Planes, trains and horse-drawn trams

Trams have once again been sighted on the streets of Edinburgh and so, what better opportunity to delve into our archives to find out how the citizens of Edinburgh got about town in centuries past.
Corporation Bus Princes StreetNot so very long ago, our ancestors had to rely on their own two feet or horse-power to travel. A succession of developments in transport benefited not only trade and industry, but also gave people the means to escape the city to the seaside, countryside or suburbia.

Our latest story on Our Town Stories, Edinburgh by road, rail and waterway, is your historical passport to getting around town.

Online exhibition tells the story of the Usher Hall

Our new online exhibition tells the story of Edinburgh’s landmark concert venue.

In 1896, Andrew Usher, a member of the distilling and brewing family with a passion for music, gifted £100,000 to the city of Edinburgh for the purpose of building a music hall.

Usher wanted to put quality concerts within the reach of people from all classes – but he would die in 1898, never to see his generosity and vision realised.

It was only in 1911, after several sites and designs were considered, that the foundation stone was finally laid by the King and Queen.

Three years later, on March 6th 1914, The Usher Hall opened its doors for its first ever concert.

Visit Capital Collections to discover the proposed site at the west end of the Meadows and the school that was demolished to make way for the concert building.

Concert programmes and leaflets give a flavour of the performances and star turns that have appeared over the years.

Images of City Organist John Kitchen and choir rehearsals give a glimpse behind the scenes at the present-day Usher Hall.

The National Covenant

364 years ago, King Charles I was executed for treason. England and Scotland were shocked at what was seen as the murder of their king. But what role did Scotland play in the wars which led to the abolition of the monarchy?
National Covenant on Capital Collections

Edinburgh in the mid 17th century was a hotbed of religious and political dissent, and you can still see some of the key sites in the city centre which were stages to some gruesome and turbulent events. Our friends in Edinburgh Museums and Galleries have added a fascinating new exhibition to Capital Collections where you can find out all about the National Covenant – the people’s petition against the King’s changes to their religion.
Or visit the Museum of Edinburgh to see the real thing for yourself!

Ten things you never knew about Edinburgh

Our Town Stories brings Edinburgh’s history to life with maps, photographs and (of course) stories. Here are ten surprising facts about our city taken from the site.

1. Edinburgh is home to the world’s first municipal fire service.

2. 200 000 people travelled on the Union Canal in 1836

3. Agatha Christie got married in Edinburgh

4. The one o’clock Gun is the legacy of a complex time service which entailed a 4,000 foot long cable being hung across the city.

5. The Sea Serpent Rotary Boat, Velocipede Merry-Go-Round, and the Planetarium Swing were among the rides enjoyed by Victorian Edinburgh’s pleasure seekers.

6. The character of Long John Silver was inspired by a patient at the Royal Infirmary.

7. In 1916 a polar bear escaped from his enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo, climbing into a paddock with buffaloes and bison. They promptly made an attack and he fled back to his own enclosure.

8. Arthur’s Seat has prompted unusual building schemes including a heather-roofed tea-room.

9. Edinburgh was home to a bagpiping nine-year old suffragette.

10. Charles Darwin was among the Edinburgh University Students taught by a freed slave.

Find out more about the hidden history of our city on Our Town Stories.

The Green Pencil Award goes to…

Congratulations to Leith Primary School’s Jack Elliott, winner of this year’s Green Pencil Award for creative writing on an environmental theme.

Twenty finalists attended the awards ceremony at Central Library, where Jack was presented with the overall prize by Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin.

Green Pencil Award Finalists

And here’s the poem that beat off more than 800 other entries from schools across Edinburgh to claim the coveted trophy.

Weather Banter

My cousin said

“It’s raining cats and dogs”

(Why doesn’t it rain ferrets?)

Dad mutters,

“It’s the fine rain that gets you wet”

(Yeah yeah, how does that work?)

Mum moaned

“It might be an Indian Summer this year”

(What about our summer?)

The old lady croaked

“It’s bucketing down son”

(Um, ok?!)

My Granny laughed

“It’s awfy muggy”

(You have lots of mugs already Gran!)

The Green Pencil Award is run by Edinburgh City Libraries and Eco-Schools in Edinburgh with sponsorship from Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature, Scottish Book Trust,  Scottish Poetry Library, Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Seabird Centre, SEPA, Camera Obscura  and The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland who provided prizes for all the winners.

See the full list of finalists and find out more about the Green Pencil Award.

Edinburgh: A New Approach

James Skene (1775-1864), advocate, antiquarian and confidant of Sir Walter Scott, had a profound sense of Edinburgh as a changing city. In the early 19th century, he witnessed, at first hand, the demolition of parts of an increasingly unfashionable Old Town as it made way for the New Town of Edinburgh. He remembered the opening of the South Bridge which had dramatically altered the character of the Cowgate, and, later, observed the new western development of the Old Town – and with it, the partial destruction of the Old West Bow and the construction of Johnston Terrace.

The imposing outline of Edinburgh Castle, “overtopping the whole city… and dominating for miles on every side on every side” is at the centre of this water colour drawing by James Skene. Formation of the new west road under Edinburgh Castle by James Skene At the top right hand corner, the semi-circular half-moon battery is plainly visible.  The battery was built in 1588 as part of a new defence system following the destruction of David’s Tower during the course of a two year siege – the Lang Siege – by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, and Regent of James VI of Scotland. Immediately beneath castle rock, at the bottom left, there are signs of engineering work.  The beginnings of a new Edinburgh approach road are being cut out of the castle rock.  The road, contouring the southern flanks of the Castle and connecting the Lawnmarket with the King’s Bridge (crossing King’s Stables Road) is now known as Johnston Terrace.

Skene was an inveterate draughtsman who had an eye for architectural detail.  He recorded the changing face of Edinburgh in a series of over 200 watercolour drawings, and, following an abortive collaboration with Sir Walter Scott, an accompanying journal, known as Reekiana.  These now form part of the Special Collections of Edinburgh Libraries.

Over the past year, Alastair Learmont, a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh – and a former practising advocate himself– has been researching the background of James Skene’s Reekiana.  His work has culminated in a story using Skene’s own words and paintings to provide a remarkably vivid account of Edinburgh during the 19th century. Read it on Our Town Stories: James Skene’s Reekiana: a Changing City

Coming soon… Previously

Now in its third year, Previously…the festival of Scottish History, just gets bigger and better. Here are four ways you can get involved:

1. Share your memories of Corstorphine

Corstorphine residents past and present are invited to the library at 6.30pm on Wednesday 20th November, for an illustrated talk on the history of the village followed by your opportunity to share a Corstorphine memory or anecdote. If you’ve got something you’d like to share contact Corstorphine Library in advance so we can make sure there’s time to fit everyone in. 

2. Celebrate one of Edinburgh’s most famous sons

UN739 RLS Day 2012 Block

Mark Robert Louis Stevenson Day on 13 November with walks, talks and afternoon tea.

3. Join The Big Book Club

Join the biggest Book Club ever as we discuss ‘The Glorious Thing’ by Christine Orr. Set in Edinburgh in 1916, this funny, sometimes tragic, beautifully written novel centres on a group of young people trying to find their place in society. Orr examines the changing role of women, politics and religion against the backdrop of the First World War. Contact for your free copy of the book in advance of the event and book online to reserve places for your book group.

4. Explore Edinburgh’s hidden past

Our Town Stories brings the hidden stories from Edinburgh’s past to life with some amazing photographs. Find out about the country’s oldest fire brigade and read the story of the nine-year-old suffragette.

There are well over 200 other events to choose from – visit the Previously… site for details

Time to get up and go!

It’s that time of year again when the much in-demand Get Up and Go brochures, listing activities for over 50s in Edinburgh, start appearing in your local library.

But did you know that you can access the full Get Up and Go programme online via Your Edinburgh, Edinburgh Libraries’ community information portal?

Search by location or keyword to find out what’s happening in your neighbourhood. The Get Up and Go information on Your Edinburgh is updated throughout the year, so it’s well worth bookmarking

The art of Walter Geikie

Walter Geikie was deaf, dumb and colour blind. He was also a very gifted artist with a keen sense of humour and a talent for conveying expression, as this 1841 Grassmarket scene shows.

Through paintings, etchings and drawings Geikie captured both the city and its people as they went about their daily business. His portrayals of the poor are more sympathetic than typical representations of ordinary people at the time, which tended to be grotesque or moralising.

The importance of Geikie’s work is recognised in a major new exhibition at the City Art Centre.

If you’re unable to attend you can still get a close-up view of Geikie’s work via the online exhibition on Capital Collections and read more about his life in an illustrated biography on Our Town Stories.

The City Art Centre exhibition runs until March 2014.

Edinburgh and the slave trade

Port of Leith 1843

Port of Leith 1843

Edinburgh’s links with the slave trade are perhaps not as well documented as those of some other British cities, but Our Town Stories shines a light on this oft-neglected aspect of the city’s past.

Discover the significance of Jock’s Lodge and find out which major historical figure was taught by a former slave at Edinburgh University.

There’s also a fascinating overview of Edinburgh’s anti-slavery movement. Read about the infamous case of Joseph Knight and learn which major Edinburgh landmark commemorates a man who did his best to delay the abolition of slavery.

South Queensferry’s War

Here in South Queensferry we’re gearing up for a series of talks on different aspects First World War.

These will take place at Queensferry Community High School from 6.30 – 7.30pm  – email or call 0131 529 5576 to book a place.

Researching your World War One Family (9 October)

Using your own family history to help uncover details about your World War One family and discovering what local and web based resources are available to help you in your research.

A World War One Overview (23 October)

An overview of the First World War, covering the causes, main events and its aftermath. Highlighting Scotland’s role and shifting the focus away from the Western Front to include the theatres in a global war.

Scottish émigrés in World War One (13 November)

Thousands of Scots émigrés or their sons and daughters enlisted in the Forces of Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, and registered in the 1917-1918 United States Draft. It is now recognised that significant numbers made the journey back to Scotland to enlist.

Medical and Nursing Management of WW1 Casualties (27 November)

The work of the army medical and nursing service in relation to the care and evacuation of casualties from the fighting front to Home Front hospitals.

Edinburgh’s Pioneer Photographers

Edinburgh Libraries is home to a wonderful collection of early photography featuring work by pioneers of the form such as Hill and Adamson and Thomas Keith.  Over the summer we put together a series of films highlighting some of the hidden gems in this collection.

The first film features a volume of work by the Edinburgh Calotype Club from 1842, a club who listed  William Fox Talbot, the pioneer of the Calotype process, as one of its members.  The Edinburgh Calotype Club is the oldest photographic club in the world and we have one of only two photograph albums known to have been produced by the group.   The film goes on to explore some of the photos taken David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson including a fantastic picture of the half-completed Scott Monument taken around 1845.

The second film takes a look at the work of Thomas Keith and Archibald Burns.  In this film we’ll see how Edinburgh’s early photographers took inspiration from their city. It also shows how photography was being used as a tool to record social change and was becoming a way to earn a living by fulfilling the tourist demand for souvenir pictures.

Through the work of David Doull and George Morham,  film 3 explores the Victorian fascination with studio photography and the camera’s role in family memento.

David Doull was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and was one of the founder members of the Edinburgh Photographic Society in 1861.  Doull specialised in studio portraiture and the portraits in this film were taken at his studio in Lauriston Place between 1865 and 1867.

George Morham was an amateur photographer and Central Library is home to one of his family albums which dates from the 1880s.  The photos were all taken by Morham, father and head of the household.  Through his pictures we have a unique and unusually informal insight to Victorian family life.

Of the films Clare Padgett of Edinburgh Libraries commented: “We wanted to let more people see these amazing early photographs from our collections. And we realised that by making a narrative of the pictures through film, they could tell the story of the birth of photography, its use in social history and the camera’s role in recording everyday life. They offer a unique view of Victorian Edinburgh and the architectural and social change taking place at the time. But more than anything, they’re just wonderful pictures that are now available to everyone online.”

Explore this topic further by visiting Capital Collections and Our Town Stories.

Wonderful Edinburgh Windows

Library PrintLook out for the Central Library’s amazing “Discover Edinburgh” windows on George IV Bridge if you are passing!  You’ll see the city as you’ve never seen it before, with its streets, shops and buildings captured in beautiful, unique drawings. These have been created by Edinburgh-based artist Eilidh Muldoon, who took part in our Central Inspiration exhibition in 2012 with Edinburgh College of Art.Eilidh Windows Postcards with Eilidh’s stunning drawing of the Central Library are available for purchase from the lending library or you can see more of her work at

Literary Edinburgh in Photographs

This month’s Fine Art Library exhibition features work by the Edinburgh Digital Photography Meetup Group on the theme of “Literary Edinburgh”.

Fine Art Poste

The Edinburgh Digital Photography Meetup Group was established in 2009 with the aim of giving digital photographers a means to connect and provide a focus for their creativity.

Earlier this year the group held a number of events focused around the theme “Literary Edinburgh”. We asked our members to produce a photograph that reflects the literary history of Edinburgh and the inspiration it has provided to authors over the years. This exhibition is the result of a number of events that took place throughout the city and demonstrates the diverse creativity in the group.

Membership of the group is free, for more details please visit our website

Calling all budding photographers and festival-goers!

This one’s for you if you’ve been out and about town over the festival and captured the colour, energy, diversity and enjoyment of life in the city during August.

The City of Edinburgh Council are asking you to share your best festival photo with them on Pinterest for the chance to win a top-of-the-range tablet! The closing date for entries is 13th September so there’s still time to get out there and record the Mela experience or the end of Festival Fireworks this weekend. Or you can even plunder the past and submit one of your favourites from any of Edinburgh’s 12 festivals from years gone by.

Here’s a typical shot from our archives taken from our Festival City exhibition on Capital Collections:Performer outside National Gallery, the Mound, during the Edinburgh Festival

Full competition details including terms and conditions can be found at the council’s Pinterest festivals photography competition web page.

Good luck!

Ruth Thomas, author of “The Home Corner” at Corstorphine Library

A real treat. Ruth Thomas, author of “The Home Corner” is coming to Corstorphine Library next week. Ruth’s Edinburgh based novel has had some quite incredible reviews:

‘Ruth Thomas is a brilliant chronicler and observer of the hum-drumness of everyday life and this is a wonderfully funny and poignant story about how unsettling the transition from childhood to adulthood can be.’ Carla McKay, Daily Mail 

‘Thomas writes Luisa’s story with a deft touch and a subtle lyricism … [her] portrayal of the struggles and anxieties of late-adolescence are truly excellent and the empathy with which the story is treated create a warm, engrossing novel.’ Daniel Davies, The Skinny 

‘Novelists have been productively mining material from the mid-life crisis for decades. But middle age isn’t the only danger zone… and Thomas does justice to the existential terror surrounding that yawning chasm called ‘the rest of your life’” Alastair Mabbott, The Herald 
‘A lovely novel. It is so melancholy and true and funny too.’ Shena Mackay
‘This is no teenage coming-of-age novel but a reckoning of the space each of us occupies in the adult world. The second novel from award-winning British short story writer Ruth Thomas, The Home Corner has the layered feel and texture of a short story but the impetus of an intriguing novel. There’s a self-deprecating humour and a subtle sadness in what passes for ordinary life. As a philosophical meditation on the paths not taken, it excels.’ Sunday Business Post
Impressive, huh? Ruth will be at Corstorphine Library from 6.30pm on Wednesday 7th august. If you’re planning on coming along do let us know by calling 0131 529 550 / emailing

And even if you can’t make it along we’d still recommend you reserve a copy of the book to see what all the fuss is about.

Zoo(m) lens at the ready

We visited our friends at Edinburgh Zoo recently to add to our bank of images recording the history of the zoo and its inhabitants. The full archive is on Capital Collections but here’s a sneak preview, just for you.

It’s been that kind of summer hasn’t it? The greater one-horned rhinocerous has the right idea – a nice snooze in a cool pool.

“Yes this is my best side”. This meerkat knows how to strike a pose.

We couldn’t leave out the pandas could we? Here’s Yang Guang smiling for the camera while snacking on some bamboo.

Loads more like these on Capital Collections. Enjoy, and look out for more Zoo history later this week…