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The long road from 1128..

THE plans for a £180 million redevelopment of the Canongate, including offices, modern apartments and a five-star hotel, mark a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of this part of the Royal Mile.

Whether or not they go ahead - they face protests from the newly-formed Canongate Community Forum - they do at least show that this once regal, then neglected area is on the up again.

Canongate's recorded history began in 1128, when King David I established an abbey dedicated to the Holy Rood on a marshy site at the foot of the long ridge leading from the volcanic plug of Edinburgh Castle. But we know that people were living on this site before the foundation of Holyrood Abbey and its burgh of Canongate.

The routes to the north and south - now Holyrood Road and Calton Road - were called strands, showing how waterlogged the land must have been. And archaeological excavations have discovered Bronze Age flint tools, which suggest that this marshy plain was once used as a hunting and fishing ground by prehistoric peoples.

Archaeology has also shown that plots laid out after the new burgh was founded were laid across a pre-existing ditch, which probably defended an early settlement clustered near to a church which existed before 1128.

The new burgh was called the canons' "gait" or "walk". Though small, it was home to many important people, including royalty, throughout the Middle Ages. The abbey complex was often host to the Crown and inevitably, the dwellings that bordered the High Street were substantial, housing clergy and important laymen connected to the royal court.

But this was also a working town and craftsmen - skinners, tanners, masons, brewers, shoemakers, bakers and cutlers - lived and worked alongside more privileged members of the burgh and the rears of many burgage plots housed middens, wells, workshops, gardens and animals.

In the reign of James IV (1488-1513), a palace grew up alongside the abbey and the Canongate became a desirable place to live. Royal government was mostly conducted in Edinburgh but it was in the Canongate that kings and queens and most of the royal court made their main residence.

The result was a transformation of the townscape, which early maps reveal. The 1544 view drawn from Calton Hill by the English agent, Richard Lee, is a fairly accurate portrayal of the Canongate and Edinburgh, as is an English military engineer's drawing of 1573, made during the siege of Edinburgh Castle, with both showing the girth or sanctuary cross close by the abbey walls.

But maps from the next century show a very different picture. According to Gordon of Rothiemay's plan of 1647, the cross still stood in its traditional position, to the south of the Watergate. But everything else had changed. Most striking of all, the palace walls no longer lay immediately to the side of the girth cross. The medieval wall surrounding the abbey had been removed and replaced with another further east. James VI had converted the east end of the Canongate into a sumptuous royal court with an urban precinct.

The Canongate continued as a favoured residence of the elite after 1603, when the Union of the Crowns deprived it of a royal court. They lived in elegant mansions, such as Moray House, Huntly House and Hatton House, later redesigned as Queensberry House.

Despite its place among the eminent of society, by the 19th century it had become the worst slum in Scotland. The building of the New Town of Edinburgh triggered a trickle at first and then an exodus of the well-to-do out of the Canongate, abandoning the old town to an underclass.

Poverty brought with it depression, filth and drunkenness. It was no coincidence that the first Magdalene home in Scotland, a refuge for prostitutes and fallen women, was founded in the Canongate in 1797.

Even when the area was taken over by a new aristocracy - industrialists such as the Younger brewing family had by 1900 turned the Canongate into a vast industrial zone, dominated by breweries, glassworks and gas works - the slums of the Canongate continued.

Indeed they were worse than any in Edinburgh - worse even than Glasgow's Gorbals. As late as 1946, 80 per cent of families in the Canongate still lived in only one or two rooms. Improvement for many came from a move to far-flung new council estates. But for those who remained, there was a sense of loss of community.

Now though, the new parliament and its accompaniment - new offices, media centres and hotels - have brought about a remarkably quick transformation of Canongate since 1999. The area is embarking on another cycle of its thousand-year existence.

Once again it has become a place of prestige, a centre of power and a meeting place for the people of Scotland.

Holyrood and Canongate: A thousand years of history by E Patricia Dennison is published by Birlinn, priced 9.99

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