Edinburgh's Tabula Rasa
As well as being a destructive force, fire can be perceived as an opportunity to introduce modernity. Since fires created tabula rasa scenarios, city scaled planning was able to take place and allowed for a homogeneity of the city.
For example, the merchant’s Exchange building, located on the parliament’s close, had been an unsuccessful building from its construction, with a narrow entry and a facade judged too functional.
The tenements on the south side of the parliament were 15 storeys tall and were seen as a focal point in the Old Town. In 1700, a fire broke out on the north side of Cowgate immediately right behind the parliament’s close. From there the flames spread and burnt down the close and its close surroundings, including the merchant’s Exchange building.
This accident allowed for the council to rebuild the Parliament “in a uniform style of architecture” in conformity with the 1698 act, which, as previously mentioned, regulated buildings appearance to prevent fire. The rest of the close was given a grand entry and the courtyard was rebuilt uniformly with a continuous arcade along the front.
Great Fire in the Old Town
Perhaps the best remembered fire Edinburgh has encountered because of its destructiveness was the so called “Great Fire” that occurred in 1824. The fire started the 15th of November and lasted about five days, destroying on its passage 400 homes, including the south side of the royal mile, from the Tron kirk to the Parliament square, and killed 12 victims. It was described as “torrents of flames bursting with irresistible fury from every aperture… rising to an amazing height…”
Similarly to the 1700 fire, the burnt properties along the royal mile were rebuilt uniformly, as plain five storey Georgian tenements. But the 1824 fire prompted far more than a simple reconstruction of the burnt building fabric. Following the fire, an architect Thomas Hamilton proposed several Improvement schemes between 1824 and 1831. Hamilton argued that his proposal would remove “hazards” (namely old town slums) to pass his scheme in front of the council.
New passages for fire engines in the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town
In addition, although a fire brigade (the first of the country) had been created in Edinburgh in 1824, the urban landscape of Old Town increased the hazard for the firemen working. Indeed, “The engines were both hand-pumped and hand-hauled and although the steep braes of Edinburgh lightened the labour of the haulers they were also a hazard.
Edinburgh firemen were often injured when an engine out of control ran them down”. In response to these problems, in 1829 and 1867, Thomas Hamilton proposed other Improvement Schemes, which incorporated the creation of Victoria Street, Cockburn Street and George IV bridge. These new streets allowed for more gradual level changes as well as wider roads which allowed for the passage of carriages and fire engines.
In its continuous battle against the threat of fire, the Old Town of Edinburgh has developed into how we know it now. Many of these methods came at the cost of maintaining historic fabric but by doing so diminished the losses created by fire. Often, it was the threat of fire and not the fire itself that led to the destruction of the majority of the historic fabric of the Old Town.
Bell, Dorothy, Edinburgh old town: the forgotten nature of an urban form (Edinburgh: Tholis Publishing, 2008)
Chambers, Robert, Notices of the Most Remarkable Fires in Edinburgh: From 1385 to 1824, Including an Account of the Great Fire of Nov. 1824 (Edinburgh: Chas. Smith & Co, 1824)
Rodger, Richard, The transformation of Edinburgh, land, property and trust in the nineteenth century (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2001)
Gifford, John; Mc William, Collin; Walker, David, The buildings of Scotland Edinburgh (Middlesex: Peguin Books, 1984)
Coghill, Hamish, Lost Edinburgh, Edinburgh’s lost architectural heritage (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2014)