'Magic Lantern' city emerges as box of 19th Century photos found

The small wooden box was marked ‘Auld Reekie’ and had long been forgotten about. Inside, 38 black and white glass slides were found.

The rediscovered 19th Century images of Edinburgh were found by city curators embroiled in a massive inventory of the 200,000 or so items in its collection.

The contents of the box have cast new light on a rapidly changing city defined by landscapes which are both familiar and yet unexpected.

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A shot of Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh taken from the Meadows shows sheep grazing in the foreground. Another captures Craigleith quarry, which closed in the early 1940s, and the city skyline and Arthur’s Seat looming in the distance.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh from the Meadows, where sheep once grazed. PIC: George Washington Wilson Museums.

Developed onto glass slides, the images would have been projected on to a screen using a “Magic Lantern”, the popular Victorian entertainment system that beamed the new fashion for photography right into the home.

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While it is unclear how the images came to the museums, or who took the photographs, there are "tantalizing clues” that suggest a link with renowned Scottish photographer George Washington Wilson, a spokeswoman for Museums & Galleries Edinburgh said.

Wilson became established in Aberdeen in the 1850s as an artist and photographer, and quickly made a name for himself among the middle classes and landed gentry. In the mid 19th Century, his company was the largest and best known photographic and printing firm in the world.

White Horse Close, Canongate, is among the locations captured in the recently discovered 19th Century photo collection. PIC: George Washington Wilson Museums.

A spokeswoman for Museums & Galleries Edinburgh said: “The rediscovery of these remarkable slides comes at a time when the Auld Reekie Retold team is returning to the Museum Collections Centre.

" After working from home for much of the project, the team has once again resumed the detective work of researching and recording collections held in the store.”

A series of Auld Reekie Podcasts is now being produced, with photographs archived in the collection a key inspiration for the programmes.

The first podcast, due to be released on Monday, will tell the story of Leith’s photographic history through a walking tour, which can be undertaken on foot or from the home. Other programmes in the series will look at the photography of an Edinburgh childhood, art and the recording of social history and the backstory of a photographic viewer.

West Bow as seen in the mid-19th Century. PIC: George Washington Wilson Museums

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The Palace of Holyrood House and Arthur's Seat. PIC: George Washington Wilson Museums.
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