• Tue. Dec 5th, 2023

Slums, lochs and hidden tunnels: the forgotten history of Edinburgh

ByBethany Grainger

Dec 8, 2018

An ancient city that sometimes appears as if it has stood still in time, the reality of Edinburgh’s past could not be further from the truth. Originally peppered with lochs and slums, Edinburgh’s history lies drained and buried under our feet. 

It seems hard to imagine now as we hurry across its paths towards the university that the Meadows was formerly a large lake known as South Loch or Burgh Loch, the only way to traverse it before the 18th century being by boat. The loch was one of the cleanest in Edinburgh and was used as a watering point for animals coming to the Grassmarket to be traded. Fed by a river that came from the area now known as Tollcross, the streets with ‘Lochrin’ in their name stand testament to this time and translate as ‘loch estuary’ in old Gaelic. Rankeillor Street is so named because of the Loch, after Thomas Hope of Rankeillor who drained the Loch to create the Meadows in the 1720s. The Meadows was originally named Hope Park after Thomas, but sadly for him, this did not catch on as the locals preferred the nickname instead.

Before the manicured gardens and flowerbeds that now occupy it, Princes Street gardens was the dirtiest of the lochs. Known as Nor Loch or North Loch, it was used as a grimy cesspit for the inhabitants of the Royal Mile who were in the habit of chucking their waste out of their windows, letting it fall into the brown waters below. In a particularly dark chapter of its history which was thought to be simply legend before the matching skeletons were found, a brother and sister were nailed alive into a chest after being convicted of incest and drowned. Their younger sister happily survived as her sentence was commuted at trial due to her age. Over 100 years later the chest was found by two unsurprisingly disturbed workmen during the 1820s when the loch was drained. In 1685 Scotland banned drowning as a form of execution but before this time many lives were taken in the loch, as swimming abilities were not common and so the prisoners would quite literally be thrown into the middle of the loch to drown. In the construction of Waverley Station on its site, many hundreds of bodies were found, some of which were even believed to date back to the city’s Witch Trials.

The ornate Georgian architecture of the New Town is well known, yet as the city’s residents traverse its cobbled streets they most likely give little thought to what lies beneath. The Scotland Street Tunnel was originally the first railway going from Waverley Station to Leith and beyond, a huge cavern that lay undisturbed underground. Yet the most interesting chapter of its history came during the Second World war when 3,000 bunkers filled the tunnel as Edinburgh’s biggest public refuge. Beds, fresh running water and lavatories were provided as an emergency shelter in the Luftwaffe bombing raids that injured several hundred and killed dozens. 

Lying fifty feet below street level, the disused railway was the perfect safe haven for families that had nowhere else to go and countless lives were saved. Since the War ended, however, the tunnel has been boarded up and forgotten by all but a handful of Edinburgh pensioners who were children during the raids.

There are still a handful of pensioners too that remember the days of the Grassmarket slums. Although now adorned with hanging streetlamps, expensive hotels and adorable little pubs, the Grassmarket was not always so. Until the late 1940s the Grassmarket, along with the Lawnmarket were amongst Edinburgh’s worst slums. Overcrowding and poor sanitation in the back-to-back tenements on the sight of the old cattle market had led the Grassmarket to be one of Edinburgh’s poorest areas with illness rampant and alcoholism rife to numb the pain of poverty. Things got so bad that in 1886 the Grassmarket Mission charity was launched to provide better living conditions for those living there. Although the mission did not have adequate funding to help all those affected by the slum conditions it did provide trips to a seaside house in the East Lothian countryside known as the Poplars. 

Under the leadership of Alexander Barrie, these 1930s holidays and day trips to the outskirts of Edinburgh and to East Lothian were known amongst the slum children as ‘Barrie’s Trips’ and are still fondly remembered. 

On one occasion it is said that 1,500 excited children gathered in the Grassmarket with 200 adult volunteers to get the tram out to Gorgie for a picnic outside of the smoggy inner-city air. 

Known at the time as Little Italy, the Grassmarket was the first home of Italian migrants in Scotland, with Toni Capaldi, who moved to Edinburgh in 1915, recalling: “One woman used to go around with a hurdy-gurdy with a little monkey, and one with a little bird – a sparrow or something – that was used to pick out a card for telling people’s fortunes. 

One of these daft things but it used to collect money and that’s how they lived a lot of them, by playing  accordions and that.” 

One of the main ways to make money for the Italian migrants was selling ice cream and little ‘hurdy gurdys’, hand pushed wooden carts with different flavours of ice cream, would be pedalled through the Grassmarket to the delight of the local children.

With the arrival of the welfare state after the Second World War things improved and the charity was no longer needed in the Grassmarket, yet it still survives today, helping Edinburgh’s homeless tackle issues such as alcoholism with similar aims to its original mission.

The landscape of the city will continue to change again and again, yet we must take time as residents, like the tourists that fill the streets, to wonder and question: what and who was here?


Illustration: Katie Moore

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