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Edinburgh - History

Edinburgh History

A memorial to Dugald Stewart above the city

Castle Rock, a volcanic crag with three vertical sides, dominates Edinburgh's city centre. This natural defensive position was probably what first attracted settlers; the earliest signs of habitation date back to 850 BC. In the 4th century, there were two indigenous Celtic peoples in northern Britain: the Picts and the Britons. In the 6th century a third Celtic tribe, the Scotti, reached Scotland from northern Ireland and established a kingdom called Dalriada. In the 7th century, Northumbrian Angles from northeast England colonised southeast Scotland. They built their fortress on Castle Rock, which they called Edwinesburh. This served as the Scots' southern outpost until 1018 when Malcolm II established a frontier at the River Tweed. Nonetheless, the English sacked the city no less than seven times.

Edinburgh really began to grow in the 11th century, when markets developed at the foot of the fortress, and from 1124, when David I held court at the castle and founded the abbey at Holyrood. The first effective town wall was constructed around 1450 and circled the Old Town and the area around Grassmarket. This restricted, defensible zone became a medieval Manhattan, forcing its densely packed inhabitants to build tenements that soared to 12 stories.

A golden era that saw the foundation of the College of Surgeons and the introduction of printing ended with the death of James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. England's Henry VIII attempted to force a marriage between Mary Queen of Scots (James V's daughter) and his son, but the Scots sent Mary to France to marry the dauphin. The city was sacked by the English, and the Scots turned to the French for support. While Mary was in France, the Reformation of the Scottish church was under way. The Scots were increasingly sympathetic to the ideas of the Reformation, and when John Knox returned from exile in 1555 he found fertile ground for his Calvinist message. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament created a Protestant church independent of Rome, and the pope's authority and Latin mass were rejected.

When James VII succeeded to the Scottish and English crowns he moved the court to London and, for the most part, the Stewarts ignored Edinburgh. Religious differences led to civil war in Scotland and England. When Charles I tried to introduce episcopacy (the rule of bishops) in 1633 he provoked the National Covenant and more religious turmoil, which eventually ended in triumph for the Presbyterians.

Though cultural and intellectual life continued to flourish in Edinburgh, the Act of Union in 1707 further reduced the city's political importance, uniting the two countries under a single parliament. In the second half of the 18th century a new city was created across the ravine to the north. The population was expanding, defense was no longer vital and the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment planned to distance themselves from Edinburgh's Jacobite past.

The population exploded in the 19th century - Edinburgh quadrupled in size to 400,000, not much less than it is today - and the old city's tenements were taken over by refugees from the Irish famines. A new ring of crescents and circuses was built to the south of the New Town, and grey Victorian terraces sprang up.

The 20th century played its part in shaping the city Edinburgh is today. Slum dwellers were moved into new housing estates that now foster massive social problems. Following WWII, the city's cultural life blossomed, with the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe first taking place in 1974. The University of Edinburgh established itself as a teaching and research centre of international importance in areas such as medicine, electronics and artificial intelligence. Ill-conceived development plans in the 1960s and 70s resulted in the demolition of parts of Edinburgh, though the city escaped the horror of a motorway running the length of Princes St Gardens. In response to this proposal a conservation movement sprang up, and in 1995 the Old and New Towns were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In 1997, following the Labour Party's electoral win, a second referendum on a Scottish parliament (the first, in 1979, was quashed by the then Labour government doing some dodgy sums) succeeded, with it convening for the first time in 1999. Unfortunately, the building of the new Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood has been dogged by political machination, with Westminster imposing decisions that have proved catastrophic, causing the building's cost to spiral out of control. However, Scotland's devolution marks an exciting new era for Edinburgh society. Despite a disastrous fire in the Old Town in late 2002 that caused considerable damage to historic buildings, Edinburgh welcomes visitors with a renewed sense of pride and relevance.

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