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What was life in Old Edinburgh like?

  • Recommended for second level social studies (SOC 2-01a, 2-03a, 2-04a & 2-06a) and third level social studies (SOC 3-02a & 3-06a)

In a word, smelly. In another, busy. It was probably very noisy too.

Up until the end of the 1700s, rich and poor lived alongside each other in Edinburgh’s many closes and wynds (the narrow passageways either side of the Royal Mile). In 1560 there were 12,000 people living in Edinburgh. By 1700 this had grown to somewhere between 27,000 and 30,000 people. The city made more space by building upwards, creating Edinburgh’s tenements. Large numbers of people were crammed into these medieval skyscrapers. The richer tenants lived in the upper floors, away from the filth and noise of the street, while the poor lived at street level, sometimes with one or more families living in one room. They all had to share the same bucket, or ‘chamber pot’, as a toilet. There were no separate toilets back then so if you were poor, you ate, slept and poo’d in one room along with the rest of your family.

Old Edinburgh was a busy place by day, with humans and animals milling around. The streets would be alive with the sound of people talking and laughing and animals grunting, snuffling and braying. Added into the mix would be the cries of market stall holders, and the sound of fighting and cheering or jeering at people being punished at the Mercat (Market) Cross, with time in the stocks or pillory, or a public hanging, which was always a popular event.

In the old city, business of all sorts was carried out in the street, or in nearby coffee houses and taverns. The High Street and its closes were filled with market stalls and the workshops of various craftsmen, including butchers, fishmongers, tanners and candlemakers. All basic foods – bread, wheat, barley, malt and ale (safer to drink than the water) were sold in Edinburgh’s many busy, noisy markets. Edinburgh had many thriving merchants thanks to the port of Leith bringing goods from across the world into the city.

For any visitor to the city, the cadies and sedan chairmen, like today’s taxi drivers, would have been essential guides through the warren of closes and wynds. Usually from the Highlands, their Gaelic speech would have added to the various accents and languages heard on the streets.

At ten o’clock every night the town guard would sound their drum, marking time for the streets to clear before the gates at the end of the closes were locked, or closed, which is how they got their name. You can still see where many of the gates would have been attached as you walk down the High Street today.

Did you know?

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile only started being called that in the 1900s. Before this the main street in the Old Town was called the High Street. Many people still call it this today.

The High Street didn’t always run between the Castle and Holyrood Palace. The city used to be enclosed by walls that stopped about halfway down the High Street. Today there is a pub called ‘The World’s End’ on the corner of St Mary’s Street, which marks the site of the original city walls. For many people living in Old Edinburgh who never left the city, the walls marked the end of their world.

To find out more about life in Edinburgh in 1850-1950, take a look at the award-winning, interactive resource Whose Town? Developed as a resource for teaching Social Studies (linked to second to fourth level outcomes), it enables you to explore the lives of fourteen real people who lived in Edinburgh at this time. Archival material is “collected” in a digital box and hidden in an attic for pupils to uncover and examine.

 

 

What did Old Edinburgh smell like?

The High Street and its closes were once filled with markets, stalls and the workshops of various craftsmen, including butchers, fishmongers, dyers, tanners, candle-makers, soap-boilers, weavers and bakers. Many of these crafts were quite smelly. For example, tanners and dyers used urine to treat leather and dye cloth, and candles were made from melted hard animal fat, which was called ‘tallow’. The poet William Dunbar (c1460-1530) complained that Edinburgh stank of fish. On market day, fishmongers would gut fish at their stalls, and butchers or ‘fleshers’ as they were known, would cut up animal flesh on their boards or hang their carcasses on the tollbooth, letting their blood run onto the road. Many goods would be brought by horses so their manure would add into the mix of smells.

With no running water or flushing toilets, people emptied their chamber pots into the street at 10 o’clock each evening. Scavengers were employed by the council to clear up the mess and take it out of the city. Waste that was not cleared away was washed by the rain down the steep slope of the closes into the Nor’ Loch (now Princes Street Gardens), which was the main water supply for many.

It’s fair to say that Old Edinburgh probably didn’t smell too good.

Did all children go to school?

No. Only the children of the richer families living in the New Town would have gone to school or at least had a tutor visit the house. Often boys went to school, while girls were taught at home. Girls were mainly taught how to sew, dance and play piano so they could be seen as ‘accomplished’ and attract a good husband. The daughters of rich New Town families were not expected to get a job, but they were expected to marry well.

Rather than go to school, many boys living in the Old Town became apprentices in a craft in their early teens. For example, young boys working as apprentice stonemasons would have helped to build the New Town, and may have ended up living in one of its narrow lanes. Young girls sometimes became apprentices but more commonly went into domestic service. Usually the youngest member of staff, girls could start as a Scullery Maid and work their way up to becoming a Cook or a Housekeeper when they were older. Scullery maids often worked 16 hour days and were given the worst jobs, such as clearing up the leftover food, washing up, cleaning the fires and floors, and perhaps worst of all, emptying chamber pots.

A new look city

When was the New Town built?

In 1767 an architect called James Craig won a competition to transform the city by building a New Town. In his winning plan, the ‘New Town’ was designed very differently. In the Old Town, rich and poor lived alongside each other in cramped, narrow streets. In the New Town, rich and poor were divided, with the elegant main wide streets for the rich and narrow lanes for traders, servants and craftsmen. Unlike the old city, people could tell from your address whether you were rich or poor.

The New Town brought wealth and fame to the city – for those who could afford it. Edinburgh’s way of life changed forever.

To find out more about life in Edinburgh after the building of the New Town, take a look at the award-winning, interactive resource Whose Town? Developed as a resource for teaching Social Studies (linked to second to fourth level outcomes), it enables you to explore the lives of fourteen real people who lived in Edinburgh between 1850- 1950. Archival material is “collected” in a digital box and hidden in an attic for pupils to uncover and examine.

The adventures of

Edward Topham

In 1774 a young Englishman called Edward Topham visited Edinburgh. He wrote letters to his friends in London describing his adventures around the city, giving us a glimpse into everyday life in Georgian Edinburgh. Click on the links below to download PDFs or watch the videos and let Topham be your tour guide around Old Edinburgh.


Edward Topham’s 1774 letters from Edinburgh:

The Auld Reekie Trail

The Auld Reekie self-guided trail takes you back in time to the 1770s, a period when Edinburgh was changing dramatically with the planning and building of the New Town.

The trail brings together places that still give a flavour of life over 200 years ago, with the poetry of Robert Fergusson who captured everyday life in his writing. The trail explains some of the hidden corners of the city, such as the smart apartments of James Court, and Thistle Court believed to be the first houses built in the New Town.