Why Are Edinburgh Buildings (Partially) Covered in Black?

One might look at the photos of Edinburgh and think that the city looks, well, dark. Aside from the weather, Edinburgh buildings contribute to that look as well. The capital of Scotland is one of the most historical cities in the world, its buildings can attest to that.

Edinburgh Buildings and the street

While the records of its first settlers go back thousands of years, the name Edinburgh came about in the 12th century. A royal burgh in the beginning, it gets its name from King Edwin of Northumbria, meaning “Edwin’s fortress.” As time passed, Edinburgh became the biggest city in Scotland where Scottish Kings and Queens resided.

Edinburgh Buildings and bicycles

At first, an extensive set of walls surrounded Edinburgh. One side covered by walls and the other by a river, Edinburgh was quite safe against any invasions. However, this came with a cost as the city had no place to expand. Since the horizontal expansion was impossible due to the walls, they started expanding vertically.

Edinburgh Buildings and a small river

As the city buildings started to rise up, Edinburgh started to have this gothic outlook. Moreover, the center of the city was a place for dumping waste and burning dead bodies. For centuries, the citizens of Edinburg had to smell the toxic smoke coming out of the dumping places. This smoke also started to latch onto the Edinburgh buildings and change their color.

Edinburgh Buildings and a castle
Ian G Black

The smoke rising above Edinburgh buildings was so dense and thick that people started calling Edinburgh Auld Rekkie which means Old Smoky.

Edinburgh Buildings and monuments

In the following decades, with industrialism, Edinburgh had factories and locomotives that produced smoke as well. This smoke continued to stick to the buildings and more and more buildings started to have this black cloak over them.

the clock tower in the city
Jianying Fu

The reason why Edinburgh buildings were so susceptible to the smoke was because of the type of stones used in construction. Many buildings in the city were made out of sandstone which has a dark-yellow texture in nature. In time, it was understood that sandstone tended to hold onto chemical waste and the microbes living inside the bricks.

a tavern in the city

At one point in the 1950s, the UK officials wanted to do something about the pollution in Britain. They passed a Clean Air Act to limit the use of fuels to decrease the levels of smoke but it did not work. In major cities of the UK, especially London and Edinburgh, smoke and air pollution have continued to be a problem.

the castle and the nearby structure

Some people proposed a more radical solution where they would literally scrape the black stains from the bricks. However, many opposed the notion saying that altering the stones meant altering the historical identity of Edinburgh buildings.

the houses from above
Ian G Black
walter scott monument
Amanda Coleman White