By Craig Neil
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Edinburgh is a stunning city and is fast becoming one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Europe.
There’s so much more to the city than first meets the eye, and in this article you’ll discover a collection of interesting facts about Edinburgh’s 1,000 years of history and the people and events that transformed it from ‘Auld Reekie’ into ‘The Athens of The North’.
22 interesting facts about Edinburgh
As one of the most-visited cities in the world, Edinburgh has plenty to shout about when it comes to enchanting buildings, wonderful tourist attractions, beautiful green spaces and intriguing history.
It’s the last point – the history – that’s perhaps the most interesting, with over 1,000 years of wars, plagues, religious upheavals and political conspiracies forging Edinburgh into the fascinating city that it is today.
If you visit ‘Auld Reekie’ for any length of time you’ll know just how atmospheric it is with the winding, secretive alleyways of The Royal Mile seemingly at odds with the up-market streets of the New Town.
It’s this mix of historic and modern that makes Edinburgh such a special place, and coupled with knock-out tourist wonders like an extinct volcano, an awe-inspiring castle and a spectacular royal palace it’s no wonder that over 2 million visitors choose to spend their holidays there each year.
But even without all this history Edinburgh would still be one of the best cities in the world to visit.
Stroll in any direction and you’ll find endless cosy pubs and first-class restaurants next to an array of superb shops and fantastic tourist attractions. There are also world-leading museums, art galleries and theatres-galore, plus some of the greatest festivals in Europe that are staged throughout the year.
With so many places to visit and things to do you might find yourself a wee bit spoilt for choice, and possibly a wee bit bewildered.
With that thought in mind, this article will help you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Edinburgh while taking you on a tour of where the city came from, where it’s been and where it’s going.
The following collection of hand-picked facts might surprise you, but I sincerely hope they also inspire you to come and visit Edinburgh and make up your own mind about this amazing city.
Facts about Edinburgh’s history
1. We know Edinburgh is an old city that’s full of historic streets like The Royal Mile, but many people don’t realize exactly how old it is. Archaeologists have discovered human remains in the area of Cramond that have been dated to 8,500 BC, which are some of the earliest remains ever found in Britain.
These ancient people were the first to settle in Scotland after the last glaciers receded 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period when hunter-gatherers migrated west from Europe.
Remains of their dwellings were unearthed during excavations for the new Forth Road Bridge when a large oval pit nearly 7 metres long was discovered complete with remnants of ancient fireplaces, flint tools and arrowheads.
2. Those ancient tribes obviously thought it was worth sticking around Edinburgh because more remains have been found in Holyrood Park and Castle Rock (now home to Edinburgh Castle) that date back to 5,000 BC.
By the Bronze Age, people were farming the land and living in permanent settlements across Edinburgh but Holyrood Park, in particular, made an ideal location to live thanks to the easily-defended 251-metre Arthurs Seat.
The fertile land in Holyrood Park was used extensively for farming at that time and even today you can still make out the remnants of ancient agricultural terraces by climbing Dunsapie Crag and looking across the slopes that sit east of Queen’s Drive.
3. Moving forward in time to the Iron Age, we know that Edinburgh and the surrounding area was home to several hill forts with some located in East Lothian (notably on Traprain Law) and others in Holyrood Park.
These hillforts were some of the earliest defensive buildings in Britain and were mostly built to take advantage of high elevations, which is why the rocky peaks of Holyrood Park were so highly prized.
In total, four large Iron Age forts were built inside Holyrood Park alongside others at Castle Law in the Pentland Hills and Blackford Hill and Castle Rock in the city centre.
4. I already mentioned Traprain Law in East Lothian but did you know the tribe that lived there – the Votadini – were one of the most powerful in Scotland during the Iron Age?
Although Traprain Law was their capital they eventually moved to the region south of the Firth of Forth which they called Eidyn and built their new capital – Din Eidyn – on top of the volcanic plug of Castle Rock.
Although there are several theories as to where the modern name ‘Edinburgh’ originates it almost certainly evolved from the Votadini’s original ‘Eidyn’. The most popular theory is that Edinburgh derives from ‘Eidyn’ (referring to the region) and the Old English ‘burgh’ which means fort.
5. After the Romans left Britain in AD 411 the Votadini expanded their territory and created a new kingdom of Gododdin which covered a large part of North England and South Scotland with Edinburgh serving as their capital.
The first Scottish King Kenneth MacAlpin united the Gododdin and other tribes together in AD 1035 and the fort on Castle Law continued to be used as a seat of power, but it was David I who founded Edinburgh as a royal burgh in the 12th century.
However, the city wasn’t always the capital of Scotland because before 1437 Scone – the original home of the Stone of Destiny – was considered the capital.
6. The Stone of Destiny is an oblong block of sandstone that was used for centuries during the coronation of Scots kings, but it was forcibly taken to Westminster Abbey in London during Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296.
For the next 700 years the stone was the coronation seat for Britain’s kings and queens until 1950 when four Scottish students removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and transported it back to Scotland where it was left in the care of the Church of Scotland at Arbroath Abbey.
Although the stone was later returned to Westminster, in 1996 on St. Andrew’s Day it was formally handed over to Scotland for permanent safekeeping and it now resides alongside the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s crown jewels) in Edinburgh Castle.
Facts about Edinburgh’s buildings and architecture
7. Edinburgh Castle is the most-visited tourist attraction in Scotland and each year more than 2 million visitors go there to see the Stone of Destiny, the Honours of Scotland, the National War Museum, the Royal Palace and the National War Memorial.
It’s certainly an instantly recognizable and iconic place, but it has a gory history that’s unknown to the majority of visitors.
First off, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most besieged fortresses in the world and over its 1,100-year history it withstood 26 sieges in total including the ‘Lang Siege’ which took place from June 1571 until May 1573 – one of the longest sieges ever in Britain.
The castle was also the location of the infamous ‘Black Dinner’ murders in 1440.
At the time, the 16-year-old 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother were invited to the castle for a feast by King James II, but during the meal a platter was served to the Earl which contained the severed head of a black bull (a Scottish symbol of death).
The two brothers were then accused of plotting against the king and were dragged away and beheaded, which led to the Douglas’s retaliation when they later successfully attacked Edinburgh Castle.
If you’ve ever seen the Game of Thrones episode ‘The Red Wedding’ you might recognize these events as they were the inspiration for George RR Martin’s story.
8. One of the most iconic areas of Edinburgh is the Old Town where most of the historic buildings have survived local conflicts and world wars almost completely unscathed.
While many city buildings in Britain were devastated by German bombs in WWII, most of Edinburgh remained untouched as the city had virtually no military importance due to its economy centring on education, grain milling and finance, unlike Glasgow which had one of the largest shipbuilding industries in the world at the time.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Edinburgh has more surviving listed buildings than any other city in the world, with more than 4,500 in total of which 900 are listed as category A (defined as ‘a building of special historical interest and an outstanding example of a particular period or building type’).
9. Many of Edinburgh’s most famous buildings are located in the Old Town including St. Giles Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirk and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, all of which are notable for their attractive design which makes extensive use of locally sourced sandstone.
This readily available and durable building material was also used in the construction of the New Town and it’s the main reason why Edinburgh looks the way it does today, with its pink-purple stone buildings to the south and newer pink-grey buildings to the north.
Thanks to the long-extinct volcanos in the area, sandstone was able to be quarried in vast amounts, but it’s the advent of Scotland’s canals that lead to the use of different types of sandstone in the old and new towns.
Before the creation of the Union Canal in 1793, sandstone had to be brought into the city centre via horse and cart so local quarries at Bruntsfield and Craigmillar were used.
However, when the canal opened it offered easy transport links from Edinburgh all the way to Falkirk which made it possible for cheaper building material to be brought in from the further-afield quarries in Binny, Humbie and Dalmeny.
It’s fair to say that were it not for the Union Canal, Edinburgh would be a very different-looking city today.
10. There’s another reason why the Old Town looks the way it does, which is actually due to the building of a wall in 1560.
In 1513 the Scottish army was defeated by the armies of the English King James IV at the Battle of Flodden, and fearing an imminent English invasion of Edinburgh the city councillors made plans to construct a defensive wall around the entire city.
This wall – now called the Flodden Wall – was built 24 feet high and 4 feet thick and protected a site of 140 acres, but it had only a few entry points.
Although the English invasion never materialized the city councillors soon realized they could make money by levying hefty taxes on the city folk who wanted to enter and exit the wall, so instead of demolishing it when the threat passed they let it stand for another 200 years.
With no way to build out beyond the confines of the Flodden Wall, Edinburgh’s architects had no choice but to build upwards, which is why the Old Town has so many high-rise buildings.
In fact, Edinburgh has more historic multi-floor tenements than any other city on earth and some rise up to 15 storeys, making them the tallest buildings in the world when they were built.
11. Although the tenement buildings allowed more people to live in Edinburgh they created problems of their own due to overcrowding and pollution.
In the 1700s a rapidly growing population of 50,000 people meant the original sewage system was woefully inadequate and raw sewage was either thrown out of tenement building windows into the streets below or deposited in the Nor Loch which was a body of water located where Princes Street Gardens now lies.
Coupled with extensive coal-burning for fuel, it wasn’t long before Edinburgh gained the nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ and the city declined into a cesspit of crime and disease.
A plan was devised to revert the city’s prospects which included building a new gentrified district away from the Old Town, and in 1767 a competition was held to design a new residential area on the unused land to the north.
The competition was won by a young architect named James Craig who came up with the idea of a central street linked by parks at either end and smaller streets joining it along its length in a grid pattern.
This grid system was so highly regarded that its design was copied throughout the world and it is the main reason why most cities in the United States today are comprised of rectangular city blocks interspersed by connecting streets and public gardens.
Facts about Edinburgh’s monuments and landmarks
12. Calton Hill is one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in Edinburgh, but long before the famous monuments were built on it the site was used to prepare for war.
In 1456 King James II decreed that Calton Hill would be used to prepare the city for a possible English invasion and in order to train Edinburgh’s farmers and tradespeople the king designated the site as a place for archery and sports competitions (although golf and football were banned).
Initially, the radical idea worked and much of the local population became proficient with a bow and had high levels of fitness, but as the English threat subsided Calton Hill became a site for leisure activities.
In later years Calton Hill transformed into the location for many of Edinburgh’s most famous monuments including the City Observatory and the National Monument.
13. The National Monument is one of the dominating features of Calton Hill and it’s certainly a surprise to climb to the top and see the enormous stone columns set on their U-shaped plinth.
The monument was built from 1826 to 1829 and is dedicated to the soldiers and sailors that died in the Napoleonic Wars, but while it’s an impressive structure it’s actually less than half the size it was originally intended to be.
When ideas were sought to create a national monument the chosen plan was to accurately re-create The Parthenon in Athens, but it didn’t take long before the leading figures of the fundraising team realized they would only be able to raise half the money required to complete the project.
After the first 12 columns were installed the money dried up and work ceased forever, which lead to the monument gaining the nickname ‘Edinburgh’s disgrace’ – a name which is still frequently used to this day.
14. Another defining feature of the city’s skyline is the Nelson Monument which sits on the southern edge of Calton Hill. It was built between 1807 and 1816 to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
There are a few interesting features of the monument but possibly the most overlooked is the fact that it was designed to look like an upturned telescope which is a rather fitting tribute to the great man.
Other than the small museum in the base of the tower, the monument has a second function which is a timepiece that works in conjunction with the One o’Clock gun in Edinburgh Castle.
The time ball is a shiny ball suspended on a wooden pole that drops at exactly 1 pm so that ships in the Firth of Forth can synchronize their clocks.
For many years the gun and the time ball were operated by a single wire which ran between the two sites, but today it is operated by an employee of Ritchie and Son’s clockmakers.
15. The 150-foot Melville Monument in St. Andrews Square is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city centre, perhaps second only to the Scott Monument in size.
Unlike the Scott Monument, the figure on the Melville Monument is far less known but he is, in fact, Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville.
Dundas isn’t exactly a revered figure in Scotland’s history which can be seen in his nickname ‘the great tyrant’, but he was an expert in manipulating the corrupt political system of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Even though he started life as a lawyer he managed to claw his way up to the position of Home Secretary before being impeached for misuse of public funds.
During his time in office he fought against the abolition of the slave trade and was accused of very poor decision-making in the Napoleonic War, so it seems strange that such a large monument was created for him.
The truth is that no money was given to the monument by the Scottish government and the entire structure was paid for by Catholics for his efforts in helping them gain better recognition in Ireland.
There was also a sizeable contribution from military personnel who had benefitted from Dundas’s generosity when he was promoted to Minister for War.
16. The greatest monument in Edinburgh – and possibly the whole of the United Kingdom – is the stunning Gothic-style masterpiece, The Scott Monument.
This elaborately decorated 200-foot tall spire dominates Princes Street Gardens where it overlooks Waverley train station and the ultra-luxurious Balmoral Hotel.
The Scott monument is dedicated to Edinburgh writer Sir Walter Scott who is widely regarded as one of the most influential Scottish wordsmiths, whose works sit alongside Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson and which are still taught in schools across the globe to this day.
Many people simply climb the 288 steps to the top viewing platform without taking much time to look at the exterior of the monument, but if they take a little time to examine it they will see lots of stone sculptures installed all over the spires and in the main tower.
In total, there are 68 sculptures on The Scott Monument, each of which depicts a character from one of Scott’s novels. The main statue is that of Scott himself, which is installed on a pedestal in the base.
Scott’s statue took over four years to carve from a single piece of white marble which weighed over 30 tons, and the entire structure from base to pinnacle is officially the largest monument to a writer in the world.
17. One of the most prominent landmarks on Princes Street is the Balmoral Hotel and its 190-foot clock tower.
The hotel was built in 1902 by the North British Railway Company as an up-market hotel for train passengers, but today it’s owned by Rocco Forte who renovated it into an ultra-luxurious hotel complete with bars and restaurants during a £23-million refit.
There are 167 rooms and 20 suites in The Balmoral, but the 6 different dining areas are the main draw for visitors to Edinburgh which include the elegant Palm Court with its enormous glass dome ceiling.
One particular oddity of the hotel is that the enormous clock tower is set three minutes fast so that Edinburgh locals who use Waverley station are less likely to miss their trains if they set their watches to ‘Balmoral time’.
This tradition has been going on since the hotel was first built and even today the only time the clock is set to the correct time is on December 31st (known as Hogmanay in Scotland) to mark the ringing in of the new year.
Facts about Edinburgh’s people
18. With over half a million people living in Edinburgh it’s no surprise there’s a long list of celebrities both current and historic that call (or have called) the city home.
There are perhaps too many to include in one article but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the man who is widely acclaimed as the greatest Scot in living memory – Sir Sean Connery.
Connery is best known for his portrayal of British spy James Bond, and between 1962 and 1983 he played the role in 7 movies, earning him a place as the 3rd greatest hero in cinematic history by the American Film Institute.
His early life was rather less glamorous but he was an Edinburgh lad through and through, having been born in the city’s Royal Maternity Hospital and raised in Fountainbridge, although his former home has since been demolished.
Before moving into acting, Connery worked in Edinburgh for several years, first as a milkman then after a stint in the Royal Navy; a lorry driver, a lifeguard at Portobello, a model at the Edinburgh College of Art, a semi-professional bodybuilder and a footballer.
Quite a career roster for anyone to achieve by the age of 23!
19. Any Potter-heads reading this article will already know that one of the most popular authors of this generation – JK Rowling – lived in Edinburgh for a number of years.
Although she wasn’t born in Scotland, Rowling found a great deal of inspiration for the Harry Potter series in and around Scotland and especially in Edinburgh where the city’s gothic architecture and medieval streets were the perfect settings to inspire tales of witchcraft and wizardry.
The author is so revered in Edinburgh she even has golden hand imprints inset on flagstones in front of the city chambers and she was given the Edinburgh Award in 2008.
Popular sites for a Potter-themed walk through the city are Greyfriars Kirk where many tombstones lend their names to the stories (including Riddle and McGonagall), The Elephant House café where the first book was written and the Balmoral Hotel where Rowling finished The Deathly Hallows.
20. Mary Queen of Scots is arguably the most famous Scot to have ever lived and the story of her life has been immortalized in countless books and movies.
Although she wasn’t born in Edinburgh (she was actually born in Linlithgow Palace in West Lothian) she spent a large part of her life in the Scottish capital both at Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle, though during her final 19 years she was kept prisoner in a number of English castles before being beheaded for high treason on 15th October 1586.
The fall from grace of one of Scotland’s most prominent figures stems from her marriage to her cousin Lord Darnley who was reported to be a resentful drunk that was jealous of Mary’s affection for her advisor David Rizzio.
Rizzio was murdered by Darnley in 1566 and a year later he was found dead himself in mysterious circumstances when his house was blown up.
From that moment Queen Mary was suspected of a plot to kill her husband and her popularity in Scotland plummeted.
After losing a battle against Protestant nobles in 1567 she was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle on Loch Leven and forced to abdicate, after which she never saw her beloved Edinburgh again.
21. As one of the greatest inventors of the 19th century, Alexander Graham Bell is best known for the telephone, but many people don’t know that he was also a genius engineer and scientist who made groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of optical communications and aeronautics.
Of course, the telephone was his biggest invention and after being awarded the first patent in 1876 he set up the Bell Telephone Company and later developed the earliest sound recording devices before moving on to other inventions that included the development of hydrofoil boats.
Bell was born in South Charlotte Street in Edinburgh where he lived with his father who taught elocution to the deaf along with his mother who was almost deaf.
From an early age he developed a fascination with the science of sound but although he made remarkable scientific discoveries throughout his life he didn’t manage to graduate from high school and his reports from the Royal High School in Edinburgh showed that he was actually a rather lacklustre student.
Although he moved to Canada in 1870 he returned to his home city many times during his life and was made a Freeman of Edinburgh in 1920.
22. Following on from the Scott Monument listed above, it would be impossible to finish this article without mentioning the great man himself, Sir Walter Scott.
Scott was one of the most influential novelists of the 19th century and across a 30-year career he produced some of the most important literary works of the era which include Scottish ballads, poems, biographies and stories.
Though his best-known tale is Ivanhoe (published in 1819) he produced other famous works such as the Waverley novels (Edinburgh’s Waverley train station is named in Scott’s honour), The Lady of The Lake and Rob Roy.
His early life was decidedly average compared to his later years, having been born in an apartment near the Cowgate in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
After pulling through a bout of polio in 1773 he was sent to live in the rural Scottish Borders where he learned many Scottish folk tales and legends from his aunt.
When he returned to Edinburgh he began studying classics at the University of Edinburgh and began an apprenticeship in his father’s office to become a writer.
Shortly after publishing his first poems, Scott became the most popular poet of his time and after setting up a business as a printer he became very wealthy, as can be seen in the stunning Abbotsford House near Melrose which is now open as a tourist attraction.
Sadly, Scott lost a great deal of money in the 1825 UK banking crisis and his efforts to reclaim his wealth lead to his early death, but his legacy lives on with his image printed on Scottish banknotes, his works taught in schools and universities across the globe, and of course the grand monument in Princes Street.
Discover more places to visit in Edinburgh with: The Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh – Ultimate Visitor Guide.