History & Ancient Sites

Edinburgh Old Town Vs. New Town

A city of two halves, nestled side by side like yin and yang, Edinburgh has one of the most distinctive aesthetics in Europe. But what’s so special about the Edinburgh Old Town, and why, when and how was the Edinburgh New Town developed? What’s with all the hills? And why does everyone in the New Town wear salmon coloured trousers? Answers to all those questions, and more, when you read on…

Scotland’s capital has a rich past, and the history of Edinburgh as it stands today began around a thousand years ago. The earliest urban settlements were perched safely on top of a volcanic plug, so that the steep incline and marshy valley below could provide a natural defence against potential invaders. Sensible, eh? During the 1100s, the first part of Edinburgh Castle was built on top of this crag, and the town spread out behind it as the population grew. (Being on a such a high ridge, it could only grow backwards, as 12th century city planners lacked the cable cars or zip wires to connect across to the marshy valley below.)

These early medieval networks form what is now called the Edinburgh Old Town, a maze of narrow alleyways, steep – steeeeeeeep – staircases, towering stone buildings and curved streets. It all sits on considerably higher ground than the Edinburgh New Town (ah yes, a spoiler alert: they did eventually find a way to expand north of the castle, and sadly it didn’t involve zip wires). The contrast between the two districts makes for a striking panorama of the city centre, with spectacular views of both from the top of Calton Hill.

Noteable buildings in Edinburgh Old Town include St. Giles Cathedral, John Knox House, Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh Castle, and the imposing, superbly gothic Assembly Hall. There are also numerous little courtyards and secret gardens tucked away in the narrow closes off the Royal Mile. Intrepid adventurers might even enjoy a tour of the Edinburgh underground vaults in the city, such as at Mary King’s Close, a claustrophobic subterranean street where, for several hundred years, the city’s poorest inhabitants lived in squalor.

Hey, remember the castle being on a high hill? And that pesky marsh below it? Well, in 1460, the marsh was flooded by order of King James III. He decided it would be an even better deterrent to enemies if it was filled with water. Fair enough, pal. However, it eventually became a problem for the locals as well, because 350 years later, ‘Nor Loch’ (meaning north lake) was so polluted with filth, excrement and human corpses that it presented a public health hazard.

So the loch had to go, and not just because it was repugnant. The Old Town had become dangerously overcrowded, and plans were therefore made to develop to the north. Up until now, Edinburgh’s refusal to expand in this direction had meant that the buildings in the Old Town became taller and taller as more storeys needed to be added. But enough was enough. At the turn of the 19th century, Nor Loch became no loch. They drained the swamp, filled it in, and it became the beautiful, public Princes Street Gardens that still stands today (though they didn’t have the helter-skelter or bungee swing in 1820). Princes Street runs alongside the gardens, like a green line dividing the Old Town from the New.

Hurrah, a New Town at last! Imagine the sound of trumpet fanfare. Imagine gasps of awe. Lay this audio over the following visual montage, which begins with a 26 year-old chap celebrating: it’s 1766 and young architect James Craig cheers and pumps his fist as he wins a competition to design the New Town layout; North Bridge descends slowly from the sky before your very eyes, joining the Old Town to the other side of the valley; beautiful, stately sandstone tenements grow steadily upwards, brick by brick, in a square formation; the city’s richest residents hitch up their crinolines and bloomers and leg it out of the filthy, cramped Old Town, flinging their apple cores and oyster shells behind them with a delighted snort as they head into the clean, spacious New Town, never to look back. (This is actually a reasonably accurate metaphor, as the massive hill now known as the Mound was constructed from empty oyster shells and building debris from the New Town development.)

And where were they moving to? The first parts of the New Town to be developed were Charlotte Square and Princes Street, named for the King’s wife and sons, respectively. Just behind Princes Street lies Rose Street, which sits close to Thistle Street. The names symbolise the close relationship between Scotland and England. The streets of New Town are laid out in grids, squares and crescents, and are more orderly and easier to navigate than the ramshackle charm of the Old Town’s wynds and closes.

200 years on, Edinburgh New Town is often claimed to be the perfect specimen of Georgian town planning. Its 75% listed status means that it is extremely well-preserved, even today. The ubiquitous iron railings can only be painted black, and the roads are still lined with cobbles. Buildings retain their sultry, sooty charm, as their moody grey sandstone must be retained. There are dozens of private gardens – archaic, beautifully maintained green spaces with locked gates, only accessible to residents with the right postcode. It’s all a bit grand, really, a bit grown-up, and frankly, it looks drop-dead gorgeous in a snowstorm.

And somehow, the reputations stemming from the Old Town and New Town’s origins remain relevant. During festival season, there’s a joyful chaos to the Old Town. Royal Mile becomes so packed with people that you can almost taste the make-up of the street performers that you’re packed in against (can I recommend the golden levitating wizard as a palate cleanser?) And all year round, the pubs and bars here are busy with people drinking each other under the table. Meanwhile, over in the New Town, you’ll find the effects of the Enlightenment still in full force, with its numerous art galleries, quieter streets, and people sipping wine in bistros instead of bars.

It’s a mish-mash, but it works. The character of Edinburgh comes from the delightful contrast of the city’s two halves: like the taste of a sharp, strong cheddar against a sweet, soft pear, it is more than the sum of its parts. It’s braw.

Compare the two halves of this beautiful city on one of our Scotland Vacations.