Old Town, Edinburgh

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Old and New Towns of Edinburgh
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
The Old Town seen from Princes Street
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv
Reference 728
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1995 (19th Session)
Map of the city centre, showing the Old Town (dark brown), New Town (mid brown), and the West End (orange), with the World Heritage Site indicated by the red line

The Old Town (Scots: Auld Toun) is the name popularly given to the oldest part of Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh. The area has preserved much of its medieval street plan and many Reformation-era buildings. Together with the 18th-century New Town, it is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.[1]

Royal Mile[edit]

The "Royal Mile" is a name coined in the early 20th-century for the main artery of the Old Town which runs on a downwards slope from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace and the ruined Holyrood Abbey. Narrow closes (alleyways), often no more than a few feet wide, lead downhill on either side of the main spine in a herringbone pattern.

Notable buildings in the Old Town include St. Giles' Cathedral, the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, the National Museum of Scotland, the Old College of the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament Building. The area has numerous underground streets and vaults that are relics of previous phases of construction.

Street layout[edit]

The street layout, typical of the old quarters of many northern European cities, is made especially picturesque in Edinburgh, where the castle perches on top of a rocky crag, the remnants of an extinct volcano, and the main street runs down the crest of a ridge from it. This "crag and tail" landform was created during the last ice age when receding glaciers scoured across the land pushing soft soil aside but being split by harder crags of volcanic rock. The hilltop crag was the earliest part of the city to develop, becoming fortified and eventually developing into the current Edinburgh Castle. The rest of the city grew slowly down the tail of land from the Castle Rock. This was an easily defended spot with marshland on the south and a loch, the Nor Loch, on the north. Access up the main road to the settlement was therefore restricted by means of various gates and the city walls, of which only fragmentary sections remain.

Residential buildings[edit]

Buildings in the High Street

Due to the space restrictions imposed by the narrowness of the "tail" the Old Town became home to some of the earliest "high rise" residential buildings. Multi-story dwellings were the norm from the 16th century onwards. During the 18th century the Old Town had a population of about 80,000 residents. In more modern times it had declined dramatically to just 4,000 residents. There are currently approximately 20,000 residents in the various parts of the Old Town. As the population was for a long time reluctant to build outside the defensive wall, the need for housing grew and hence the buildings became higher and higher. Many of these buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of Edinburgh (1824); the rebuilding of these on the original foundations led to changes in the ground level and the creation of many passages and vaults under the Old Town. The construction of new streets including North Bridge and South Bridge in the 18th century also created underground spaces, such as the Edinburgh Vaults below the latter.

Major events[edit]

A replica gas lamp in the Old Town

During the Edinburgh Festival the High Street and Hunter Square become gathering points where performers "on the Fringe" advertise their shows, often through street performances.

On 7 December 2002, a major fire engulfed part of the Cowgate, a street which runs along a valley parallel to the High Street on its southern side. It destroyed the famous comedy club, The Gilded Balloon, and much of the Informatics Department of the University of Edinburgh, including the comprehensive artificial intelligence library.[2]


the Jeffrey Street arches which are due to be redeveloped in 2015

An area directly to the north of the Canongate has been earmarked for a large redevelopment project named Caltongate. The scheme involves building of a mix of residential, hotel, retail and office buildings on the site of the former SMT bus depot in New Street, developing the arches under Jeffrey Street, redeveloping a number of other surrounding sites and creating a pedestrian link from the Royal Mile to Calton Hill.[3] The proposals have been criticised by a number of commentators including the author Alexander McCall Smith and Sheila Gilmore MP who regard the modern design as incompatible with the existing older architectural styles of the Old Town and inappropriate for a UNESCO World Heritage site.[4] The Caltongate development has also been opposed by the Cockburn Association[5] and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland. The site developers Artisan Real Estate Investors have stated that the completed development will be a "vibrant, exciting" place. The plans were approved by the City of Edinburgh Council in January 2014 and construction will begin in the summer of 2014.[6]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Edinburgh-World Heritage Site". VisitScotland. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  2. ^ http://www.theregister.co.uk/2002/12/12/fire_guts_edinburghs_ai_library/
  3. ^ "Caltongate masterplan". Frameworks, masterplans and design briefs. City of Edinburgh. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  4. ^ "Caltongate development approved by Edinburgh Council". Scotland on Sunday. 29 January 2014. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  5. ^ "The Caltongate Development". Cockburn Association. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  6. ^ David McCann (30 January 2014). "Caltongate work to start in summer". Edinburgh Evening News. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 

Coordinates: 55°56′51.26″N 3°11′29.87″W / 55.9475722°N 3.1916306°W / 55.9475722; -3.1916306