What is behind Edinburgh’s bricked up windows? Why are so many tenement windows blocked?

Experts dismiss two myths around Edinburgh’s bricked-up windows

Ever noticed how many blocked-off windows there are in Edinburgh tenements? It’s quite a common sight around the Capital. So what’s it all about?

According to experts, there are two popular myths associated with the blank windows of the New Town and West End. The first is that they were all bricked up to avoid the highly unpopular window tax when wealthy home-owners faced a bill depending how many windows they had.

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A window tax was introduced in England and Wales in 1696 by King William III as a way of taxing the better-off in society without going for income tax, which was too controversial at the time.

Blank windows were often designed into the buildings of the New Town either for symmetry or to conceal walls, staircases or flues.

In Scotland a window tax was introduced after 1748. A house had to have at least seven windows, or a rent of at least £5 to be liable for the tax. Most people did not live in houses large enough to have to pay the window tax. But official rolls published by National Records of Scotland (NRS) reveal taxpayers whose dwellings ranged from the relatively modest, with nine windows, to the substantial houses of the New Town, where the philosopher David Hume paid for 18 windows in 1773-4.

At the top of the scale, there were huge country houses of aristocrats like the Duke of Roxburghe, who in 1748 paid £14 and four shillings for 294 windows at Floors Castle near Kelso.

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‘More myth than fact’

Some people may have bricked up windows to reduce their tax burden and others apparently took the less expensive option of painting them black. But NRS archivists believe the idea that the tax drove people to reduce their number of windows is “more myth than fact”. They say: “Blocking up a window would save a few shillings per year, which is not likely to have been enough to force wealthy homeowners to give up their daylight.”

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Instead, they say, many windows on the Georgian buildings in the New Town, while appearing to have been blocked, were actually designed that way to maintain the buildings’ symmetrical façades. In others, the blank windows may have staircases, walls or even flues behind them.

And the window tax was halved in 1823 and abolished altogether, on both sides of the border, in 1851 so any building later than that which has fake windows cannot be linked to the window tax.

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It was a particularly unpopular tax because it was seen as putting a price on essentials of life – light and air. And that brings us to the second myth, the suggestion that the window tax was the origin of the phrase “daylight robbery”.

It’s an appealing idea, but it turns out the phrase was not used until much later. It was first found in print in 1804, when it was used in its literal sense describing an actual robbery which took place in daylight hours. The first time it was used to mean unfair overcharging came in a London magazine in September 1863.