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Photograph: Edinburch Council/Capital CollectionsBrown Square

A hidden city square built in the 1760s has been discovered in Edinburgh

It was only found after a fire destroyed businesses last year

Written by
Faima Bakar

History-heads, this one’s for you. A forgotten square in Edinburgh’s old town, dating back to the mid-1700s, has been uncovered after decades in hiding. But how did the discovery come about?

Last year, a fire broke out in an A-listed Edinburgh building, housing Patisserie Valerie bakery and the Elephant House café on George IV Bridge. The blaze spread to Oz Bar on Candlemaker Row, and gallons of water was used by firefighters to put it out. Though the incident devastated businesses, it also unearthed a fascinating history which has been long forgotten. 

To renovate the damaged buildings after the fire, workers had to remove layers of Oz Bar’s walls. As the walls were being ripped apart, a mysterious stonework facade began to appear. It took two days for the final layer of wood and corrugated iron to be removed and reveal the secrets hidden behind.

First, they found an arch. Over the course of a week, the building’s owners kept peeling away to find more and more behind the business they had run since 1989, but were only now getting a deeper sense of. Soon, a whole world of forgotten history began to emerge. Behind it all was the entrance to a square – known as Brown Square – which was occupied by Edinburgh’s professional class, made up of lawyers, writers, physicians, and more.

Built in the 1760s, Brown Square was an ambitious new development which was the first exclusive setting for the city’s elites. To enter the square, you’d have to pass the slums and a row of shops that stored everything the working class would need, including an iron mongers, which sold spades, shovels, turnip cutters and candles. The upper class would allegedly cross the bridge and look down on the poor, enjoying their lofty view and status. 

Jamie Corstorphine, a local historian and manager of the City of the Dead Tours, told the BBC: ‘It would have been like a 24-hour taxi rank but with horses and coaches. At the bottom of the street is the Cowgate which was full of street hawkers and was a low class of living.

‘These men in their top hats, canes, pocket watches and breeches would enjoy looking down at this living zoo, it was entertainment for them.’

The slum tenement was known as ‘Little Ireland’ because it was also occupied by Irish immigrants who settled there in the 1820s.

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