In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edinburgh

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Legal
  • Archaeology
  • Online Primary Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Edinburgh
Aaron Allen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0516


In 1995, Edinburgh was granted World Heritage Site status. Settlement is known to have been on Edinburgh’s Castle Rock since at least the late bronze or early iron age. Indeed, the defensibility of this site is a key theory as to why settlement would form atop a rocky outcrop, uphill and so far away from fresh water or the sea. Traditionally, Edinburgh Castle was known as the Maidens’ Castle because it could apparently keep safe the daughters of Pictish kings. This tradition certainly had currency when Braun and Hogenberg’s 16th-century atlas of towns, or Civitates Orbis Terrarium, labeled the castle, “Castrum puellarum.” While the veracity of this explanation is yet to be firmly established, it is much clearer that monarchy and trade played crucial roles in the ascendancy of Edinburgh. E. Patricia Dennison, in Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Years of History, records that the castle had been a royal residence since at least the reign of Malcolm III (r. 1058–1093), if not earlier (p. 2). By the reign of James III, it was the capital, as depicted in Michael Lynch’s chapter, “Edinburgh: 1. to 1650” (in The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, p. 218). While defense was a key consideration, trade also played an important role. The town had “royal burgh” status—and privileges—from at least the reign of David I (r. 1124–1153), but it was the capture of the larger Berwick-upon-Tweed by the English (especially in 1333, though it changed hands several times before 1482) that led to the wool trade moving north, and Edinburgh developing as the economic leader of Scotland’s burghs (ibid.). While suburban settlements, many of which were competing burghs or regality or barony, would offer alternatives to living in Edinburgh, corporatism and privilege encouraged residency within the town walls, leading to a densely packed built environment, despite the limited access to water. Milling developed along the Water of Leith, and deepwater port facilities were sought in the town of Leith on the Firth of Forth. While this short introduction simply cannot do justice to so important a city, the thematically structured bibliography in this article will point to more thorough assessments. After a note of general histories of Edinburgh, thematic sections explore the scholarship of religious, political, economic, social, cultural, legal, and medical histories of Renaissance and Reformation Edinburgh, followed by a selection of the archaeological reports of excavations undertaken in the Scottish capital. Additionally, there is a note on several important online repositories of primary and secondary sources. Many good studies of the capital have been written, but it is important to note the need for further work.

General Overviews

Several narrative histories of the Scottish capital are available, ranging from scholarly to popular in focus. While Edinburgh certainly featured in earlier chorographic texts, such as James Gordon of Rothiemay’s 17th-century “Edinburgi Descriptio,” it was apparently not until the mid-eighteenth century that a full book about just Edinburgh (Maitland) was actually published. Subsequent works covered a range of both scholarly and anecdotal topics, and most include valuable images of the built environment. While there was a good popular history of Edinburgh published in recent years, and there are excellent shorter pieces, it is notable that one must go back thirty years for the last book-length academic study of Edinburgh in the general history offerings included in this section.

  • Arnot, Hugo. The History of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1779.

    The second earliest full history of Edinburgh alone, covering the period from 1093 to 1779. Written by the advocate, satirist, and historian, Hugo Arnot, and covering topics such as prices, institutions, and public buildings.

  • Fry, Michael. Edinburgh: A History of the City. Edinburgh: Macmillan, 2009.

    A popular history written by a journalist, this was intended to be a “general” single-volume history of the development of Edinburgh, beginning with geological formations and ending with the period of the building of the new Scottish Parliament, with particular interests in biography and architecture.

  • Gordon of Rothiemay, James. “Edinburgi Descriptio.” In Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland Made by Walter MacFarlane. Vol. 2. Edited by A. Mitchell, l–li, 623–640. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1907.

    A 17th-century chorographic account of the Scottish capital, written by the Episcopalian parson and mapmaker, James Gordon of Rothiemay. Latin and English versions were included in the Scottish History Society’s critical edition of the MacFarlane geographical collections relating to Scotland.

  • Grant, James. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, Its People, and Its Places. 3 vols. London: Cassell, 1884–1887.

    A detailed, street-by-street history of the capital, mainly organized by place, rich in detail, and lavishly illustrated. Multiple editions.

  • Lynch, Michael. “Edinburgh: 1. to 1650.” In The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Edited by Michael Lynch, 217–219. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    An introductory text on the socioeconomic, religious, and political history of the Scottish capital from the twelfth century to the eve of the mid-17th-century civil wars. Written by one of the foremost urban historians of Scotland, who formerly held the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography.

  • Maitland, William. The History of Edinburgh, from its Foundation to the Present Time. Edinburgh: Hamilton, Balfour and Neill, 1753.

    The first known history specifically of Edinburgh, written by a “hair merchant” from Brechin, who also wrote histories of London and of Scotland. Not always accurate, but based on actual archival research with a series of contemporary illustrations. If treated with caution, can be very useful.

  • McKean, Charles. Edinburgh: Portrait of a City. London: Century, 1991.

    A narrative history of Edinburgh written by a noted architectural historian, covering the settlement from the period of the Winged Camp, as Ptolemy named the hillfort that would become Edinburgh Castle, to beyond the “Athens of the North,” with particular attention on the development of professions and culture.

  • Robertson, David, Richard H. Blum, Marguerite Wood, and Frank Charles Mears. Edinburgh, 1329–1929. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1929.

    To commemorate the sexcentenary of a charter from Robert the Bruce, the town council commissioned a five-hundred-page history of the town, with the first part recording the 1929 celebrations, and the larger second part taking a thematic approach to the municipal structures and institutions of Edinburgh from the medieval period to the twentieth century.

  • Robertson, David, and Marguerite Wood. Castle and Town: Chapters in the History of the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928.

    An illustrated popular history written by a town clerk and a city archivist, with some good detail, organized into wide-ranging themes across eleven chapters, with topics ranging from the North Loch, Cromwell and Leith, to merchants and markets.

  • Wilson, Daniel. Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Hugh Paton, 1848.

    An illustrated, antiquarian history of Edinburgh that focuses on political narrative and topography. Preface not only critiques the previous historiography of the town, but also claims to have striven for accuracy.

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