown how to use the latest in “ghost hunting” equipment. EMF recorders and infrared thermometers will be made available to small groups who will conduct a series of controlled experiments with the chance to compare and contrast results at the end of the evening.

The Edinburgh Vaults are completely unique. They tell us of a time gone by and lives once lived. They remind us of our heritage and inspire us to ask questions about our past, present and our future. Are you brave enough to hear the answers?

Please check Mercat Tours for current information and booking form.

Tours of historic Edinburgh
For information concerning tours of historic Edinburgh, please follow this link.

* Close A narrow Edinburgh Street passing between two
tenement buildings, which at one point would have
been closed off at either end by gates

*Midden 1 A dunghill or refuse heap

2 Archaeology A mound or deposit containing
shells, animal bones and other refuse that
indicates the site of a human settlement

The Story Behind Edinburgh's Mary King's Close

Part of Edinburgh’s allure is the endless array of historical narratives woven into its cultural fabric, some of which await in the deepest hinterland of the city. Perhaps the most engrossing of all is Mary King’s Close, a subterranean place encompassed in myth and former victim to ‘the Black Death’. But what actually went on in this warren of claustrophobic alleyways?

Closes, the Scots term for ancient alleyways, form a labyrinth of frightfully narrow streets punctuating Edinburgh’s High Street and Royal Mile. The close in question is comprised of a cluster of underground passageways named after Mary King, an affluent merchant burgess and widow residing in the buildings from around 1635 onwards.

Mary King’s Close housed numerous towering tenement buildings regarded by many as the world’s first skyscrapers. These lodgings served as home to all manner of social classes.

Due to the exceedingly unsanitary living conditions common to the era and influx of flea-infested rodents, Edinburgh became overrun with bubonic plague, with the worst hitting in 1645. An incalculable number of black rats riddled with fleas carrying the Yersinia pestis bacterium were to blame for the countless brutal human deaths, including those in Mary King’s Close.

Symptoms included swollen glands, unsightly bulbous puss-infused boils on the groin area and under the arm and severe bouts of intestine-rupturing vomiting. In no time, the residents, like the rest of the city, were dropping like flies.

Dr George Rae, Edinburgh’s official plague doctor during that period, responded to the plague victims of Mary King’s Close clothed in alarming demonic looking attire — a thick leather cloak to prevent fleas from biting and a ghastly bird-like mask stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs to conceal the repugnant stench and germs. He saved lives by using a scorching hot poker on the buboes. White rags hung outside the houses of plague victims as an indicator that they needed supplies like food and coal brought to their doorsteps.

Interestingly, the city council promised Dr Rae a sizable monetary sum as compensation for his time and risk, under the guise that he would most likely perish like the rest of them. Alas, he emerged victorious and endured a decade-long altercation with the council until he received his rightful payout in the form of £1,200 Scots per year.

Time went on and life in the close continued. Around 1750, Mary King’s Close joined the other closes in a dilapidated state of decay, intense overcrowding and overall political upheaval.

And so, the people proposed a safe haven and ‘covered place of exchange’ where merchants and traders could move away from the street and national records could be kept. Portions of the close were destroyed, while others were adapted to serve as the building foundations for the Royal Exchange, built in 1753. The other end of Mary King’s Close was demolished in 1853 so Cockburn Street could be built.

Years passed and tongues wagged amidst the speculations surrounding this notorious close, which lay stagnant for ages buried beneath the Royal Exchange. Many claim the area is haunted, while others speak of murders.

Today, the close plays host once more to folk from all walks of life, this time eager to unearth the secrets, stories and speculations surrounding this popular historical landmark. As one of Scotland’s most raved about visitor attractions, The Real Mary King’s Close uses skilled actors and guided tours to resuscitate the real tales from real people from a bygone past.

Things to Do

Know Before You Go

Keep yourself and others safe. Know before you go!

Top Attractions

View our top attractions in Edinburgh for great days out.

Areas in Edinburgh

Our guide to Edinburgh's neighbourhoods. Explore further and discover new gems.

Story Never Ends

Explore some of Edinburgh’s enchanting tales and plan a trip to experience them ….


Visit Edinburgh and make the most of the great outdoors.

Where to Stay

Find your perfect room in Edinburgh. Browse our range of hotels.


Handy itineraries to make sure that you get the most out of your visit to Edinburgh.

Accessible Edinburgh

Edinburgh can be enjoyed by all - take a look at our guide.


Download our free information pack.

What's On

Edinburgh Zoo After Hours

Soak up the atmosphere of Edinburgh Zoo at night! This summer, Edinburgh Zoo are opening their gates to give you more opportunities to see your favourite animals in the summer evenings.

Ray Harryhausen

Discover the revolutionary work of the godfather of fantasy film making in an exciting exhibition.

Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!

Delve into the world of modern tapestry with Edinburgh native Archie Brennan’s first major exhibition.

The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure

Discover the Galloway Hoard, the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland

Monkey Barrel Comedy – The Big Show

Comedy is back! Enjoy a night of top stand-up comedy at The Big Show at Monkey Barrel Comedy.

Edinburgh Science Festival

No matter your age, get stuck into all the interactive workshops, experiences and debates that the Edinburgh Science Festival has to offer!

Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!

Delve into the world of modern tapestry with Edinburgh native Archie Brennan’s first major exhibition.

Ray Harryhausen

Discover the revolutionary work of the godfather of fantasy film making in an exciting exhibition.

Edinburgh Zoo After Hours

Soak up the atmosphere of Edinburgh Zoo at night! This summer, Edinburgh Zoo are opening their gates to give you more opportunities to see your favourite animals in the summer evenings.

Edinburgh Art Festival

Art is Back! Edinburgh Art Festival returns with 35+ exhibitions across the city and a special programme of online events and presentations.

The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure

Discover the Galloway Hoard, the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland

Prince Philip: A Celebration

This summer, the Palace of Holyroodhouse will host a special display to commemorate the life and legacy of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Britain’s longest-serving consort.

Edinburgh Science Festival

No matter your age, get stuck into all the interactive workshops, experiences and debates that the Edinburgh Science Festival has to offer!

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival is back for 2021 with an exciting programme showcasing the amazing music coming out of Scotland!

Prince Philip: A Celebration

This summer, the Palace of Holyroodhouse will host a special display to commemorate the life and legacy of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Britain’s longest-serving consort.

Edinburgh Zoo After Hours

Soak up the atmosphere of Edinburgh Zoo at night! This summer, Edinburgh Zoo are opening their gates to give you more opportunities to see your favourite animals in the summer evenings.

Digital Lecture: The Gothic Rocket: The Scott Monument

Join Edinburgh Museums & Historic Environment Scotland on the week of Sir Walter Scott’s 250th birthday for a digital talk on this Victorian Gothic monument.

Edinburgh Art Festival

Art is Back! Edinburgh Art Festival returns with 35+ exhibitions across the city and a special programme of online events and presentations.

The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure

Discover the Galloway Hoard, the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland

Prince Philip: A Celebration

This summer, the Palace of Holyroodhouse will host a special display to commemorate the life and legacy of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Britain’s longest-serving consort.

The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure

Discover the Galloway Hoard, the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland

Prince Philip: A Celebration

This summer, the Palace of Holyroodhouse will host a special display to commemorate the life and legacy of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Britain’s longest-serving consort.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle has witnessed many of the defining events in Scotland’s history. Sieges were fought over the mighty stronghold. Royalty lived and died within its walls. Just the sight of the Castle Rock has terrified and inspired countless generations.

Fierce Iron Age warriors defended a hill fort here, and the nation’s oldest poetry tells of a war band feasting here for a year before riding to their deaths in battle.

The castle’s royal connections go back 1,000 years, and the city’s oldest building stands on the site. David I built St Margaret’s Chapel around 1130, as a tribute to his devout mother.

Edinburgh has been besieged more than any other castle in Europe, and the Scots and English struggled over its control during the Wars of Independence. In 1314, Thomas Randolph, a relative of Robert the Bruce, led a daring night raid to reclaim it from the English.

Over the last 200 years, Edinburgh Castle has become a national icon. Today it is Scotland’s leading tourist attraction and a chief element of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Home of royalty

Scottish monarchs commissioned grand buildings here – both as secure lodgings and to show off their wealth, power and good taste. The castle’s royal role continues today.

Monarchs who sheltered here include:

  • Queen Margaret (later St Margaret), who died here in 1093
  • Mary Queen of Scots, who gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566

Edinburgh was among Scotland’s chief royal residences during the 1400s and 1500s.

Bonnie Prince Charlie – Mary’s great-great-great grandson – captured Edinburgh but failed to take the castle during the 1745–46 Jacobite Rising.

The Stone of Destiny has been kept at the castle since it was returned to Scotland in 1996. Edward I, the English monarch, had removed Scotland’s ancient inauguration stone from Scone in 1296.

Army headquarters

Edinburgh Castle became more important as a military base from the late 1500s onwards.

After the ‘Lang Siege’ of 1571–3, the castle’s military strength was repaired, maintained and improved. Additions included:

  • the distinctive Half Moon Battery
  • a huge garrison
  • a secure jail for prisoners of war

The military presence remains unbroken – Edinburgh Castle is still an active base today. It also houses three military museums, the Scottish National War Memorial and the Prisons of War exhibition.

A new future for Edinburgh's Tron Kirk

Councillors have given the green light to Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT) to take forward the restoration of the Tron Kirk, allowing residents and visitors to enjoy the historic building for generations to come.

Working in partnership with Edinburgh City Council, SHBT will develop a feasibility study to set out a future vision for the Tron Kirk and when fully funded, the charity will sign a 125 year lease for the building. In the short term the charity will fulfil a management role for the Tron Kirk liaising with all existing and new tenants to make sure that the building is open for business as soon as possible.

A legacy for future generations

Chair of Scottish Historic Building Trust Maggie Wright said: 'We welcome the committee&rsquos decision to partner with Scottish Historic Buildings Trust to secure the future of Tron Kirk which has had a significant role for the people of Edinburgh since the mid-17th century. It is a huge vote of trust in the expertise of our director and staff. We share the City of Edinburgh Council&rsquos vision to breathe new life into this very special building and use our experience to create a legacy for generations to come.'

History of the Tron Kirk

Built between 1636 and 1647 to a design by John Mylne, the Tron Kirk is based on 17th-century Dutch church designs. The kirk became a landmark partly because of the fact that a public measuring beam stood outside, on the busy Royal Mile.

It was reduced in size in the late 1700s and since then, has survived two World Wars and the changing face of the city. Find out more at the Edinburgh World Heritage website.

Edinburgh’s part in the slave trade

Explore Scotland’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade system.

To many residents and visitors walking the streets of Edinburgh, the city’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade will be far from their minds as they admire the great architecture, soak up the atmosphere and dodge street performers. But Scotland’s capital has a murky past. The Athens of the North had a long and profitable relationship with slavery.

Lisa Williams of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association takes us on a tour of Edinburgh with a difference…

In the heart of the New Town

The statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, towers over St. Andrew Square. As you gaze around this prestigious square, your eyes will fall on several buildings that would have been homes or business premises of Scots who made their fortunes in the transatlantic slave trade. Many of the houses in the New Town were owned by people with investments in the slave trade system.

The monument to 1st Viscount Melville stands at nearly 40 feet tall. To reassure local residents, the lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson was brought in to advise the project.

It is fitting, perhaps, that this is where we find Dundas. With the immense power he held at the end of the eighteenth century, he was able to use his influence to delay the abolition of slave trade a further 15 years to 1807. Chattel slavery itself was abolished in most of the British colonies in 1834 after a spate of violent uprisings by the enslaved. In order for ’emancipation’ to occur, enslavers were compensated for their ‘property’ to the tune of £20 million and the formerly enslaved forced into an unpaid apprenticeship programme that continued to 1838.

I begin my Black History Walking Tours of Edinburgh at this point. It helps listeners to understand the disproportionate involvement of Scots in not just the East India Company but the slave trade system.

There has been much controversy recently about his statue. What words on his plaque would be appropriate to reflect this unsavoury side of his legacy and give necessary context to his role in Scottish society?

A family affair

The magnificent Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters, Dundas House, was the original home of Lawrence Dundas, cousin to Henry Dundas. He owned plantations in Grenada and Dominica.

Occupying a prominent site on the east side of St Andrew Square, Dundas House was built in 1774.

The 4th Earl of Hopetoun, the brother of Henry Dundas’ second wife, and the vice governor of the bank, is immortalised in the bronze statue outside the bank. He was second in command to fellow Scot, Ralph Abercromby, commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies. Together, the men helped to end the two year slave revolution led by French-African Julien Fedon in Grenada in 1795-6 in the fight against the French for islands in the West Indies. Fedon was a highly skilled strategist, and his men executed 40 British, including Scottish governor Ninian Home at his home in Paraclete. After 15 months of fighting the rebels were captured and executed in the Market Square. Yet Fedon was never found. Legend says he escaped to a neighbouring island on a canoe, aided by either the Amerindians or ‘Black Caribs’ in St.Vincent.

The supression of this revolution resulted in slavery continuing for almost another 40 years in Grenada.

An important assembly

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. After escaping slavery in 1838 by going to New York, he became a brilliant orator and tireless freedom fighter alongside members of his family. After the publication of his 1845 autobiography, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’, he lived in Edinburgh in 1846-7 while he made a speaking tour of Britain.

In 1846 Douglass made a famous speech at the Assembly Rooms. Speaking to a packed crowd, he relayed the true story of Madison Washington, an enslaved man fighting for his freedom.

An engraving of The Assembly Rooms from 1829. Artist: A. McClatchie.

Many of his speeches put pressure on the breakaway Free Church to ‘Send Back the Money’ to the slave plantation owners in the Southern U.S. In order to grow the Free Church of Scotland, representatives had visited the Southern States on a fund raising mission. Three thousand pounds was raised from the slave states where the Presbyterian Church was strong.

“They leave their homes and go to the United States, and strike hands in good Christian fellowship with men whose hands are full of blood—the coats, the boots, the watches, the houses, and all they possess, are the result of the unpaid toil of the poor fettered, stricken, and branded slave.” – Frederick Douglass

Although he was unsuccessful in petitioning the leader of the Free Church to change his mind, it raised the profile of the abolitionist cause in America.

Douglass spoke in many places all over Edinburgh and he lived at 33 Gilmore Place over in Bruntsfield, where a commemorative plaque is about to be unveiled.

Having felt so welcome in Edinburgh, he planned to stay, but his wife Anna Murray-Douglass encouraged him to go home and continue to directly fight the cause alongside their fellow African-Americans.

Bute House

Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, has many links to the slave trade.

It was of the 48 houses planned for Charlotte Square. Grander than the other houses in the square, in the 1790s it was home to John Innes Crawford.

Designed by Robert Adam in 1791, Charlotte Square is the crowning achievement of his works.

Born in Jamaica, Crawford had inherited his father’s estates when he was about five years old. This included Bellfield sugar plantation and the several hundred enslaved people who were considered part of the slave plantation estate. The estate had net proceeds of £3,000 a year.

From 1806, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster took up residence at Bute House. Sinclair was an MP who sat in the House of Commons between 1780 and 1811. He claimed part compensation at the end of slavery in 1833 for the 610 enslaved people living on his estates in St.Vincent, yet died before the payout. It seems he did not make a great impression on his fellow countrymen. Sir Walter Scott described him as an ‘unutterable idiot’ and Henry Cockburn as having ‘accomplished very little, led no party, had no weight.’

Charles Oman bought the property in 1816 from Sinclair and ran it as a successful hotel. Oman also had connections to Jamaica. His son Charles died on the Trinity estate in St. Mary, Jamaica in 1819. This was the same estate that was the site of the famous Tacky’s revolt, an important slave rebellion led by a Coromantee chief from Ghana.

The first black people in Edinburgh

It’s often quoted that the first mention of an African servant living in a house in Edinburgh is of a man named Oronoce. There’s no solid evidence this was his name but we know he was the servant of Lady Stair and lived in the Writer’s Museum in 1740.

Lady Stair’s House was built in 1622. The Countess of Stair bought the property in 1719.

However, we also know that there were several African men and women present at the Scottish Royal Court in the early 16th century. They enjoyed high status and significant salaries, before the stain of racial slavery created the idea of ‘race’ and racial superiority.

There are many mentions of people of African or Indian descent living in Edinburgh from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. At this time Scots were heavily involved in the slave trade and the East India Company, and it was fashionable for the rich to have an ‘exotic’ servant.

There were certain areas where African/Caribbean people used to get together and socialise with one another. One of them was Jock’s Lodge, where enslaved people were sent as apprentices to learn a trade.

As far back as the 1680s, there is mention of an African man being baptised on the Canongate, the servant of John Drumlanrig.

Malvina Wells, a mixed-race woman employed as a ‘lady’s maid’ was born in Carriacou, Grenada in 1804. Wells was brought to Edinburgh as a teenager with the McCrae family. Her grave is, significantly, the only known grave in Edinburgh of someone who was born enslaved. She worked in the household of Joanna McCrae, other households and independently until her death at the age of 84. She is buried in the McCrae family plot in St. John’s church graveyard.

St John’s Church where Malvina Wells is buried. Her grave stone reads “For upwards of 70 years a faithful servant and friend in the family of Mrs MacRae.”

If found…

Even though the Tumbling Lassie case of 1687 had already declared slavery illegal in Scotland, it was still assumed to be legal on Scottish soil. As such, adverts appeared in the papers for both the sale of enslaved people and rewards for the return of runaway slaves. An advert from the Edinburgh Evening Courant, dated February 13, 1727, stated:

Run away on the 7th instant from Dr Gustavus Brown’s Lodgings in Glasgow, a Negro Woman, named Ann, being about 18 Years of Age, with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck, on which are engraved these words [“Gustavus Brown in Dalkieth his Negro, 1726.”] Whoever apprehends her, so as she may be recovered, shall have two Guineas Reward, and necessary Charges allowed by Laurence Dinwiddie Junior Merchant in Glasgow, or by James Mitchelson Jeweller in Edinburgh.

Fighting for freedom in the courts

Three important cases were held at the Court of Session in which runaway slaves tried to obtain their freedom. Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Spens v Dalrymple (1768) and Knight v. Wedderburn (1778).

Parliament House, where these cases were heard.

James Montgomery aka ‘Shanker’, was removed from Port Glasgow and put on a ship bound for Virginia. Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh and incarcerated in the Edinburgh Tollbooth Jail. He unfortunately died before his case was decided.

In 1769 David Spens (‘Black Tom’) sued his ‘owner’, Dr David Dalrymple in Methill, Fife for wrongful arrest. Spens had tried to leave his service citing ill health. He had support from local people who helped him to get baptised, and two lawyers fought for his freedom. However, Dalrymple died during the suit which meant Spens automatically became a free man.

In 1778, the Knight v. Wedderburn case became a landmark case in Scotland. Joseph Knight had been taken from the Cape Coast to Jamaica and then brought to Scotland. Knight had a relationship with a woman and argued that he should be allowed to leave domestic service to provide for a family. Knight was influenced by the English precedent of the Somerset v. Stewart case in 1772 which outlawed the forced removal of slaves back to the colonies. Mistakenly, it was widely understood that slavery was abolished on English soil. However, Joseph Knight was successful in arguing that Scots law could not support the status of slavery.

After the case was won, runaway slaves were now protected under Scots law if they wanted to leave service or attempts made to remove them from Scotland to the slave system in the Caribbean. Knight and his wife Annie Thompson, a white servant in the Wedderburn household, mysteriously disappear from the record shortly after the case.

An unhappy marriage

Scotsman Charles Edmonstone went to Demerara (Guyana) in 1780. He married Helen Reid, aka Princess Minda, who was the daughter of an Amerindian chief. At times, Amerindians were also enslaved, worked alongside and had families with African people.

Charles Edmonstone used the forest tracking skills he learned from the Amerindian side of his family to hunt down runaway slaves through the rain forest.

In 1817, Edmonstone brought his wife and their children to Scotland. The marriage began to break down over Minda/Helen’s refusal to let Charles free one of his favoured female slaves. I wonder what the relationship might have been and why it was such an issue? Minda/Helen became addicted to opium and finished her days in seclusion.

Darwin’s teacher

John Edmonstone, originally an enslaved man in Guyana, also accompanied Charles to Scotland in 1817. He moved to Edinburgh and lived at 37 Lothian St. as a free man.

The house where John Edmonstone lived as a free man.

John had learned from the naturalist Charles Waterton and began to teach taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University. In 1826, when Charles Darwin was studying medicine in Edinburgh, he lived just a few doors along from John. Darwin hired Edmonstone at the rate of a guinea a week to learn from him.

As well as taxidermy, Edmonstone was able to teach him about the flora and fauna of South America prior to Darwin’s voyage on the SS Beagle. On the expedition, Darwin collected and preserved finches using Edmonstone’s techniques, a potentially crucial stage in developing his Theory of Evolution.

“Edmonstone was a very pleasant and intelligent man” remarked Darwin. Perhaps such a positive experience with an educated Black man shaped his anti-slavery beliefs? Did the friendship encourage him to develop thinking that challenged the notion of white supremacy in the 19th century? It’s complicated, because in his later work, Darwin went on to propogate an evolutionary hierarchy of peoples that supported racist beliefs.

The plaque to commemorate Darwin is on the outside of a building for all to see. However, there was also one made for Edmonstone. In 2009, a plaque was produced in the style of Josiah Wedgewood’s original anti-slavery porcelain brooches. It was placed at Boteco do Brasil just a few doors along the street. The Wedgwood family were prominent abolitionists and members of Darwin’s extended family. But what has since happened to the plaque? Just over a decade later, none of the staff know where it has gone. If you have any clues to its whereabouts, we’d love to hear them!

Lisa Williams is the Director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association. She runs Black History Walking Tours of Edinburgh and educational workshops in Scottish schools.
Twitter @edincarib and Instagram @caribscot

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 10, 2019:

Thank you for your comment, I also enjoy historical buildings/places, although I have to be honest, that I like to mix things up. A friend of mine, a history teacher can go on for 8-10 hours non-stop, I regularly have a drink (although I don&apost drink alcohol. ) on a terrace and read a book or go to a park or eat, etc. I take breaks from history every 1-2 hours. :)

Liz Westwood from UK on August 10, 2019:

You give a fascinating walk through the history of Edinburgh. We enjoyed a visit to the castle when we were there many years ago.

Watch the video: Σκωτία-Εδιμβούργο το ταξίδι συνεχίζεται! (May 2022).


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