Street names of Edinburgh

There are some clear origins of street names in Edinburgh. The Royal Mile called as such due to it being from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace, for the length of (almost exactly) a mile*, Hanover Street named after the monarchs at the time of its construction, like many others in the New Town (more on Dundas Street below), and places like Candlemaker Row, where they made, well, candles**.

But what of the origins of some of the other streets in Edinburgh? There are a substantial number of streets I could look in to, but for a snippet of history I have investigated a small selection for those other curious minds…

Salamander Street in Leith, which I mentioned in my previous Inchkeith post, is evidently named after the lizard of the same name. But the reason for this turns out to be from the folklore surrounding said lizard, and its apparent survival abilities around hot flames. A chemical works used to be on the Leith street, with the involvment of chemistry and a lot of heat the lizards name was chosen.

For those interested in the folklore, the salamander was seen as a king amongst animals in relation to alchemy and chemistry, due to its supposed delight within fire. Comparisons were also made between the keeping of fire alight under a salamander with the purification of gold. It is also said that Pliny the Elder threw a salamander into a fire in the 1st century AD, to see if it could survive and extinguish the flames. The salamander did not make it though, sadly.

Image: The legendary Salamander (Emblem X from the “Book of Lambspring” in the Musaeum Hermeticum (1679), p. 361)
 Photo credit: Project Gutenberg Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Another street with an interesting history is that of Picardy Place, situated in the area between the top of Leith Walk and York Place. Historically, Picardy Place has had a few changes and events happen, including it being the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The name itself though, comes from the Picardy region in the north-east of France. The reason for this is that in the early 18th century, it was the home to weavers from the region, who formed their own community, calling it ‘Little Picardy’.

The area was later labelled the ‘Picardy triangle’ (the three in the triangle being Picardy Place, the north of Broughton Street and Union Place) around the time of Conan Doyle, and before any roundabouts were in place, before being sadly demolished in the 1960s.

Image: ‘Catholic Chapel, from Picardy Place, Edinburgh’ drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, held and digitised at the British Library
 Photo credit: Public Domain, British Library Flickr

Amongst the street names in Edinburgh, are those named after historical figures, several of whom were involved in the transatlantic slave trade and are not spoken of as much as they should. Scotland’s ties to the slave trade are sizable, for example, 32% of Jamaican plantations were owned by Scots by 1817. As I noted in a previous post about Black history in Scotland, it is important to acknowledge these links more openly, remembering that Scotland played a major part in colonial history, not just these individuals the streets are named after, but the country as a whole.

Most known is that of Dundas Street, alongside the Melville monument being named after Henry Dundas. Dundas is known to have prolonged slavery, delaying abolition for 15 years, while also playing a part in policies in St Vincent in the 1790s that caused the holding of many prisoners and thousands of deaths. There are even streets in both Canada and Hong Kong named after Dundas.

James Gillespie, who has an Edinburgh school and streets named after him, made much of his fortune through selling snuff and tobacco in a shop on the High Street. Tobacco arrived at Edinburgh through the Port of Leith from the 17th century, from slave plantations in the Americas. Although seen throughout history as very philanthropic, Gillespie’s fortune was made on the back of this slave trade.

Image: Sign and portrait of James Gillespie, on the site of his tobacco shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
 Photo credit: gnomonic, Wikimedia Commons

It is also worth noting that it has been said that Stanley Street in the Portobello region of Edinburgh was named after Henry Morton Stanley, who is notorious in terms of colonialism.

Many Edinburgh residents in the Georgian New Town received large compensation payments for the loss of their enslaved people – as they were seen as ‘property’.

Recent discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement not only brought up discussions on statues, but also brought forward comments on street names, such as Dundas Street. A series of alternative street signs were put in place next to Dundas and others, to try and highlight Scotland’s links to the slave trade, which has regularly tried to be hidden.

Image: Dundas Street sign in Edinburgh, with a temporary sign in place next to it, reading ‘Emancipation Street’
 Photo credit: Lucy Glenny

As Melanie Newton from the University of Toronto notes,

“So, does the name of a street matter? Does the name Dundas matter? My answer is simple: change has to begin somewhere, and names mean everything”.

And the activists who put these alternative signs in place, are making a similar statement.

Historian Dr Felix Waldmann discusses the Scottish philosopher David Hume and his recorded part in the slave trade. Hume has been commemorated like James Gillespie, in building form as as well as statues, and although common views at the time, even when those like Scottish poet and philosopher James Beattie criticised Hume’s racist comments, he did not move. Waldmann notes that “anyone with Hume’s intelligence would recognise the enormity of slavery. But Hume sought to benefit from it”.

Erasing them from history is not the point, but acknowledgement of the part these historical figures (as well as Scotland as a whole) played in the transatlatic slave trade and the championing of white supremacy, is of huge importance.

Further Notes

Black History Walks Edinburgh (also found on Eventbrite for those without Facebook)

*a ‘Scots mile’ (which the Royal mile is not), was longer at approximately 1.11 modern miles. However, the measurement was legally abolished in 1685, 1707 and finally in the 1824 ‘Weights and Measures Act’.

**A personal favourite shop of mine now sits on Candlemaker Row, bringing back candle making to the historic street. Go check out Black Moon Botanica.

I would also recommend the Facebook page Lost Edinburgh that posts many interesting images and articles about the history of the city.

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