Edinburgh Old Town: City Shaped by Fire. Part 1

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In this three-part series, I explore how the different forms of fire, from the physical element, the threat of burning, and the control of this fire, have all lead to the uniformity of architecture in the historic heart of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh has dealt with frequent destructive fires ever since its creation as a royal burgh in the twelfth century . From British attacks to accidental fires, the relationship of the city with fire has largely evolved since the mediaeval ages. Even up until the 19th century, Edinburgh recorded up to 90 fires a year. To combat such threats, the city has adopted preventive measures. It has been a pioneer in the establishment of the first British fire brigade but has also adapted the city itself to prevent and control fire.

Edinburgh's fires timeline | graph
Record of Edinburgh’s remarkable fires, 1544 - 1824

Fire cycle of rebuilding

Built on top of old volcanic rocks, Edinburgh’s origins are literally rooted in fire. In 1128, when Kind David established Edinburgh as the royal Burgh, the city entered four centuries of instabilities and chaos, in which fire was perceived as a direct threat from enemy and from within. 

With a field of vision spanning in three directions and a close location to the sea, Edinburgh was considered a highly strategic spot. Thus, under the early Scottish reign, the castle was frequently attacked by its neighbours the English. 

When Froissart, a French historian, visited Edinburgh under David II’s reign, he allegedly overheard a Scott claim that they “did not mind much when the English burned their houses, as they could build them again in a few days with five or six poles with branches to stretch across them”. These constant burnings scared the population from investing capital in their buildings and thus lead to the construction of a cheap houses, usually made of timber and thatch.

This phenomenon is described by L.E Frost and E.L Jones and is common to most medieval cities in Europe. They called it the “Fire cycle of rebuilding”, which “lower[s] the price of finance for new residential activity” thus leading to cheaper unplanned constructions.

Smart History, virtual reality project based on 1544 drawing

The Royal Burgh

In addition, the establishment of Edinburgh as a royal burgh gave the city commercial privileges. This allowed the city to install a toll on goods coming in and out. Thus, a wall needed to be erected to control the flows and the so-called “King’s wall” was built in 1427, before the Flodden wall replaced it in 1513. Also serving as a rampart around the city, the construction of these different walls meant that the city was not able to expand horizontally, and Edinburgh developed a very dense urban centre. 

We find records of buildings as high as fourteen storeys tall. This high density increased significantly the risks of fire, making the threat from within. This physical border allowed the burgh to be clearly identified by its footprint and thus a homogeneous style of unify the city was not needed.

 

John Knox House | Oldest House | Jettying | Timber House |
John Knox house

Therefore, Edinburgh’s architecture was very organic and unplanned. This is perfectly embodied by the John Knox house, still standing today. Its picturesque dormers jettying out of the roof are proofs of the spontaneous nature of the architecture and the unplanned growth.

When perceived as an uncontrollable threat, fire prevents cities such as Edinburgh to invest time into urban planning and leads to a very chaotic architecture. It is through the control of fire that we start seeing a homogeneity in architecture. 

Read part 2 of this post to find out how the city of Edinburgh started to use its architecture to prevent and reduce fires.

Bibliography

Kuretsky, Susan D. “Jan van der Heyden And the Origins of Modern Fire FightingIn Bankoff, Greg, Uwe Lübken, Jordan Sand, and Stephen J. Pyne. Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World. (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2012)

Reid, Alexander, Aye ready! The history of Edinburgh Fire Brigade, The Oldest Municipal Brigade in Britain (Edinburgh: South-Eastern Fire Brigade, 1974)

Frost, L.E., Jones, E. L., “The fire gap and the greater durability of nineteenth century cities”, Planning perspectives.

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