There’s evidence of people living in the Edinburgh area for 10,000 years, beginning with Mesolithic camps from around 8500 BCE. Since then, the area of Scotland’s modern capital has been ruled by the Romans, Celtic tribes, and, frequently, the British Empire. Yet throughout the centuries, Edinburgh has managed to maintain its own distinct personality, with a hodgepodge of diverse little neighborhoods. Here, we’ll spotlight a handful of them and tell the stories of how their names came to be.
1. INCH PARK/THE INCH
Located in the southern part of the city, Inch Park is the area that surrounds Inch House. The name has nothing to do with the unit of measurement—it stems from the Gaelic word innis, which originally meant island, the theory being that the area was a dry, raised “island” within a damp, forested area. According to the Edinburgh City Council, in 1617 an L-shaped tower was built on the property; the building was added to many, many times over the years and changed hands multiple times. It was last sold to the city of Edinburgh in 1946, which turned it into a primary school and later a community center, although it’s no longer used for either today. The neighborhood is also known as “The King’s Inch” or usually just “The Inch.”
First known as Bonnytoun, this milling village situated on the Water of Leith river helped comprise the Barony of Broughton, as documented in King David’s confirmation charter of the Holyrood Abbey in 1143—along with the region that’s now known as Broughton. The village’s name had become Bonnington by the late 18th century. Bonnytoun may mean “bonny town,” with the Scottish word bonny meaning good or attractive. This word also evolved into the Scottish surnames Bonynton and Boynton.
3. PRINCES STREET
Princes Street is the main drag in Edinburgh’s New Town, where both locals and tourists go in search of name-brand shopping and swanky nightlife, and the road loans its name to the surrounding area. With almost no buildings on its south border, the area offers spectacular views of Edinburgh Castle and the medieval Old Town surrounding it; Princes Street Gardens and its fabulous floral clock are a centerpiece of the city. The street itself was first known as St. Giles Street, for the town’s patron saint, who has a spectacular cathedral named for him just a few blocks away. But King George III was turned off by the aesthetic of St. Giles, who was also the patron saint of lepers, and rechristened the thoroughfare after not just one but two of his sons, Prince George (later King George IV) and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. Hence, it’s not "Prince Street,” and neither is it Prince’s Street, but Princes Street—plural. (Fun fact: The New Zealand city of Dunedin also has a Princes Street that’s named after Edinburgh’s, as Dunedin itself is named after the city—the Gaelic version of Edinburgh is Dùn Èideann.)
This one seems obvious—it’s a gate for cows, right? Almost. The gritty Cowgate district is in the medieval Old Town, where you’ll find one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh, the subtle Magdalen Chapel from 1544, with its pre-Reformation stained glass windows. The Cowgate itself is the low street to the parallel Royal Mile, which is the high street, and it’s got a reputation for being dark and gloomy. That's nothing new: Back in the 1400s, the street was used to herd cattle and other livestock to the nearby Grassmarket, and it was an overcrowded slum by the mid-18th century. But it wasn’t a gate, and it never had one. The word gate is Scots for “way” or “road,” which it shares with several Germanic languages—possibly influenced by Scotland’s close proximity to Scandinavia and an early Viking presence in the city.
No, it's not connected to the mushroom (at least not directly). Today it’s a cute seaside community on the Firth of Forth, east of the city, but in the 13th century Portobello was a stretch of moorland called Figgate Muir (or moor), with figgate thought to be a Saxon word for “cow’s ditch” or “cow’s road.” It became a haven for smugglers and sailors by the early 1700s, and in 1742, a Scottish seaman named George Hamilton built himself a cottage there. Hamilton had recently served during the British capture of Porto Bello, Panama, in 1739, and he borrowed the exotic-sounding name for his little house: porto meaning harbor or port, and bello meaning beautiful. Portbello Hut stood until 1851, and as a village built up around it—thanks to a deposit of clay leading to a boom in earthenware production—the name stuck.
On the southeastern slope of Edinburgh’s imposing extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat, the neighborhood of Duddingston is best known for lovely Duddingston Kirk (kirk being Scots for church), a prime example of Scoto-Norman architecture dating back to the 12th century. There’s a reason it was built in the Norman style: It was commissioned by Dodin, a Norman knight who received a large amount of property from King David I. He named the surrounding area in his own honor and began calling himself “Dodin de Dodinestun,” then named the church after the region. A town of the same name sprang up around the church, and the nearby loch (lake) was given the name too. The word later polymorphed into Doudinstoun, in the Scots spelling, and finally into Duddingston, in the English spelling. The town has long been a favorite hangout of Edinburgh’s artists and writers, such as novelist Sir Walter Scott, and the theme continues: The kirk's gardens are used today as a venue during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.
Busy, urban Dalry is right in the middle of the action, between Haymarket and Gorgie in the center of Edinburgh. Its main street, Dalry Road, is packed with shops and restaurants, and is the beginning of the A70 road, but it wasn’t always so urban: The neighborhood originally lay outside of the walls of the Old Town, as a part of the agricultural estate of Dalry House. As for the word Dalry, the jury’s out on its meaning: It could be from dail rig, which is Scottish Gaelic for the "place of the fields (or dales)," or dail ruigh, meaning "king's field." Dail fhraoich, meaning "heathery field," is a possible etymology as well.
Technically an Edinburgh suburb, Kingsknowe is mostly known for its large golf course, appropriately named Kingsknowe Golf Course. The town’s name has nothing to do with any smartypants Scottish monarchs: Knowe is just another word for knoll, a small rounded hill, one that’s often grassy and is sometimes associated with faeries.
With its twee cafés and boutiques, the very Instagrammable neighborhood of Stockbridge seems to explain itself: It does have a notable bridge, built in 1801, which is indeed called Stock Bridge. It’s a stone bridge, though, and the name Stockbridge refers not to livestock but to the Scots word stock, meaning timber. It’s not clear what happened to the wooden bridge, but you can recognize the etymology in the English word stocks, as in the wooden frame used to lock criminals’ hands and feet and display them publicly.
10. DEAN VILLAGE
Dean Village is known as a tranquil oasis in the center of the city, famous for its picturesque cobblestone lanes, colorful gardens, and quaint fairy-tale architecture, and it has a history reaching back at least 800 years. It was first a mill town called Water of Leith Village, after the Water of Leith river that snakes through the area, with about a dozen working mills simultaneously in operation at one point. But in his 12th century Holyrood Abbey charter, King David I referred to the village as Dene, which ultimately became Dean Village. The name change doesn't have anything to do with a university or a guy named Dean; in Scots, a dene is a ravine or a valley. The English equivalent of this word is den, which still crops up today in place names such as in Camden or Hampden.
Right next door to Duddingston is—or shortly will be—the fresh new district of Treverlen, a developing area of Edinburgh that shares its name with the still-in-the-works Treverlen Park, which kicked off in 2016. The name of the new park was carefully chosen by the Duddingston and Craigentinny Neighbourhood Partnership after consulting the public. They picked an old name for a medieval settlement that was included in Dodin of Dodinestun’s massive land grant from King David: Treverlen or Traverlin, dating back to at least the 11th century, No one’s quite sure what this word means, but it was likely based on a Celtic Brythionic tongue, since the village of Treverlen predated the use of Gaelic or Saxon languages in greater Edinburgh. Based on this clue, there are a few theories: It could be from tref + gwr + lên, meaning “place of the learned man” or possibly tref + y + glyn, meaning “place of the learned women.” It might also be from tre + war + lyn, meaning “the farm at or on the loch,” or similarly traefor llyn, meaning “settlement by the lake (or loch) of reeds (or rushes).” Trevelen Park is set to be completed in 2019.