Edinburgh 150 years: A look back at the biggest stories and events which have shaped Edinburgh

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As the Edinburgh Evening News celebrates its 150th anniversary, we’ve taken a look back at some of the biggest stories and events which have shaped the city since 1873.

1874: The year after the Evening News was first published saw the foundation of Heart of Midlothian FC, and Hibernian FC followed in 1875. Football was only just beginning to establish itself as a popular game in Scotland. The Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Rugby Union had both been formed in 1873. The Cockburn Association (Edinburgh Civic Trust) was also founded in 1875 to promote and encourage the care and conservation of Edinburgh's unique architectural and landscape heritage. It is now one of the oldest conservation, planning and architectural advocacy organisations in the world.

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1883: The Royal Lyceum Theatre was built at a cost of £17,000 – the opening performance, in September, was Much Ado About Nothing. The following year, Blackford Hill was acquired by the city for use as a public park. And in 1885 the Watt Institution and School of Arts merged to become Heriot-Watt College, continuing under that name until being made a university in 1966.

The International Exhibition on the Meadows, 1886.The International Exhibition on the Meadows, 1886.
The International Exhibition on the Meadows, 1886.

1886: The Edinburgh International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, took place in the Meadows, occupying 30 acres and running for six months, from May 6 to October 30. Exhibits included a steam locomotive, Czech violins, Turkish embroidery and a reconstruction of some demolished buildings from the Royal Mile. Opened by Queen Victoria’ grandson, Prince Albert Victor, it attracted 2,770,000 visitors and made £5,555 profit. In 1888, the achievements of railway engineering were on display when the Flying Scotsman reached Edinburgh from London in 6 hours 19 minutes during the Race to the North.

1889: Edinburgh’s Braid Hills were opened to the public after being acquired by the city. The following year, the city’s Central Library on George IV Bridge, partly paid for by Dunfermline-born industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, opened to the public. In 1891, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland opened in Queen Street. And in 1892 Jenners department store in Princes Street burned down, the rebuilt store opening in 1895.

1893: Caledonian Railway's Princes Street station at the west end was completed. Waverley station, at the other end of Princes Street, had already been in existence for some time, though not as it is today – the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway line had been extended in 1847 from its Haymarket terminus to a new “Edinburgh General” station adjoining the new Canal Street station and North British terminus, the three together becoming known collectively as Waverley around 1854.

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1895: The Royal National Observatory was built on Blackford Hill; and the same year Edinburgh saw its first electric street lighting installed. In 1896, Portobello was incorporated into Edinburgh, along with lands at Liberton Dams, Gorgie, Murrayfield and Fettes, adding a total of nearly 2,500 acres to the city area. And in 1897, the rebuilt North Bridge – the one which still stands today – was opened at a cost of £90,000, built by the same company responsible for the Forth Bridge, opened in 1890.

Princes Street station and the Caledonian Hotel at the west end, around 1910.Princes Street station and the Caledonian Hotel at the west end, around 1910.
Princes Street station and the Caledonian Hotel at the west end, around 1910.

1902: The new Waverley Station was completed, covering 70,000 square metres, and the adjacent North British Hotel – now the Balmoral – was opened the same year. In 1903, the Caledonian Hotel opened at the other end of Princes Street, next to Princes Street station. The same year, the world's first floral clock was installed in West Princes Street Gardens. And in 1906 the King's Theatre was built at Tollcross – the foundation stone had been laid Andrew Carnegie and the theatre opened in December with Cinderella.

1908: Inspired by the success of the 1886 exhibition at the Meadows, there was now the six-month Scottish National Exhibition held in Saughton Park. Industrial displays, cultural exhibitions and other attractions, like a helter-skelter and roller coaster, all featured and a special train station was built for the occasion. Between 1910 and 1913, Edinburgh Zoo was laid out at Corstorphine and opened in July 1913 with a large collection or borrowed and donated animals. In 1911, more than 1,000 people turned out for King George V and Queen Mary laying two memorial stones to mark the construction of the Usher Hall in Lothian Road. The new concert hall was paid for by whisky distiller Andrew Usher, who donated £100,000 to the city for the purpose.

1911: The Empire Palace Theatre, now the Festival Theatre, partially burned down during the final act of The Great Lafayette's show of magic and illusion. A faulty light set fire to the elaborate scenery and 10 people, including The Great Lafayette, died in the fire. The theatre was closed while the stage was rebuilt before reopening in 1913. The following year, Edinburgh’s first purpose-built cinema, the Haymarket, opened in Dalry Road.

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1914: With the start of the First World War, a big recruitment drive in Edinburgh, led by the charismatic Sir George McCrae, saw 16 players from Heart of Midlothian FC enlist for active service, along with 500 supporters in the so-called “McCrae’s Battalion” – seven players from the first team were subsequently killed in action. The following year, 226 people were killed and another 246 injured in the Gretna rail disaster when a southbound troop train collided with a stationary local train and was then hit by a northbound sleeping car express. Many of those killed were soldiers from 1/7th (Leith) Battalion, the Royal Scots heading for Gallipoli. They were buried in Edinburgh's Rosebank Cemetery.

Families enjoying the summer sunshine at Portobello open-air swimming pool in July 1971. Picture: Ian Brand.Families enjoying the summer sunshine at Portobello open-air swimming pool in July 1971. Picture: Ian Brand.
Families enjoying the summer sunshine at Portobello open-air swimming pool in July 1971. Picture: Ian Brand.

1916: A Zeppelin raid on Edinburgh killed 13 people and injured 24. Scores of bombs were dropped from two German airships, hitting a whisky bond in Leith and damaging tenements in Newington, the White Hart Inn in the Grassmarket and the County Hotel in Lothian Road. Others landed near the Castle, in Holyrood Park and in the grounds of George Watson’s College.

1917: Celebrated war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital, which treated shell-shocked officers, and wrote some of their greatest war poetry. Both returned to the war and Owen died on November 6, 1918, only five days before the Armistice. Sassoon survived the war and died in 1967. In 1919, Saughton prison received its first inmates, five years after construction began. Calton jail, on the site where St Andrew’s House now stands, would close in 1928 and be demolished two years later.

1920: Leith becomes part of Edinburgh despite a referendum showing a majority of residents in the port were against the move. Colinton, Corstorphine, Cramond, Gilmerton, Liberton and Longstone were also incorporated into city, trebling the size of the Capital by area and increasing its population by almost a third to 425,000 people. In 1921, the Garrick Theatre in Grove Street, once a cultural hotspot of Edinburgh, burned down.

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1923: Edinburgh ran its last cable-hauled tram before switching over to electric operation, which was already used for the Leith trams. Electrification meant an end to the “Pilrig muddle” when passengers had to change from Leith’s electric trams to Edinburgh’s cable-drawn ones half way up Leith Walk. In 1925, Murrayfield stadium opened – the SRU had bought the land from the Edinburgh Polo Club and it took two years to build a stand and three embankments. The first match was against England, when 70,000 people watched Scotland beat them to win their first Five Nations Championship Grand Slam.

Workers put the finishing touches to the 2010 floral clock in Princes Street Gardens.  Picture: Ian Rutherford.Workers put the finishing touches to the 2010 floral clock in Princes Street Gardens.  Picture: Ian Rutherford.
Workers put the finishing touches to the 2010 floral clock in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Ian Rutherford.

1928: The inaugural non-stop Edinburgh-London east coast train service was hauled by the Flying Scotsman locomotive, cutting the regular journey time between the two capitals to 7 hours 30 minutes. The same year saw Edinburgh’s first first traffic lights installed at Broughton Street and the city’s first Speedway track opened at Marine Gardens, Portobello. The following year, the Playhouse cinema screened its first films and the crematorium opened at Warriston Cemetery.

1934: Disturbances broke out after Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley addresses a meeting at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. A crowd of up to 3,000 protesters gathered outside the venue and there were clashes with some of the Backshirts attending the meeting. Mounted police intervened, a departing bus was stoned and several people required hospital treatment. The following year the Ross Bandstand replaced the Victorian bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. And in 1936, Portobello open air bathing pool opened.

1939: The first air battle of the Second World War in British skies took place over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth on October 16, when Spitfires intercepted German bombers flew in to attack a British battleship – 16 Royal Navy sailors died and 44 more were injured. At the start of the war, thousands of Edinburgh children were evacuated to the countryside – the Borders, East Lothian or as far away as Inverness – but when the anticipated all-out attack did not happen, many returned. Although Edinburgh did not suffer the same devastation as places like Clydebank during the war, there were air raids on the Capital which brought death and destruction. On April 7, 1941, tenements in Leith were hit and several residents killed. Leith Town Hall was also damaged, along with a neighbouring infant school, three churches and up to 200 shops and 270 houses.

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1945: Thousands took to the streets of the Capital to celebrate the end of the war on VE Day and bonfires were lit across the city. A total of 20 people had died and 210 injured in Edinburgh on account of the Luftwaffe’s bombs, but countless families had lost loved ones fighting in the conflict. The following year, a major fire closed the Theatre Royal in Broughton Street, the last of four Theatre Royals to be burnt out on the site.

1947: In the wake of the Second World War, the Edinburgh International Festival was launched in a bid to reunite people through art. At the first Festival, volunteers at the Festival Club prepared and cooked 2,500 meals every day for visitors and the event was blessed with three weeks of continuous sunshine. The first Military Tattoo was performed at the Castle in 1948.

1949: Town planner Patrick Abercrombie, commissioned to come up with a vision for the city’s future, proposed constructing an inner-ring motorway, rebuilding Princes Street, a freight railway under the Meadows and the complete clearance of inner city areas to create new industrial zones. Conservationists and heritage campaigners succeeded in blocking his plans. In 1951, half a million people turned out to watch March of the Thousand Pipers on Princes Street ahead of the Gathering of the Clans at Murrayfield Stadium.

Some members of McCrae's Battalion, recruited for the First World War.Some members of McCrae's Battalion, recruited for the First World War.
Some members of McCrae's Battalion, recruited for the First World War.

1953: Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to Edinburgh following her coronation. She attended a National Service at St Giles' Cathedral as part of the programme of celebrations. In 1955, Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood opened, the world's first museum dedicated to childhood. The same year C&A Modes department store on Princes Street was destroyed by fire.

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1956: The last of Edinburgh’s old trams ran for the last time on November 16 – thousands lined the streets to bid a fond farewell as it entered the Shrubhill depot. It would be 5 58 years before trams, in their 21st century incarnation, would be seen again on the Capital’s streets. Also in 1956, Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev came to Edinburgh as part of an official visit to the UK.

1962: A state visit by King Olav of Norway marked the first time the state visit of a foreign monarch had been conducted outside London – and a crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered to welcome the Norwegian king along the main parade route. The same year, fire gutted the Gaumont cinema in Canning Street – it would be demolished three years later. And the Traverse Theatre opened in the Lawnmarket.

1964: The Beatles performed at the ABC cinema in Lothian Road, midway through the band's 1964 spring tour. The Fab Four played two concerts in the city before heading to Glasgow the following evening. The same year the Rolling Stones performed at the Usher Hall and returned the next year. In 1965, Princes Street station closed and most of it was demolished in 1970; and the St James Centre shopping mall was completed.

1970: The Commonwealth Games were held in Edinburgh with 42 teams competing in 121 events in ten sports. The Royal Commonwealth Pool and Meadowbank stadium were both built for the Games. Two years later, Edinburgh played host to another international competition when the Eurovision Song Contest was held in the Usher Hall – it was won by Luxembourg with the song "Après toi".

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1975: Balerno, Currie, Ratho, Newbridge, Kirkliston and South Queensferry were brought within Edinburgh’s boundary as part of local government reorganisation which introduced two tiers of local authorities, Lothian Regional Council and Edinburgh District Council. In 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev – who was soon to become leader of the Soviet Union –stayed at Holyrood Palace during a visit to Scotland.

1982: Pope John Paul II visited Edinburgh and was welcomed by tens of thousands of people at Murrayfield stadium. The visit was part of a tour of the UK – the first by a reigning Pope - which saw him visit nine cities and deliver 16 major addresses. He also had a historic meeting with the Right Reverend John McIntyre, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in the courtyard of the Assembly Hall.

1986: The Commonwealth Games were held in Edinburgh for a second time, but 32 of the eligible 59 countries boycotted the event because of the Thatcher government's refusal to break off sporting links with apartheid South Africa. The Games also faced financial problem, which prompted tycoon Robert Maxwell to step in, taking over as chairman and promising investment of £2m, though he only gave £250,000. Edinburgh finished an estimated £500,000 out of pocket.

1993: The first Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party was held as an organised event. The following year, a £50m renovation of Murrayfield stadium was completed, including floodlighting the first time. In 1995, Leith hosted the Cutty Sark Tall Ships race. In 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland with a procession up the Royal Mile to its new home in Edinburgh Castle.

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1997: A referendum on devolution produced an overwhelming vote in favour of the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers. Two years later, the first MSPs were elected and a Labour-Lib Dem coalition was formed, led by Labour’s Donald Dewar. With a new parliament building under construction at Holyrood, the MSPs started meeting in a temporary home at the Church of Scotland General Assembly Hall at The Mound.

2002: A major fire destroyed part of the Cowgate and buildings on South Bridge. The blaze was caused by a spark from a malfunctioning fuse box and spread through eight storeys. Eleven buildings were affected, including the popular La Belle Angele nightclub and the Gilded Balloon comedy club. The following year, the MTV Europe Music Awards were held in 6,000-capacity big top arena constructed specially for the event at Leith’s Ocean Terminal – Beyonce won best song for Crazy in Love and Justin Timberlake picked up three awards.

2004: The Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood was finally completed and opened by the Queen – it cost #414m, ten times the original quoted price. The following year, an estimated 225,000 people march through the city as part of the "Make Poverty History" campaign, calling on world leaders to act at the G8 summit being held at Gleneagles. In 2008, two Edinburgh banks – RBS and HBOS – were at the centre of the financial crisis and had to be bailed out by the UK Government.

2010: Pope Benedict XVI began an official visit to the UK by flying into Edinburgh and being received by the Queen at Holyrood Palace. He was driven along Princes Street in a Popemobile and had lunch with Cardinal Keith O’Brien before leaving for an open-air Mass in Glasgow. The following year, two giant pandas from China, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, arrived at Edinburgh Zoo for a 10-year stay, extended by two years because of the Covid pandemic.

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2014: A referendum on independence resulted in a vote of 45 per cent in favour and 55 per cent against. In Edinburgh, the split was 39 per cent Yes, 61 per cent No. The same year, the Capital’s much-delayed tram line from Edinburgh Airport to York Place finally opened at a cost of £776m. And in 2016, voters were back at the polls for another referendum, this time on Brexit – the UK voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union; Scotland 62-38 for Remain; Edinburgh had the highest Remain vote in Scotland at 74.4 per cent.