IT WAS once one of Edinburgh’s most fashionable quarters, home to the palaces and mansions of Edinburgh’s clergy and other upper-class citizens.
Now remains of houses dating back to the 16th century heyday of the Cowgate area have been found on the site of Edinburgh’s Old Town fire of a decade ago.
Street frontages which could once have been part of the homes of wealthy merchants and noblemen have been discovered intact in two different sections of a site earmarked for a £35 million hotel development.
The final dig at the site in the Cowgate before work starts has uncovered a number of historic artefacts including pottery, coins, a broken wine bottle, a comb and part of a possible gaming board.
A previous dig five years ago uncovered remains of buildings dating back to the 17th century, including cobbles and drainage systems, but the latest findings are said to be much more significant, particularly because so much has remained intact.
The area in question was at the heart of the so-called “palaces of the Cowgate” in the 16th and 17th centuries. The area slid into decline in the mid-19th century, with living conditions described by 19th-century newspaper accounts as “remarkable only for their filth”.
Demolitions in the Cowgate were largely triggered by the Edinburgh Improvement Act of 1867, a radical attempt to sweep away the squalor and misery of the closes and tenements.
Experts believe the findings provide a missing piece in the jigsaw of the history of the area.
John Lawson, the council’s archaeologist, said: “The Cowgate was a real boom and bust area and changed quite dramatically over the years. In the 1500s it really was an upmarket area, but became dominated by the slums in the 19th century, although you still had some very wealthy people living in the area.
“We carried out a dig in a different area before, but we’ve been able to look at two different areas now: where some old arches at the Gilded Balloon building were previously, and an extension to the neighbouring nightclub, which is coming down and is being rebuilt.
“It’s allowed us to look at the frontages of the street, and there are actually remains of three different walls that can be seen.”
Richard Lewis, the council’s culture leader, said: “This is a significant find as it completes the picture of artefacts and structures archaeologists hoped to find on the site.
“The dig is in the final phase and so this is the last chance for us to discover the secrets that lie in this historic area of the city.”
Before the blaze, the site was home to shops, offices and pubs, as well as the Gilded Balloon comedy venue, the Bridge Jazz Bar, La Belle Angele nightclub, Leisureland amusement arcade and Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics.
The main element of the new £35 million development – filling a gap site which has blighted both the Cowgate and South Bridge since the blaze – will be a 250-bedroom Ibis hotel, although shops and a nightclub are also planned.
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