The Flodden Wall is the protective boundary wall that once played a pivotal role in the city of Edinburgh’s history. Although many sections of the wall have been demolished there are a few sections that still remain standing.
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Review of the Flodden Wall
As you walk around the ancient city of Edinburgh you might notice several sections of a fortified wall that seem slightly out of place in relation to the other buildings that stand alongside them.
These walls are the remains of an immense fortification that at one time encircled the entire Old Town area of the city, and their story is a fascinating glimpse into the history of both Edinburgh and Scotland.
The Flodden Wall was built in 1560 as a defensive measure against a potential English invasion, and while you might not believe it when you see the few small sections that are still standing today, it once encased an area over 140 acres in size.
Incredibly, around 10,000 people lived within the confines of the wall, all of whom could only leave by paying a hefty tax at one of the six exit gates. The wall continued to protect (and confine) Edinburgh’s residents until the 18th-century when it began to fall into ruin, and it was eventually almost entirely built over as the city expanded.
One of the most intact sections of the wall can be seen at the far south-western end of The Grassmarket in a narrow close called The Vennel, beyond which is the Telfer Wall, a later extension that continues to Lauriston Place.
These locations are easy to find if you follow Google Maps and take a walk to The Grassmarket which is a few minutes walk from Edinburgh Castle.
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Today, there are only a few locations where the Flodden Walls is intact so if you’re unaware of the history of it you might walk past without taking any notice.
But if you’re curious about the history of Edinburgh and the role these few remaining ruins played this guide will tell you why you should definitely add them to your list of ‘must-see’ city sights.
Things to do at the Flodden Wall
While there are some tours that will take you around all the remaining sections of the Flodden Wall the best way to see it (in my opinion) is to grab a tourist guidebook and walk around the streets of Edinburgh on your own.
If you keep a watchful eye out you might see several brass cobblestones embedded into Edinburgh’s streets which mark the boundaries where the original wall once stood, and searching for them is a fun way to keep the kids occupied while walking through the Old Town.
You’ll be shown these markers if you follow one of the many organized history tours that regularly depart from behind St. Giles Cathedral, but if you want to go on a hunt yourself a good place to start is the road outside the World’s End pub halfway up The Royal Mile (but please take care on the road as it’s not fully pedestrianized).
For a real taste of how big the Flodden Wall was in its heyday you should take a journey to Greyfriars Kirk where one of the last remaining sections can still be seen. You’ll find it by walking past the kirk to a corner that was used in another life as a prison for Covenanters. The Flodden Wall is signed so it’s easy to find and makes an interesting addition to a trip to Edinburgh’s most famous graveyard.
Alternatively, you could walk to the western end of The Grassmarket and look for a set of steps that have a sign that says ‘The Miss Jean Brodie Steps’.
These steps lead to the Vennel which in turn joins Heriot Place, and midway between the two is a fairly large section of the Flodden Wall. Again, this section is clearly signed ‘The Flodden Wall’ but it’s also the location of one of the last remaining sections of the Telfer Wall which is a later addition built in the early 17th-century.
It’s incredible to think that at one time such a massive wall completely encircled the city but it’s also sad that so few sections of it remain intact. Still, searching for the remaining bits of the Flodden Wall is a great way to explore this remarkable city.
The history of the Flodden Wall
The Flodden Wall was completed in 1560 and was built in response to the Scots army defeat at the battle of Flodden in 1513. There, the armies of King James IV were defeated by the English, and fears of an English retaliation prompted Edinburgh’s councillors to propose a defensive wall to protect the city.
The wall would also go some way to dealing with the smugglers that were blighting trade in the capital and it would be an important tax revenue for traders who needed to enter and exit the city. But it was the latter point that eventually led to its destruction.
Standing 24 feet tall with walls nearly 4 feet thick, the Flodden Wall protected an area of almost 140 acres. But as the population of Edinburgh grew the presence of the wall began to be resented due to the high taxes that had to be paid every time anyone wanted to enter or exit the city.
It’s for this reason that the famously-high tenement buildings of the Old Town were built because without any way to build outwards the architects of the time could only build upwards, so you could say the reason Edinburgh looks the way it does today is thanks to the construction of the Flodden Wall.
Although the impending English invasion never materialised the wall survived and was instrumental in protecting the city for many years, but as with many of the city’s old buildings it slowly began to crumble after not being maintained properly.
After the threat from the Jacobite uprising ended in 1746 the Flodden Wall was left without a purpose and it either collapsed or was built over in the ceaseless expansion of the city, so that today only a few small sections remain.
But even though it’s now difficult to appreciate how impressive this wall must have been I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem in Edinburgh, and one that’s well worth keeping an eye open for.
Discover the history of Edinburgh in my article: Edinburgh – A Thousand Year Story.
- The Flodden Wall is a fascinating piece of Edinburgh’s history. It’s just a shame so few sections are left.
- It’s a great excuse to get out and explore the city to find those remaining sections of the wall.
- The best place to see the wall is at Greyfriars Kirk so combine a visit together with the kirk and wee Bobby’s grave.
- The National Museum of Scotland is opposite Greyfriars so you won’t get bored in that part of the city.
- Other sections of the wall can be found along the narrow Vennel leading to the Grassmarket, and running down Drummond Street to the Pleasance. If you’re not sure where to go enter those names in Google Maps.
The remains of the Flodden Wall lie in several areas around the city, and there are various routes you can take to visit them. However, the most visited section lies in Greyfriars Kirk graveyard although it can also be seen where Drummond Street meets the Pleasance, and again on Forrest Road.
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Things to do near The Flodden Wall
- Edinburgh Castle. Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG. Scotland’s most-visited tourist attraction. This 11th-century castle and barracks houses the Scottish crown jewels and is the location for the National War Museum. It also features popular attractions like the Mons Meg cannon and the One O’Clock gun.
- Greyfriars Kirk. 26A Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh EH1 2QE. Famous church and graveyard known as being the home of the faithful Scots terrier, Greyfriars Bobby. The kirk is open to the public for interior visits, as is the large graveyard which is reputedly haunted.
- The Grassmarket. Edinburgh EH1 2JR. Historic area of Edinburgh situated between Edinburgh Castle and George Heriot’s School. The Grassmarket was at one time the main cattle market in the city but is now full of traditional Scottish pubs with courtyard seating.
- National Museum of Scotland. Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF. A vast museum that covers all aspects of Scottish and international antiquities with a collection of interactive exhibits, exhibitions, natural history displays and priceless relics. One section is housed in a grand restored Victorian arcade and another is housed in a modern building that includes a café, restaurant and gift shop.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience. The Royal Mile, 354 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NE. Popular tourist attraction on The Royal Mile that celebrates Scotland’s whisky traditions with tastings, a whisky barrel ride and guided tours.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- The Balmoral Hotel – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Balmoral Hotel is a historic building situated in the heart of Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. The luxury hotel is located next to Waverley train station and was built in 1902 by the North British Railway Company. Today, it is a popular landmark that attracts visitors to its superb restaurants and bars.
- Real Mary King’s Close – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Real Mary King’s Close is a tourist attraction located in the middle of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. The attraction allows visitors to step beneath the streets of Edinburgh into an underground labyrinth where the stories of the city’s past residents unfold through a series of exhibits and displays.
- St. Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSt. Giles Cathedral has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years, although the present structure that we see today can trace its roots back to the 14th century. Due to its central location on The Royal Mile, St. Giles has become a popular tourist attraction and is an ideal stop-off point between excursions to the palace and the castle.
- The Grassmarket – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh’s Grassmarket is a bustling square in the heart of the city’s Old Town. This historic site is surrounded by classic tenement buildings that line the roads along the iconic West Bow and Victoria Street but it’s best known for the lively pubs and restaurants that offer superb outside seating areas. The Grassmarket is one of the oldest parts of Edinburgh and it was originally used as a marketplace for horses and cattle.
- Leith – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideLeith is a historic district of Edinburgh that centres around the Water of Leith, Leith harbour, and the restaurant-packed Shore. The district has a rich maritime history but it is now a popular tourist destination thanks to its combination of trendy bars, award winning restaurants, superb shopping areas and attractions including the Royal Yacht Britannia.