Wednesday 5 April 2023

E is for Edinburgh – April A to Z Blog Challenge Day 5

Welcome to Day 5 of my April A to Z Blog Challenge! 

Victorian Edinburgh – What may be similar to now, and what is very changed from the 1850s?

My main character (presently called Margaret in my WIP) is sent to Edinburgh at the age of almost thirteen. Her parents are having to give up their drapers shop in the Fife town of Milnathort, due to too much local competition. They cannot afford to keep Margaret at school anymore, so she must find a job. The next stages of schooling for her would lead to her becoming a pupil teacher, commonly done at this age if the pupil is bright. It was something she very much hoped to progress to but circumstances change these plans.

1850 Ordnance Survey 1850 NLS 

Going into service is definitely not on Margaret’s own plan, and not her father’s intention either,  but needs must. Many young females from Milnathort either end up as skivvies to local gentry, find work in the local woollen mills, or are indentured for a year on a local farm as a dairymaid or farm servant. What Margaret is offered in Edinburgh is very much out of the norm. Her best friend growing up in Milnathort is Jessie, now an orphan, and working for a well-to-do family in Edinburgh. Jessie is a kitchen maid but after a devastating fall to a young daughter of the family, a new position is needing filled. The daughter is bedridden, cannot attend the local school now, and needs a tutor. The parents are unwilling to pay for a fully trained tutor/ governess but they are prepared to pay a little for Margaret’s skills – if she proves useful during her first month’s trial.

So, what awaits Margaret in Edinburgh in 1852, after her journey via Burntisland, though not on the ‘Leviathan’ itself? (See A to Z post B is for Burntisland)


Edinburgh New Town was gradually built between 1767 and the early 1850s. I have chosen to locate the family Margaret is going to work for in Albany Street. Albany Street, a few streets north of Princes Street,  was built from the 1820s onwards, the modest town houses gradually appearing over the next 20 years or so. Some of the Albany Street properties were built by architects who designed other new Edinburgh buildings. These builders tended to be men of influence who needed a decent bank balance, if not actually a rich-pocket-book to create houses for themselves. The Duncan family that Margaret goes to are in fact the second inhabitants of the Albany Street property, the father a member of the law profession.

When Margaret has time off to explore Edinburgh, which proves to be difficult as her days off are rare, she will find many of the tourist attraction buildings of today, their exteriors much the same, though the interiors are likely to be presented differently today. Many of the impressive buildings were already in situ and would be much brighter and cleaner in 1852, not yet damaged by weather or sooty coal dust!

Sir Walter Scott Monument 

If she walked from Albany Street, to Princes Street, she would be awed to see the Scott Monument dominating the eastern end of Princes Street Gardens. The two hundred feet six inch high tower was built in the name of the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott who died in 1832. The sandstone monument would have been shiny clean and blond in colour. She might also have been able to climb to the top viewing platform (often closed today). As to the cost of entry back then, I have not yet unearthed information about whether it was free to climb the 287 steps to the top.

Margaret could view Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station, named after one of Sir Walter Scott’s famous novels, as it was relatively newly constructed, the first platforms opened in 1846. The first lines into the new Waverley station ran along part of Princes Street Gardens.

Edinburgh Princes Street Gardens
viewed from the top of the Scott Monument

Princes Street Gardens was opened in the 1820s after many decades of draining the Nor Loch which lay to the foot of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town. The Nor Loch was a public pestilence, a man-made loch which became the polluted draining ground of everything rotten that drifted down from the old town. When the Nor Loch was eventually drained, a beautiful public park was created between Princes Street and the castle for locals to enjoy (better sewage systems by then in place in parts of Edinburgh). The railway lines were kept safe and separate for park users, using a system of tunnels.

The building of the Royal Institution
Alexander Naysmith

She could have viewed the magnificent building named the Royal Institution (now the Royal Scottish Academy) built in the 1820s and extended in the 1830s. By the time Margaret would have walked past the front portico, there would already be a huge statue of Queen Victoria as Britannia above the front, which was installed in 1844. From the dates quoted in the last few paragraphs, you can see there was a lot of new building in Edinburgh prior to 1850.

with Queen Victoria as Britannia 

If Margaret walked up into the old town she would have known it as The High Street, the buildings there already pretty old. The term ‘Royal Mile’ is a more recent 20th Century invention. Had she walked all the way down to the bottom of the High Street, she’d have seen the Palace of Holyrood not much different from we see it now, Holyrood Palace being Queen Victoria’s official residence when she was in Edinburgh. The current Scottish Parliament buildings, and the very modern Dynamic Earth building, opposite the palace would probably have been too much of a shock for her to view in 1852!

Place of Holyrood House

Yes, Edinburgh has had many changes since Margaret’s time there but not so many to make the current city unrecognisable to her. She would still be able to negotiate herself from her new town residence in Albany Street to the Castle via the King George IV bridge, or via any of the other tiny streets that take you from Princes street to the High Street! Part of the huge charm of Edinburgh is that it still does retain many of the wonderful features of building from the earliest ‘Old town’ buildings to those in the Georgian and Victorian ‘New Town’.


If you’ve never visited Edinburgh, I most highly recommend it. I adore being a tourist in Edinburgh.

Till my next A to Z post...enjoy your reading! 


Images all in the public domain

Maps- National Library of Scotland,_Edinburgh.jpg,_Edinburgh.jpg,_front_view.jpg

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