Why Is Edinburgh Called Auld Reekie?

Team Hoo
6th May 2021

Edinburgh, the beautiful capital of Scotland, has been referred to as many names, but a lesser-known one is 'Auld Reekie'.

With Edinburgh now known for the beautiful architecture and stunning sights, and is still affectionately called 'Auld Reekie' by locals, the name actually came from the scents and smog of 17th-century life due to the overcrowding of Edinburgh's Old Town.

What Does Auld Reekie Mean?

With its Scottish translation meaning 'Old Smokey', the term 'Auld Reekie' is a mixture of all of the smoke pollution and smog and the rich scent of waste and bodies that littered the streets.

Back in the 17th century, when the name first came about, the types of buildings in Edinburgh's old town were narrow but tall. These produced a lot of smoke from the chimneys, creating the thick smog it once became known for. Due to the walls built around the city's edge to protect its residents, there was no space for it to expand outwards, adding to overcrowding and a thick stench.

Air Pollution In Old Edinburgh

In the 17th-century, coal fires were the norm, and chimneys were used daily, creating the thick layer of smoke in the air that made the moniker. Old Town in Edinburgh was densely populated, with much of it being overcrowded. The more people, the more fires needed to be lit and chimneys were in use, and the air pollution at this time was so prominent it has been documented in books and even paintings.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, the entire city (today encompassing Edinburgh's Old Town neighbourhood) was enclosed by a wall. These walls and the Nor' Loch, a body of water to the north of the city, ensured that Edinburgh was well protected against the threat of invasion.

Other Bad Smells Back In The Day

The Old Town in Edinburgh was once enclosed by a wall and the Nor' Loch. While these two things helped protect the city, ensuring the inhabitants were well protected against the threat of invasion. The wall and body of water weren't all good for the locals. Nor' Loch, the body of water, became a part of the scent problem to the north of the city. This is mainly due it also became the drainage site for the waste from the homes around here. It also became a popular location for dumping dead bodies. 

Nor' Loch's stagnant water and the waste from the city's slaughterhouses and human waste added a foul smell. Combining the Nor' Loch's stink and the overwhelming fog from the city became the origins of the name 'Auld Reekie'.

Get The "Auld Reekie" Vibe (Without The Smells!)

While much of Edinburgh has changed drastically, there are still remnants of the Old Town to this day. With much of Old Town streets aligning up with the now known Royal Mile. Many of the still standing buildings and historical places live amongst this mile, all filled with Auld Reekie vibes.

North Bridge

Linking both the Old Town with the New Town, North Bridge also links the High Street with Princes Street. However, not the first bridge to stand in its place, the first actually collapsing due to design faults. The current North Bridge consisted of three central arches and two side arches that has stood for over two hundred years.

Holyrood Palace

Holyrood Palace is the Queen's official residence in Edinburgh, and stands at the end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Open throughout the year, it includes the rooms such as Great Gallery and James IV tower. It has been the home of Scottish royal history, and has been standing since 1671.

Holyrood Abbey

While much of Holyrood Abbey is in ruin, with only the east processional doorway surviving, you can still walk in the footsteps of royals around the abbey constructed in 1128.

St Giles' Cathedral

Having been founded by King David I in 1124, having been built on the eastern edge of Edinburgh and pre-dates a lot of Old Town. King David I also founded the Abbey of Holyrood, as mentioned above, giving permission to build home up to St Giles’.  All of this has formed what is now known at the Royal Mile.

Bakehouse Close

For a real feel of Auld Reekie, Bakehouse Close is the most preserved close there is. Stepping inside the close, you get a real sense of what life was like with the original stone buildings and cobbled paths. Make you stop the emblem when you stand in the courtyard of the once-popular The Cock and Trumpet. 

Parliament Hall

Although much of the original foundation has gone, leaving behind only the hall, it is open to the public. It was initially built to house the Scottish Parliament and the Court of Sessions, the country's supreme court.

Fleshmarket Close

One of the culprits for the Auld Reekie scent was a slaughterhouse in Fleshmarket Close, with the name coming from one of the meat markets that was held here. Going down this close will take you to Market Street, with Cockburn Street cutting through this in the mid-1800s.

Princes Street Gardens

Standing formerly where a part of Lor Noch stood, these gardens were created after the draining of the Loch and merged Old Town with New Town. With fabulous statues, gothic architecture, and even a statue of a bear, the Princes Street Gardens add a bit of green to Edinburgh's centre.

Tron Kirk

Having stood for over four hundred years, it remains in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. With the towering spire being seen all across the city, it remains standing to this day, although in need of huge repairs. While it has been downsized when the merge of Old Town and New Town began, it has withstood wars, fires and two World Wars.

Edinburgh Castle

It wouldn't be a historic list if we were to leave off the 1,000-year-old castle which Edinburgh has become famous for. Overlooking the city and perched atop an extinct volcano is Edinburgh Castle. Consider taking the castle tour while ensuring you don't miss taking a moment to soak in the fantastic views from the castle grounds. 

Edinburgh is a place filled with beauty and history. What began as a negative connotation has since become a familiar name many Scots have taken back proudly. While the scents and pollution have long since gone, thankfully the Scottish have chosen to reclaim their history by using the name Auld Reekie on shops, cafes and tour groups.


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