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.