EDINBURGH OLD TOWN: CITY SHAPED BY FIRE. PART 2

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In Part 2 of the series I look at how, after centuries of frequent and repetitive burnings, the city of Edinburgh started to use its architecture to prevent and reduce fires. Control through laws and regulations was used as a means of prevention.

New Regulations

As early as 1426, records show the first law documented that aimed to prevent fires. It was stated that “no hemp, lint, straw, hay or heather or broom be stored near a fire”. But it was only until 1621, that bills started to target new built, imposing the houses of Edinburgh to be roofed with slate, lead tile or thatched stone, to prevent fires. 

Although cheap and easy, timber and thatch constructions increased the risks of fires, so it was natural that the council chose the local stone, widely available and less inflammable to replace timber as a building material for all new built. Edinburgh became recognisable by its sandstone, still the signature of the city today. 

The local government went as far as giving tax incentives to encourage local developers to use the stone. In 1681, all thatched buildings were to be re-roofed with tiles. Therefore, during the seventeenth century, many alterations were made to sixteenth century buildings.

Sources for Edinburgh sandstones. Edinburgh from Craigleith Quarry by John Bell. Image credit: City of Edinburgh Council

Conditions of Feu

Architectural coherence in Edinburgh was achieved thanks to “Conditions of Feu”, set by the local council and to which developer had to agree with. Usually, the insides of tenements were not particularly regulated, and thus resulted in diversity in class structure. 

The outside however became homogenised, from the finish of the stone to the aesthetics of the openings. In 1698, it was building heights that became limited by law in order to reduce fire hazard. 

Around the same time, the great fire of London settled nationwide what will become the ancestor of the modern Building Regulations. Preventing measures forced the city to set standards to follow.

Edinburgh's Horizontal Expansion

In parallel, the 1603 Union of the Crowns, took away Edinburgh’s status as a capital city, and made the protective wall redundant. This allowed for a horizontal expansion outside the walls, reducing the hazardous high density of the city centre and allowed the height regulation to be followed more thoroughly. The Burgh no longer could identify itself from its geographical borders and thus this standardisation gave the city its character and identity. The High street became the face of the city8 which led to a 1674 bill imposing regular commercial arcades on the royal mile. This also permitted for the destruction of timber fronts, both in new built and existing buildings.

Gladstone Land| Edinburgh Arcades | Royal Mile Tour | Edinburgh Old Town
Gladstone Land - the last remaining arcaded building in Edinburgh from pre Georgian era.

Loss of Character

In his book of drawings “Contrast” published in 1836, Pugin aims to criticise the architecture of his time by comparing buildings of the 15th and 16th century with equivalent contemporary buildings.

Here, he is trying to argue against the functionalism of his time that lead to a uniformization of architecture, opposed to the richness of Gothic Christian architecture.

In the 15th and 16th century, the royal burgh would have been a city protected by a wall, with different building materials and height adapted to the different building functions.

By opposition, to prevent fire 19th century Edinburgh had to be uniform in height (6 storey) and material (grey sandstone and slate tiles). Standardisation, which led to uniformity, was used as a tool against the threat of fire. However, this method was not completely successful in stopping fires in the old town.

Read on to discover how Edinburgh Old Town developed upon tabula rasa scenarios created by fires. 

Bibliography

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

Bell, Dorothy, Edinburgh old town: the forgotten nature of an urban form (Edinburgh: Tholis Publishing, 2008)

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