Edinburgh at Work by Malcolm Fife
There have been untold numbers of books on the history of Edinburgh. Few of them, however, have been devote to the City’s economy and industries. My book, ‘Edinburgh at Work’ should go some way to remedy this situation. Its development was very much bound up with the skills of its tradesmen and the enterprises of its merchants. There is evidence that the inhabitants of the region traded with the Romans when they built their fort at Cramond, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.
In the early Middle Ages a small town grew up in the shadow of the Castle which was perched on a rocky hill. Although Edinburgh had yet to become the official capital of Scotland, its kings often resided in its Castle or at the important abbey of Holyrood. This created a demand for luxury items some of which were manufactured locally by craftsman living in the town. Others, particularly wine from France were imported through the nearby port of Leith. Over the centuries Edinburgh’s merchants built up considerable fortunes. They often acted as an early form of bankers lending out their money for business ventures or the purchase of land.
Towards the end of the 16th century a university was established setting Edinburgh on course to be an important centre of learning. It was also becoming an important legal centre with numerous lawyers among its inhabitants. The thirst for knowledge and the demand for legal documents gave rise to a flourishing printing industry. The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 were a setback for this as well as the development of the City. The King and his court moved to London taking with it their considerable spending power. The Scottish Parliament, however, remained in Edinburgh which somewhat cushioned the economic blow.
The 17th century also saw the introduction of new skills such as watchmaking and the manufacture of surgical instruments. One of the first attempts to produce beer on a large scale was undertaken by an Englishman who built a new brewery at Yardheads, Leith. The prosperity of Edinburgh was dealt a further blow with the Act of Union in 1707 with an exodus of numerous members of the aristocracy to England.
Towards the latter part of the 18th century, the City experienced a period of unprecedented expansion. It broke free of the confines its old town walls with the construction of the New Town. This created work for thousands of stone masons and artisans. Large quarries, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, were opened up on the edge of Edinburgh to supply building material. With many of the well to do now living in spacious houses there was more room for household items such as furniture. Large numbers of women found employment as maids looking after the new residences. Horse drawn coaches began to appear on the streets in increasing numbers. Many were built locally. Such was the reputation of their quality that many were exported overseas.
Edinburgh also had a booming textile industry manufacturing woollen goods and high quality linen items. With the Agriculture Revolution taking place in the surrounding countryside numerous former farm labourers made their way to Edinburgh in search of employment. Many were unsuccessful and had to resort to begging.
The coming of the railways in the mid-19th century had a profound effect on the way Edinburgh developed. Up until that point many of its industries such as paper making were concentrated along the Water of Leith their machinery driven by mill wheels. Coal now became the main source of power and industries now became concentrated next to railway tracks particularly in the vicinity of Haymarket and Gorgie.
Brewing which had first been practiced by the monks at Holyrood now became one of Edinburgh’s most important economic activities. By 1896 of the ninety nine breweries in Scotland, thirty one were located in Edinburgh. Another more recent industry which Edinburgh became noted for was the manufacture of biscuits. The well-known firm McVitie’s started life in a shop in Rose Street in 1830. Somewhat unusually, the City also became a noted centre for the manufacture of rubber goods including Wellington boots. This was due more to a quirk in the patenting of certain forms of rubber manufacture than to any natural advantages of the location.
Edinburgh had the distinction of having a higher proportion of professional workers than most other cities in Victorian times. It had risen to become the most important financial centre in Britain outside London. Several banks had their head offices here as did numerous insurance companies. With the growing availability of consumer goods in the 20th century, Edinburgh became an important retail centre serving south east Scotland. Princes Street was home to many well-known department stores some of which were household names. There were also thousands of small shops scattered across the City. In the early 20th century, the manufacture of electrical goods such as refrigerators and radios became increasingly important activity in southern England. Edinburgh was initially slow to adopt these new innovative industries tending to rely on its traditional activities.
During the Second World War, however, Ferranti established a factory to manufacture gun sights for Spitfires. By the 1960s it had become the City’s largest employer manufacturing radar and missile guidance systems. The long established industries, however, such as brewing and the printing of books at this point in time continued to flourish. The situation changed drastically as the 20th century drew to a close. International competition and the mergers between many long established companies saw the almost total extinction of the important brewing, biscuit and printing industries. Many other once important sources of employment also suffered including food processing and engineering.
Edinburgh, however, successfully adopted to meet these new challenges. The growth of the tourist industry and associated services has more than compensated for the loss of jobs in other sectors with some 30,000 jobs now depending on it. Edinburgh is the second choice for foreign visitors as a destination to visit after London. It has also become an important destination for cruise ships.
Another major source of employment is the financial sector which has a long legacy in Edinburgh. It is second only importance to that of London and is of international importance. The Royal Bank of Scotland has its headquarters, close to the airport and new financial institutions are also well represented including Tesco Bank. Digital technology now plays a vital role in financial transactions. Edinburgh has gained a reputation a reputation as a driving force in the evolution of the fintech sector which includes e-commerce and mobile banking.
By 2017 Edinburgh had over 25,000 people working within the digital sector and the number of software companies number over 100, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in Britain. The City’s overall place as a centre of learning has also continued to grow in importance. A hundred years ago there was only one university. The number has now increased to four. The 82,000 university and college students drawn from numerous countries across the world provide a major stimulus for the local economy with their demand for accommodation and services. In 2017 one survey named Edinburgh the best city in Britain to launch a business. It ranked ahead of London, Bristol and Glasgow because of its ‘speedy internet connections, reasonable office rent and a host of university graduates’.
Malcolm Fife's new book Edinburgh at Work is available for purchase now.