The History of Edinburgh Part 1

Edinburgh Castle

The Out About Scotland guide to the history of Edinburgh


Edinburgh’s Ancient History

Although the earliest known settlement in the city of Edinburgh is located at the famous Castle Rock, the remains of the very earliest human inhabitants were discovered in the area known as Cramond, dating around 8500 BC. Although little is known of the culture of these inhabitants, we do know that a later tribe known as the Votadini were discovered by the Roman governor Agricola towards the end of the 1st century, in the outskirts of what later became known as Edinburgh.

By the sixth century four Kingdoms had developed in what is now Scotland;

  • To the north, the Picts,
  • To the far west, the Scots
  • To the west, the Britons
  • To the south-east, the Angles.

For the next two hundred years these four kingdoms fought each other, until in the 9th century the King of Dal Riata, Kenneth MacAlpin, brought the nations together to create something like a united Scotland. His Grandson, Duncan I, became the first King of Scotland in 1035. While they were in power, the Votadini became a powerful tribe and quickly established a territory known as Lothian, from which all modern districts surrounding Edinburgh are now known, and Edinburgh became their capital.

Edinburgh Castle

The Kingdom of Northumbria

Edinburgh Castle in Medieval Times

The Votadini were eventually integrated into other tribes, and by the 7th century the Gododdin tribe had built a hill fortification on Castle Rock. This fortification was called Din Eidyn, or Etin, by the Gododdin, which over time changed into the name Edin.

The rule of the Gododdin began to dissipate around AD 638 when Northumbrian forces under the leadership of King Oswald of Northumbria set siege to the hillfort of Etin, and eventually the fortification came under Northumbrian rule. In the following years, the forces of Northumbria grew outwards past the northern and western regions of Lothian, and they continued their rule for several hundred years after.

There are records of a church in Edinburgh from around AD 854, and historians conclude that there was an established community in what we know now as Edinburgh by the middle of the ninth century. The significance of this church is that it was probably the forerunner of the famous St. Giles church which today dominates the landscape of the Royal Mile, the famous road that joins the royal palace at the bottom to the magnificent castle at the top.

Early records state that in the 7th century the English captured an area in Scotland that had a fort situated on top of a rock. They named this place Eiden’s burgh, and so began the history of Edinburgh as one of the nation’s major cities. Historical records of the beginnings of the castle are scarce, but it does at least appear that by the middle of the 10th century Northumbrian nobles had decided to make it the location their permanent residence, which required them to build fortified walls as protection from neighbouring rivals.

Around this time, Britain was under attack by the Vikings, and many settlements were destroyed by raiding parties. It was the rule of the Vikings which eventually led to the demise of the Northumbrian rule, mainly because the Vikings cut off north Northumbria from the rest of Britain. This led to the Lothians coming under the control of the Kingdom of Scotland, which was initially sited to the west of the country. For many years the Lothians also came under attack from English forces from the south, but it was recorded in the 11th century that the English gave victory to the Scottish King Indulf, after which Edinburgh remained under Scots rule.


Medieval Times

Old Edinburgh

The official beginning of Edinburgh as a Scottish borough appeared when the English king Edgar the Peaceful granted Lothian to the King of the Scots, Kenneth the 2nd. But the rule of the Scots wasn’t assured until the Scottish king Malcolm the 2nd defeated the invading Northumbrian forces in 1018.

It was shortly after this time that the oldest known building in Edinburgh, St. Margaret’s chapel, was built on Castle Rock by Malcolm Canmore for his wife. The chapel, while small, is a fascinating building, and you can see it for yourself if you visit the castle, which is a must-do for any visitor.

The next major Edinburgh construction began in 1128 when King David the 1st founded Holyrood Abbey. Augustinian canons manned the Abbey, and it’s from them that the name of the Canongate district is derived (gate in this instance does not mean a gate in a wall, but actually comes from the old Scots word ‘gait’ meaning road).

In the 12th century, King David the 1st established the town of Edinburgh as a royal burgh, where merchants were given strips of land on condition that they built a house there within one year of receiving ownership. These sections of land, known as tofts, were arranged either side of a long market street, and to the rear were arranged enclosed yards. And so began the construction of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock

As the decades passed, the city went in and out of English ownership during the wars of Scottish Independence, between the years 1291 to 1341. During this time the city, or town as it was then, comprised of 400 buildings surrounding the fortification on top of Castle Rock. But by the early 16th century, Edinburgh had developed into a thriving community of shops, textile weavers, butchers, metal smiths, farmers and many other trades people, all serving the needs of the royal court and the rapidly growing local community.

The rise of the Edinburgh population is well-known by historians, and in 1560 it was recorded that the population of the burgh had reached 16,000. This was at a time when the entire population of Scotland including the northern-most reaches and the western islands, was estimated at only one million. By this time the city was indeed a significant part of the Scottish economy, and it soon became known as a centre of legal and medical excellence in Europe. It’s safe to say that the history of Edinburgh was to become a major part of the history of Scotland itself.


Click here to read the history of Edinburgh Part 2.

Click here to read the history of Edinburgh Part 3.


Craig Smith

Craig Smith is your guide to the best attractions in Scotland. He loves exploring the Scottish wilds and is happiest when he's knee-deep in a muddy bog in the middle of nowhere.

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