Old Town

Ramsay Garden and the Old Town from Edinburgh Castle
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Ramsay Garden and the Old Town from Edinburgh Castle

The Old Town represents Edinburgh's Mediaeval core centred around the Royal Mile. Running from the Castle down to Holyrood Palace, the Old Town includes the previously independent Burgh of the Canongate, which was home to Edinburgh's nobility until the late 18th Century.

However, the main part of the old town consisted of the closes of the Lawnmarket and High Street and below the Grassmarket and Cowgate, constrained to the south by the Flodden Wall and to the north by the Nor' Loch.

For reasons of defence and because the extent of the Burgh had been defined at 58 ha (143 acres) on its foundation by David I around 1140, Edinburgh became characterised by overcrowded tenements. It was not until the building of the New Town that the city was able to expand beyond the boundaries of the Old Town and a period of rapid growth took place. Those that moved to the New Town were the wealthy; the Old Town became severely overcrowded and the properties decayed into slums. These were subject to a variety of improvement schemes in the 19th Century and many of the old Mediaeval buildings were replaced. The most notable scheme followed the City Improvement Act of 1867, proposed by Lord Provost William Chambers (1800-83), which came in-part as a result of a tragedy in Bailie Fyfe's Close where a tenement collapsed killing 35 people. Several of the 17th Century tall 'lands' still survive, now valued for their historical merit.

A magnet for tourists, the Old Town includes many notable and historic buildings, some of the older examples including St Giles Kirk (1120), Edinburgh Castle (1367), John Knox's House (c.1490), Magdalen Chapel (1545), Canongate Tolbooth (1591), Canongate Kirk (1688), Lady Stair's House (1622) and Moray House (1625). The Old and New Towns together were named a World Heritage Site in 1995.

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