Mairianna Clyde: Flodden shaped modern Edinburgh

Opposing sides commemorate the Battle at Flodden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Opposing sides commemorate the Battle at Flodden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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It may have taken place 500 years ago and more than 50 miles away, but the Battle of Flodden helped shape modern Edinburgh.

Flodden came as a result of James IV honouring the Auld Alliance when the French queen requested military assistance. One of the largest, most well-equipped armies ever amassed departed the Burgh Muir – land to the south of the city centre – in August but for reasons not quite understood it ended disastrously. In a few short hours, the Scottish host was slaughtered including the king himself.

When the news reached Edinburgh there was grief and consternation. The few remaining “fencible” men were made ready to defend the city and a standing watch was formed. Money was raised for the immediate purchase of artillery.

The Flodden Wall was rapidly built and shaped Edinburgh’s character for centuries – arguably to this day. The wall descended from the Castle to the Grassmarket (West Port was the western entrance), continued to The Vennel where a tower section survives, rose to Lauriston Place, went east along Teviot Row to the Bristo Port (Bristo Street) and modern Drummond Street then down the Pleasance to the Cowgate Port (crossing St Mary’s Street).

Continuing to Netherbow Port, it crossed the High Street at the “world’s end” and skirted Jeffrey Street to the foot of the Nor’ Loch, a wide defensive moat along the city’s northern edge. (In 1821 this was drained to form Princes Street Gardens).

The wall shaped Edinburgh’s culture too, contributing to its 18th century reputation as “a hotbed of genius”. With the city’s main business law, education, and government inside it, the tight urban form and dense population fostered the philosophical clubs and debating societies that were the crucibles of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Because of it, hardly a house was built outside until the mid-18th century New Town, so houses were built vertically and might reach fourteen storeys. Rich and poor lived in the same “lands” (or tenements) passing each other on the stairs. The poorest lived in the upper flats, the wealthiest in the middle and shopkeepers at street level. This was a “face-to-face” society where citizens of all ranks mixed freely.

Though hardly egalitarian, living in such close proximity created a culture of familiarity between classes and a corresponding forthrightness in giving one’s opinion.

So much so that 18th century English visitors noted (with disapproval) that when discussion turned to politics or religion, servants had a habit of leaning in on the backs of their masters’ chairs and joining in the dinner table conversation.

Philosophical debate also sprang up in the taverns in the closes and wynds, which, (given the lack of space) doubled as offices for the city’s lawyers. In 1692, news of the Massacre of Glencoe spread like wildfire because on his return to the Capital, Campbell of Glenlyon left his secret instructions lying about in a tavern off the High Street.

After the wealthier citizens decanted to the New Town, the Old Town, with all its theatricality, outspokenness and conviviality, was left to fester. Improvement was made in the 20th century and in 1947 the Edinburgh International Festival was established which tried to regenerate the former lively cultural atmosphere. The Fringe and the Festival may be unlikely outcomes of the tragedy of Flodden – but the walling of the Capital created a unique and exciting culture.

• Mairianna Clyde is a lecturer and writer