Lost Edinburgh: The Mound

It began as a simple embankment made up of dirt and rubble excavated from the foundations of Edinburgh’s New Town. Today we call it the Mound.

The Mound was formed between 1781 and 1830 from an incredible one and a half million tons of earth and rubble left over from the construction of the New Town. Its inception followed the 1765 drainage of the old Nor’ Loch, the foul-smelling, stagnant basin of water that would one day become Princes Street Gardens.

Around 1780, Old Town clothier George Boyd decided to take a short-cut across the marshland of the drained Nor’ Loch to have a look at the developing New Town. As a matter of convenience, Mr Boyd chose to negotiate the marshland rather than take the long way round over the recently completed North Bridge. It was clear to Mr Boyd that a more permanent passage directly linking the New Town with the Lawnmarket was required. Interestingly, it would be the New Town itself which would provide the solution. Beginning in 1781, the construction of George Boyd’s new ‘Mud Brig’ made perfect use of the excavated earth and rubble dug from the steep slopes of the district that it was attempting to connect. An average of 1,800 cartloads of material would be deposited on a daily basis for the next 50 years in a project that would have cost a fortune had it not been constructed from reclaimed land. It was an incredibly simple yet effective way of bridging the Old Town with the new. The Earthen Mound, as it would be referred to for much of the 19th century, was born.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Unfortunately, it was not long before the Mound became a breeding ground for low-class entertainment and illegal trading. On the site where the National Gallery now stands, there were a mixture of shooting galleries, coconut shies, roulette tables and vendors hawking dubious cures for all manner of ills. On the Mound’s western edge stood a handful of unsavoury-looking buildings which were deemed to spoil the rather picturesque surroundings. The most interesting and famous of these buildings was surely the Rotunda in which dioramas were shown. Visitors to the Rotunda could watch in awe as lantern-lit moving images of recent events and far-off places flashed before their eyes. However, even the presence of this early form of cinema failed to reverse the Mound’s status as a thoroughfare best avoided. The esteemed 19th century literary figure and architectural conservationist, Lord Henry Cockburn famously described the Mound as a ‘receptacle of all things disreputable’. It was an opinion shared by many and improvements would be required if the Mound was ever to shed its undesirable reputation.

In the 1840s massive improvements were made when much of the land along the top end of the Mound was cleared to make way for the National Gallery. The new building was designed to match the 1826-founded Royal Institution (now the Royal Scottish Academy) which was located directly south. Railway tunnels were driven underneath the Mound in 1846 to allow access to the west from Waverley train station. The Mound’s roadway was also realigned, widened and eventually macadamised. The appearance and layout of the Mound remains little changed in the past 150 years.

Today the elegant sweep of the Mound plays an important role in the centre of Edinburgh, dividing the main thoroughfare Princes Street into two manageable halves. As one of the city’s most prominent roadways it has become the site of numerous processions and marches as well as providing a crucial passage into the Old Town and George IV Bridge. George Boyd’s humbly-constructed Mud Brig has successfully managed to stand the test of time.