Could this be the first ever panoramic view?

Sometime in the mid-1780s, Robert Barker was out for a walk on Calton Hill when it occurred to him how it might be possible to record the cityscape – the entire 360 degree view from one spot. The idea was to use a fixed square frame, and to draw the view seen through it, rotate the frame and draw the next section and so on until returned to the starting point. And so, he instructed his 12 year old son, Henry Aston to draw the scenes.

Panoramic view from Calton Hill (section 6)

Barker discovered that the viewing experience was to be as important as the picture itself. He devised a circular viewing space which would display a large-scale painting made from Henry’s drawings. The space would be lit from above, with a fixed viewing platform in the middle accessed from below. He took a patent out on this ‘entire new Contrivance’.  At the second attempt, he secured financial backing for the project and a larger version of the image was painted on canvas measuring 25 feet in diameter. It first went on display in 1788 and was exhibited in different locations in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The principal established and patent acquired, this new way of seeing the world had arrived!

Barker turned his sights on London, where he hoped to establish a long-term enterprise. He sent Henry to draw the view of the city from a roof on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. This time the depiction was to be bigger and better.

The London viewings were very successful and it was only then that friends of Barker coined the word panorama to mean ‘all embracing view’ and the invention was fully fledged.  In 1792, Barker built a rotunda according to his patent design, named the Panorama. It was able to exhibit two panorama paintings, one 90 feet in diameter on the ground floor and another 50 feet in diameter on the upper level. Spectators were charged one shilling per panorama. To a general populace unfamiliar with visual imagery or travel impact of the all-encompassing view must have been spellbinding.

The business thrived and Henry Aston, who was the chief artist for the panoramas made several trips abroad to record panoramic views of cities and depictions of battle scenes.  When Barker’s patent expired in 1801, other businesses were able to spring up and panoramas were exhibited in London, and other large towns and cities and toured to the United States. Henry Aston took over the business when his father died in 1806. He focused when possible, on topical scenes and his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo was so successful that it contributed to his early retirement at the age of 48.
Zoom into Panorama The version we have of the panorama from Calton Hill is a six part reproduction of the painting aquatinted by J. Wells dating from 1790. With the aid of 21st century technology our photographer has stitched the panorama sections together so that you can traverse the city scene from over 200 years ago! Zoom into the detail (by clicking on the picture with Capital Collections) and see if you can spot the women drying their washing on Calton Hill, the Botanic Cottage on Leith Walk, the pottery kilns at Leith and the strangely Modernist structures and neatly kept garden of the City Observatory.

Browse the sections and the complete panorama on Capital Collections.

Discover more about Barker’s Panorama phenomenon at The Regency Redingote blog.

An Edinburgh home guard mystery

When Marjory Langdon was sorting through her possessions in preparation for moving house she was not expecting to unearth a mystery hidden for over 70 years. In a spare bedroom cupboard she found a framed drawing of an exotic looking lady. She thought she’d check if there was any information about the sitter on the back of the drawing. What she found instead though, tucked behind the portrait, was an Edinburgh newspaper from 1940 which concealed a hand-drawn map of Edinburgh relating to the Second World War.
Local Defence Volunteers posts and road blocksThe map of the Mortonhall area was a detailed plan of Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) posts and road blocks. The LDV or Home Guard as they are better known had a strong presence throughout this city, but the map focussed on two platoons based at Mortonhall. It may have been felt that there was a greater need for the LDV to be based around this area as there was an army camp built here. The camp may have been a prisoner of war camp, but it is more likely that it was for displaced Europeans.

Home Guard 1940 Home Guards patrol a section of canal in Edinburgh in a motor boat armed with rifles and a mounted Lewis gun, 19 October 1940.

Home Guard 1940, patrolling the Union Canal. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums –

Mrs Langdon was kind enough to donate her discoveries to Edinburgh Libraries along with some family photographs of Home Guard battalions. This sparked our imagination to find out more about Edinburgh’s own Dad’s Army. By 1940 4000 men had volunteered in Edinburgh and although often the butt of jokes i.e. that LDV stood for the Look, Duck and Vanish Brigade, they did serious work in Edinburgh such as creating the first Home Guard Anti-Aircraft rocket batteries and bringing down a German plane.

Edinburgh's 1st Battalion Home Guard, 1944

Edinburgh’s 1st Battalion Home Guard, 1944

See our Capital Collection’s Edinburgh’s Home Guard exhibition to read about what it was like to be a member of the LDV in Edinburgh and and to see the full suite of images including the mystery lady in the drawing.

Shakespeare Square: a long gone corner of Edinburgh

As you probably know, 2016 will see a host of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

But did you know that a corner of Edinburgh city centre, now long gone, was named after the bard?

Shakespeare Square, ‘mean in architecture and disreputable in character’, housed the Theatre Royal from 1769 until its demolition in 1859.

Grieves’ 1784 plan of Edinburgh, which you can view in more detail on Our Town Stories, shows exactly where Shakespeare Square was located.

1784 mapWe have several images of the Theatre Royal itself on Capital Collections. This engraving by Thomas Shepherd shows the building as it looked up until 1830. The statue on the point of the roof is of Shakespeare himself.

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John Le Conte’s watercolour below shows how the facade of the theatre was rebuilt and shows a little more of the surrounding area.

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Walter Scott was closely linked to the theatre. A a young advocate he was caught up in a riot when some members of the audience refused to stand for the national anthem, and later on his operatic version of Rob Roy became one of the theatres’s greatest successes.

Thomas Begbie’s photograph dates from 1852:

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By this time the theatre’s best days were behind it, and several years later was demolished to make way for the grand Victorian Post Office building, which still stands there today.

Post Office, 1880. George Washington Wilson

The foundation stone was laid on 23rd October 1861 by Prince Albert. On the same day he laid another foundation stone at what would be the site of the museum on Chambers Street.

It’s a dog’s life. Edinburgh through Greyfriars Bobby’s eyes

Take a trip round Edinburgh as Bobby would have know it with Our Town Stories’ Greyfriars Bobby Trail.


And if you’re free this lunchtime there’s a Commemoration Ceremony at Greyfriars Kirkyard at 12.50pm, led by Donald Wilson, Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh.

Stop the press! And stop the pigeon! Memories of an Edinburgh Evening News reporter

The late Bill Rae began work as a copy boy on the Evening News at the age of 17. His career as a reporter began after he returned from National Service at the age of 20.

His family have been kind enough to share with us some of his memories from early days at the paper, which we are proud to publish here.

Bill’s recollections are illustrated by pictures of the 1940s case room which was overseen at the time by his grandfather, John Henderson.

In his reminiscences he referred to the newspaper as the ‘old’ Edinburgh Evening News:

‘I use the word “old” because in 1945 the dear old News was a world away from the slick colour tabloid it is today….

In those days, working on an evening newspaper was probably the most stressful form of journalism one could choose. Talk about working against the clock!

….There were four editions each day Monday to Friday… Between each edition there was barely one hour, so no sooner had one edition gone to press than everyone was working for the next, sweating at a typewriter and glancing at that newsroom clock again. …

Edinburgh Evening News case room

Edinburgh Evening News case room

The offices on the corner of Market Street and Cockburn Street were a clear architectural graft of the old and the new. Stand at that end of Waverley Bridge and look skywards… On the top floor, at the very corner of the Victorian building, is the Turret Window… If your eyesight is good, you will see a tiny door. This was where the News carrier pigeons entered the building. My grandfather, who for many years was caseroom overseer, told me that as the pigeons alighted an electric bell rang downstairs in the caseroom, and a boy was dispatched to retrieve the brief message from the bird’s leg.

When a reporter had been sent to, let’s say, a press conference, the normal form of communications was to find a telephone (no mobile phones in those days) and read a selection of quotes from one’s uncertain shorthand notes to a copytaker in the newsroom. Mission accomplished, subside and light a cigarette.

Staff in the Edinburgh Evening News case room

Staff in the Edinburgh Evening News case room

…On an evening paper, who had time to re-write anything? Correct the grammar, and punctuate: that was about it. Add a heading. Get it to the caseroom, quick! This was accomplished either by pneumatic tube, or by a gently clattering overhead railway which moved across the newsroom unendingly before disappearing in the wall…

The machine room, with its great presses, was to me the most awesome in the building. It was rather frightening. When the presses were in full throttle, speech was impossible… It was always a relief to step outside the machine room, into the much less noisy Despatch Department, with men bundling up the orders with great rolls of hairy string. In Market Street stood the line of distinctive silver and copper delivery vans….”

View the exhibition of pictures from Bill and his grandfather’s bygone days of news production in Edinburgh on Capital Collections.

Edinburgh’s secret stories

Did you know that some of Edinburgh’s grandest buildings, such as Fettes College and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, were originally built as homes and schools for some of the city’s poorest children?

Fettes College, 1875

Fettes College, 1875

Find out more at Our Town Stories, where you can also uncover some more secrets of our city’s past:

And if that’s not enough here are ten more things you never knew about Edinburgh.

A time-traveller’s map of Edinburgh

We had a great reaction to our recent post about the fantastic ‘then and now’ photographs on the Our Town Stories site.

But did you know the site also has historical maps of our city? These are superimposed over a present day map so you can see how areas have changed using the slider tool – just like the ‘then and now’ photographs.

Portobello Map

Here are a few of our favourites:

Old houses remaining in the High Street and Canongate (1908)

Post Office Map of Edinburgh (1870)

Turnhouse (1905) before Edinburgh Airport

Post Office Map of Edinburgh (1890)

OS Map of Fountainbridge (1851)