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How walking has influenced Edinburgh's urban development ~ Old Roads

Part 1 of 3

· Edinburgh,walking,Canongate,Leith-Walk,old-roads

With 2020 being the year of the lockdown I, like many others, have used walking to help pass the time and keep my physical and mental wellbeing at healthy levels. Walks are a great time for observing and reflecting and I started thinking about how walking had shaped the city of Edinburgh. Only very recently, on the human timescale, has walking stopped being our primary mode of transport.

Walking is such an ordinary activity that it's easy to forget about but much of Edinburgh’s existing road network developed out of ancient walking routes. Later, as walking became a leisure activity in the 18th and 19th centuries, it transformed the city with one of its best loved features, its many urban parks. In the 20th century more modern forms of transport dictated Edinburgh's development but the influence of walking continues to play an important role in shaping the city into the 21st century.

In this three-part blog post we’ll be looking at some of the ways in which walking, both past and present, has influenced the urban development of Edinburgh.

  • Part 1 - old roads (before the 18th century)
  • Part 2 - public parks (18th and 19th centuries)
  • Part 3 - people vs cars (20th and 21st centuries)

Part 1 ~ Edinburgh's old roads

As the oldest form of travel and transportation, the routes created by walkers have heavily influenced the city of Edinburgh since it was officially founded as a Royal Burgh by King David I in 1128. The Royal Burgh covered only the upper or western section of what we refer to today as the city’s Old Town, the lower eastern section being the Canongate.

The Canongate originally referred to the lower half of the city’s 'Royal Mile' and only later became the name for the burgh that grew up around it. Although many Edinburgh street names are incredibly literal, the Canongate's name has nothing to do with either gates or military cannons. The canons referred to are religious canons, or priests, from the Augustinian Abbey at Holyrood also established by David I in the early 12th century. The ‘gate’ part of the Canongate (sometimes spelt ‘gait’ or ‘gayt’) didn’t refer to a gate of the garden-gate or city-gate variety but is in fact an Old Scot’s word meaning a path, route or way.

So, the name Canongate came from the ‘route of the Canons’ or the ‘Canon’s way’ as it was primarily used by the Canons at Holyrood Abbey to walk to the Netherbow Port, the nearest city gate into the original burgh of Edinburgh. The creation of this road helped define the city’s Old Town and was a huge influence on its urban development.

View down Edinburgh's Canongate from the World's End, the location of the old Netherbow Port.

View looking east down the Canongate in 2019. These crossroads were where Edinburgh's High Street ended (at the now demolished Netherbow Port) and the Canongate began. As you can see the Canons from Holyrood faced an up hill walk to get to the ancient burgh of Edinburgh!

Another way that walking influenced Edinburgh's Old Town is in the development of its distinctive 'closes'. Set perpendicular to the main street these steep, narrow lanes gave access to the land behind the merchants houses that lined the early High Street. This gives Edinburgh's Old Town its medieval 'herring-bone' street plan that remains today, so called as the wide, straight main street and its many narrow closes resembles a fish skeleton. Originally closes were private access routes, with vennels and wynds being for public use, but this changed over time and today most closes are open to the public.

As you might expect many of Edinburgh’s oldest roads follow routes used by foot traffic for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It’s difficult to know the exact age or routes of Scotland’s early roads; the first map of any use only dates from 1682 and much of what is known is based on fragmentary details, scattered through earlier written accounts. However, in general, these records suggest that many of Edinburgh’s old roads followed routes still largely familiar to us today such as the roads to Dalkeith, Queensferry, Linlithgow, Lanark and Lasswade for example.

The road to Dalkeith is likely to have connected Edinburgh to the ancient Roman road of Dere Street, which much of the A68 follows today, while the road to South Queensferry took people to a boat service across the Firth of Forth. Established around 1100 the boat service, to the twin settlement of North Queensferry, was free for poor-folk and pilgrims travelling to St Andrew's in Fife. The road left Edinburgh from the west of Castle Rock, along the modern-day King's Stables Road and north past St Cuthbert’s Church, the route crossed the Water of Leith somewhere near Dean (long before the building of Dean Bridge or the ‘modern’ Dean Village), before heading out towards Davidson’s Mains, Barnton, Cramond Brig and onto South Queensferry. Although bits of the modern road, from central Edinburgh to South Queensferry, still follow the line of the earlier route many older sections have been lost. Other sections, such as Corbiehill Road in Davidson's Mains, were simply by-passed and now survive as side streets where once they were main roads.

Detail of Edinburgh from John Adair's map of the Midlothians, circa 1682.

Detail from John Adair's Map of Midlothian showing Edinburgh and its surroundings, circa 1682, with additional notes by the author. Modern-day Edinburgh now expands outside the area shown above showing just how much the city has grown in the last 300 years.

However, these old roads didn’t look anything like what we would consider a road today. Originally routes would have had occasional marker-stones, plantings of Scots Pines, or notable landmarks (such as the distinctive shape of Arthur's Seat over Edinburgh) acting as ‘signposts’ to mark the way but there were no fences or hedgerows or ditches to define these roads. Instead they more closely resembled a path or track with an occasional bridge or paved ford, which can often be seen in place names. The old road between Edinburgh and Lanark, in south-west Scotland, first went via Fountainbridge, where a bridge crossed the Lochrin Burn by the early 16th century, and then on towards the ford across the Water of Leith at the aptly named Slateford.

A lack of hard surfacing meant these tracks were often impassable in winter and were completely unsuitable for wheeled-vehicles at any time of year; carriages were a rarity before the 18th century, those that did exist were heavy, slow and primarily used by a few elite and wealthy families. Instead, if you were rich you rode a horse, if you were everyone else you walked. Until very recently most people thought nothing of walking a round-trip of 10 - 20 miles to buy and sell goods, attend to business matters, take part in a religious gathering or visit kinfolk.

Detail from Edinburgh to Costorphine by Frederick Henry Halsahw 1804.

Detail from Edinburgh to Corstorphine by Frederick Henry Henshaw, 1846. While the painting is from the Victorian era the scene of people walking along country tracks to get to the city was a common one for hundreds of years. The New Town, which can be seen to the left of the Castle, was constructed from the 1760s onwards. Prior to this Edinburgh only consisted of the tiny medieval Old Town dominated by the Castle.

That’s not to say there were no surfaced early roads; some routes were more important than others and considerable time and resources were spent to keep them open in all seasons. Causewayside, in Edinburgh’s Southside, was originally called Causeyside. Causey being an old Scot’s word for a surfaced road, either beaten hard or set with small stones. The section known as Causewayside today refers to a much longer road that ran between the old city gate near Potterow and the distant settlement of Liberton, now a suburb in south-east Edinburgh. The road passed to the east of the South Loch (more on that in Part 2) before crossing the open moorland of the old Burgh Muir, following the line of the modern Buccleuch Street, Causewayside, Mayfield Road and Kirk Brae. One of the main access routes into Edinburgh from the south, the road was recorded as being ‘causeyed’ or 'surfaced' in the 1580s; on reaching Liberton it continued un-causeyed to Lasswade and then on down to the Border towns of Galashiels, Selkirk and Hawick.

An example of an 18th century military road by General Wade's near Melgarve below Corrieyairack Pass

This is a well-preserved, 18th century military road near Melgarve in the Scottish Highlands, one of many built by General Wade. That this road was constructed in 1731, using the best military engineering of the day, gives some idea of just how rough the 'causeyed' roads of earlier eras may have been!

Given the unsurfaced nature of most early roads the usual method of moving goods long-distances over land were pack-horses or horse-drawn sleds. This remained the norm until the mid-18th century and the arrival of the turn-pike system - a network of toll-roads that were surfaced and well-maintained. The turn-pike road between Edinburgh and Selkirk was opened in 1754 and commentators noted how, for the first-time, goods could be brought in on wheeled carts rather than pack-horses. Over short-distances, however, goods were generally portaged by people-power. This led to a wide variety of porters, especially in Edinburgh, the largest and busiest burgh in Scotland for hundreds of years, and its neighbour Leith, the nation’s principle port until the 19th century.

Leith Walk, which connects the two, was previously known as the Wester or Western Road to Leith (complimenting the Eastern Road to Leith, which is still called Easter Road today). Between the 1650s and the 1770s the Wester Road consisted of two separate elements – a high, gravel path (adapted from an 18 foot high military rampart built to defend against Oliver Cromwell) and a low, muddy track (the original Medieval route). The high gravel path, which at twenty feet across was also very wide, became known as The Walk to Leith and was for foot traffic only; carriages were banned and had to make do with the rough track alongside. To me this detail really highlights the importance of walking as the primary form of transporting goods. For hundreds of years all goods – food, textiles, even building materials – were carried to and around the city by huge numbers of porters, both men and women. Not until 1776 were the two elements made into a single surfaced highway, shared by pedestrians and carriages, but the name Leith Walk remains as a reminder of walking’s historical importance.

Edinburgh had a huge variety of porters - stangmen, sedan-chairmen and fisherwives are just a few examples

Just a few of the many different types of porters that would be seen in and around Edinburgh. Top left: stang-men carrying wine. Lower left: two sedan-chairmen taking a rest, sedan chairs were popular in the 17th century before the city's cluttered streets became suitable for wheeled-carriages. Right: Many fishwives walked the 6 miles to Edinburgh from Newhaven or Mussleburgh carrying creels which could weigh up to 50kg. The Fishwives Causeway (like Causewayside its name suggests that at some point it was surfaced) used to run from Musselburgh to Edinburgh via Jock's Lodge and was named after the fishwives who used it.

These are just a few examples of how routes made for walking have influenced Edinburgh's urban development. From pilgrims and porters to closes and causeways, the footsteps of generations past can still be found all around our city today.

During the 18th century walking underwent a significant change; it began to be seen as a leisure activity in its own right rather than just a way to get from A to B. This was due to a number of factors and introduced a new form of city space, the urban park, which is what we'll be looking at in Part 2.

Image Credits:

London Road Gardens, Edinburgh, 2020 (banner image); The Canongate, 2019; and Stang-men Carrying Wine (you can read more about the stang-men in my earlier blog-post Edinburgh's Hidden Courtyard ) - author's own, all rights reserved.

Detail from John Adair's Map of Midlothian, c.1682 (additional notes by author) shared from National Library of Scotland under Creative Commons licence CC BY 4.0

Detail from Corstorphine to Edinburgh by Frederick Henry Henshaw, 1846 shared from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence CC BY 4.0

General Wade's Military Road near Melgarve below Corrieyairak Pass by Chiswick Chap, 2008 shared from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Two [sedan] Chairmen and Edinburgh Fishwife by John Kay, c.1790 Public Domain

Key Sources:

The Place Names of Edinburgh by Stuart Harris, (Steve Savage: 1996)

'Movement, Transport and Travel' by Alastair Durie in, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600-1800, eds., E. Foyster and C.A. Whatley, (Edinburgh University Press: 2011)

Old Roads of Scotland website

Dictionary of the Scots Language website

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In Edinburgh? I provide guided walking tours for anyone interested in Edinburgh's history; from first-time visitors to long-term residents - for more details visit my website.