The thread about a remarkable view of Edinburgh in 1750; what we can see of a city whose landscape was about to be changed forever

This thread was originally written and published in October 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

The British Library has done great things for the accessibility of the images in their collection by putting many of them at high resolution on Flickr, with a rights-free access. One such image is an absolutely glorious 1750s watercolour painted from the Castle Hill in 1750 by Paul Sandby, showing Edinburgh on the cusp of the great transition which would drain the Nor Loch, build the New Town and North Bridge, and change the city forever. One of the main things is just how big Calton Hill appears, as it’s been built upon and what we think of now as the hill is just the top poking out. Also the Castle Esplanade has not yet been landscaped

The BL King’s Topographical Collection: "Edinburgh & the north lock with the bank on which the new town is built."
“Edinburgh & the north lock [sic] with the bank on which the new town is built”, Paul Sandby, c. 1750

The young Paul Sandby had a position first in the Military Drawing Department in London, and then as a draughtsman with the Board of Ordnance under Lt. Col. David Watson. At this time Watson was engaged in surveying and mapping almost the whole of the country of Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It was Watson who headed up the military survey of Scotland and who was involved in appointing William Roy as its cartographer.

Sandby was employed to translate Roy and Watson’s surveying triangulations onto the paper as maps, and in summer he would join some of the surveying expeditions to make detailed and accurate landscape illustrations of important military features such as castles. He was not just a very good draughtsman, he turned out to be an exceptionally talented landscape artist. These watercolours show a striking accuracy and an attention to detail for the topography and lighting that make them particularly realistic. In his down time, Paul started making quick sketches and watercolours of the Scottish landscape and its people, documenting the country around him at the time.

He left military employ in 1751 to become an artist and became known for making “real views from nature in this Country“. Paul’s older brother, Thomas, was also an artist and surveyor. He was the personal draughtsman to the Duke of Cumberland (or Butcher Cumberland, depending on your point of view), and it may have been his influence that secured Paul his position and from whom Paul got his early artistic training. He also made good sketches and illustrations of Scotland, including a few of Edinburgh.

Paul Sandby by Francis Cotes
Paul Sandby by Francis Cotes

So let’s immerse ourselves on a little tour of this part of Edinburgh in 1750; I’ll try and highlight some of the interesting features in it, concentrating on the things you can no longer see. Before we get going, two of the most striking topographical features are; just how big Calton Hill appears as it’s been built upon (what we think of now as the hill is just the top poking out) and that the Castle Esplanade has not yet been levelled and landscaped, instead it was fairly rough ground, an extension of the Castle Hill and a favoured place to promenade by the city’s upper classes.

Let’s start on the left. First up we see the “North Flanker” of the Castle’s outer defences, one of a pair of arrowhead bastions defending the outer gatehouse still there (in a remodelled manner) to this day.

The “North Flanker”

An earlier image, from about 60 years previous, by John Slezer – a Dutch or German surveyor who made a number of sketches and stylistic maps of the City – shows where Sandby’s vantage point was (red arrow). Also shown are the West Kirk or St. Cuthbert’s (orange arrow) and the Castle wellhouse tower remains (blue).

Slezszer's "The North Side of the Castle of Edenborrow" © Edinburgh City Libraries
Slezszer’s “The North Side of the Castle of Edenborrow” © Edinburgh City Libraries

On the shores of the Forth we can see North Leith and Newhaven (yellow), South Leith (green), St. Mary’s Kirk (blue) and the first of the glassworks cones (red), which had relocated to this spot only 2 or 3 years previously from North Leith. Not marked to the right of the glass cone is a windmill – used for crushing lead ore (a key ingredient in making crystal glass) – and the long, low sheds of the roperies – the principal, shore-based industry of Leith at the time. Sandby made other sketches and watercolours overlooking Leith too.


Where Princes St. now runs, is a narrow, walled roadway, the Lang Dykes or Lang Gait (Scots for the long walls or long road – marked in red). In green is the little village of Picardy, established in 1730 to accommodate French weavers brought in to improve the local industry. Also, houses belonging to Sim (blue) and Hogg of Moultrieshill (yellow).

The Lang Gait

About 40 years after Sandby, the prolific watercolourist John Clerk of Eldin made a good illustration of Picardy, taken from the north slopes of the Calton Hill. We can see it is something of a model village, to its right is the house of the amusingly named Mr Spankie.

Picardy, by John Clerk of Eldin. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Picardy, by John Clerk of Eldin. © Edinburgh City Libraries

South of the Lang Gait is the area of fields and parkland (green) known as the Barefoot’s Park, and south again the blue area of the Nor’ Loch. At this point it would have been a partially drained swamp, and we can see this in the image with a lot of marshy ground breaking its surface. In orange is an area of quarrying where the Waverley “Mall” now sits. Poking out at the bottom in yellow is a collection of buildings around the old Castle wellhouse fortifications, which were used by skinners and tanners in the dirty business of processing the hides of the animals slaughtered at the eastern end of the Loch in the fleshmarkets.

Barerfoot's Park and the Nor' Loch.
Barefoot’s Park and the Nor’ Loch.
The fleshmarkets (left) and premises of the skinners and tanners (right) from John Slezer's "Edinburgh and the North Loch", c. 1673. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Seen from the north bank of the Loch, the fleshmarkets (left) and premises of the skinners and tanners (right) from John Slezer’s “Edinburgh and the North Loch”, c. 1673. © Edinburgh City Libraries

In yellow is the collection of houses around Moutrie’s or Multer’s Hill (now styled Multrees), roughly where the Register House was soon to be built. In red, the tenements along Leith Wynd of the High and Low Calton. And on the hill (green) the Old Calton Burial Ground, later cut through by Waterloo Place. This cemetery was for the citizens of the Burgh of the Calton, most of whom were – for reasons of historical land ownership patterns – actually in the parish of South Leith, which was inconvenient for burial purposes.

Moutrie's Hill and the Calton
Moutrie’s Hill and the Calton

At the head of the Nor’ Loch, below the medieval dam which held back its filthy waters, was the Physick Garden, where medicinal herbs and plants were cultivated. This institution was a direct fore-runner of the Royal Botanic Garden, it had moved here from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1675 and would move again, to a location alongside Leith Walk, in 1763, before its final journey to Inverleith. By it are Trinity College Kirk (yellow) and Hospital (blue) and behind (red) is Paul’s Work, a charitable poorhouse which by this time had evolved into a “house of correction” or workhouse.

The Physick Garden, Trinity College & Hospital
Trinity College Kirk from the old Physick Garden in the early-mid 19th century.
Trinity College Kirk from the old Physick Garden in the early-mid 19th century.

On the north slopes of the Castle Hill, is Alan Ramsay’s house and garden (no guesses where they took the name Ramsay Garden for the Victorian fantasia which now occupies this site from – Ramsay’s house was incorporated into it). Ramsay’s original house was built about 1740 and was known as the Guse Pye (Goose Pie) on account of its tall, octagonal form.

Goose Pie House

On the right in blue are the tall tenements (at least 9 or 10 storeys tall) of the Castlehill. The lower structures are clearly damaged, most likely from the brief siege of the ’45 when the Castle’s guns were turned on the Jacobites and the castle garrison sallied forth to burn the closest buildings to deny them as cover to the Jacobite pickets. Note in this image and the previous there are groups of well attired women and men promenading on the footpaths where the Esplanade would later be constructed.

The Castlehill
The Castlehill

Less distinct – but take my word for it they are there! – we can make out Pilrig House (red) in the lands between Edinburgh and Leith, and down by Leith Links are two big houses, probably Coatfield Mains and Hermitage House (in yellow).

In the distance
In the distance

Sandby’s work (like Slezer before him) is an invaluable record of what Edinburgh and Leith looked like at this time, when there are relatively few artists active in documenting what this part of the world looked like. They are an accurate reference point to compare with the maps of this time and also the plethora of Victorian engravings which frequently fill in the gaps with romantic speculation. If you’d like to see more of Sandby’s extensive back catalogue, look no further than the National Galleries of Scotland’s online collection.

n.b. this thread was originally written a full 9 days before a very similar article about the same picture coincidentally appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News. You read it on Twitter first!

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


  1. […] The Barefoot’s Park from the Castle in 1750 by Paul Sandby, with the corner of its walls on the left. The is looking north, with the partially drained swamp of the Nor’ Loch in the valley below. The Jacobites would have fled around this area. The line of walls is the Lang Dykes, an old roadway approximately on the line of Princes Street. […]


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