Ice Age glaciers shaped the ancient volcanic mass that provided the excellent natural defensive site at Edinburgh. The rock was fortified in prehistoric times and a castle was built in the 7th century by King Edwin of Northumbria.
From the 11th century a town developed around the castle and on the route down the hill along Lawn Market, High Street and Canongate. Together these are known as the Royal Mile. Unable to spread outwards, it was decided to grow upwards in a maze of tenement buildings.
By the 18th century the people of Edinburgh began to feel more secure and it was decided to build a new town outside the original walls. The competition for its design was won by a young Scottish architect, James Craig who put forward the simple grid design which survives today. It is based on three parallel streets, Queen Street, George Street and Princes Street.
South of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh's ancient educational district. Edinburgh University, established in 1582, now has as its central building the Old College designed in 1789 by Robert Adam. The Heriot-Watt university derives from the Mechanics Institute established in 1821.
In 1780s Thomas Muir and Edinburgh University became the centre for the fight for universal suffrage. Muir established the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh. Branches were formed in Perth, Dundee and Glasgow. This upset the authorities and Muir and his friends, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald were arrested, found guilty of sedition and transported to Australia. In 1845 Thomas Hume, the Radical MP organised the building of a 90 feet high monument in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh in memory of these men.
The success of the Stockton & Darlington and Liverpool & Manchester lines inspired local merchants to organize the building of railways in Edinburgh. The first completed was the Edinburgh & Leith (1831) that linked the port and industrial centre with the capital city. This was followed with the Edinburgh & Glasgow line in 1842.
(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)
On the top of the ridge of a hill, Edinburgh has an impregnable castle and precipice at one end, a lake of water on either side; so that the inhabitants had nothing to defend but the entrance at the east end, which it was easy to fortify. From the west, the street goes on in almost a straight line, and for near a mile and a half in length, some say a full two measured miles, through the whole city to the castle in the inside; this is, perhaps, the largest, longest, and finest street for buildings and number of inhabitants, not in Britain only, but in the world.
(2) Neil Arnott & James Kay, Report on the Prevalence of Certain Physical Causes of Fever (1838)
Edinburgh stands on a site beautifully varied by hill and hollow, and owing to this, unusual facilities are afforded for perfect drainage; but the old part of the town was built long before the importance of drainage was understood in Britain, and in the unchanged parts there is none but by the open channels in the streets, wynds, and closes of courts. To remedy the want of covered drains, there is in many neighbourhoods a very active service of scavengers to remove everything which open drains cannot be allowed to carry; but this does not prevent the air from being much more contaminated by the frequent stirring and sweeping of impurities than if the transport were effected under ground; and there are here and there enclosed spaces between houses too small to be used for any good purpose but not neglected for bad, and to which the scavengers have not access.