Edinburgh Castle from the Grassmarket - a Victorian photograph.

Slum Life In Victorian Edinburgh - A unique look at our city's history

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2017 Certificate of Excellence winner - Tripadvisor - Historic Edinburgh Tours Ltd
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Your Slums Life in Victorian Edinburgh history tour

This is a walking tour of Edinburgh with a difference!

Come with us as we reveal the lives of Edinburgh’s poorest Victorians. We’ve only ever received five-star reviews for our Victorian Edinburgh tour, and it’s one we love.  

We endeavour to cover everything that we’ve outlined on this page.  Sometimes, however, external factors can impact our tours.  Edinburgh often has special events, some of which involve diversions and ‘blocked off’ areas.  We will also make alterations to the route of your guided walk if someone has mobility issues.  We aim to deliver an Edinburgh walking tour which is perfect for you.  If there are stories or places outlined here which you wish to see, please let us know, and we will make these our priority.

This is your tour. Robert, your Edinburgh tour guide, can’t wait to reveal the lows and the highs of life for our poorest residents during this time.


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Robert, pointing out the past to a group!

Not for the faint hearted but a brilliant tour that takes you off the main 'touristy' parts so even if you've done several other walking tours, its unlikely you'll be covering the same ground on this one. The props and visuals used by our guide were brilliant in helping us to really get a feel for how streets looked, and really brought the whole experience alive."

RCooper74  Tripadvisor - August 2020

A detailed itinerary

Remember, this walking tour of Edinburgh is private - you can choose when it starts! We’ve also got some flexibility with distances and elevations on the walk. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss these alternatives.  Robert, your guide, has lived in Edinburgh all his life.  He can suggest alternatives where possible.

In this private Edinburgh tour, all your locations will take place within the Old Town. We’ve outlined all the story possibilities for your tour.  We may not cover them all, it depends on where your interests lie.  Remember, this is YOUR tour, and we’ve got opportunities to accommodate the things you are interested in!

Story 1 - Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful wee Skye Terrier.
Since Greyfriars Kirkyard is the starting point for most of our tours, we usually cover Greyfriars Bobby’s story.  Our Victorian Slums tour is a very different type of history walk, and the Greyfriars Bobby story takes on a different role.  Greyfriars is a fascinating burial ground, but in this case, it’s the worst place to start a tour about the lives of Edinburgh’s Victorian poor. We’ll share why with you.  It sets us off on a really great footing!

Story 2 - “Gracious heavens!”
The ‘Slums tour’ is very emotional. It’s full of stories of injustice and inequality. We’ll look at an eyewitness account of a lady who lived in Edinburgh’s slums. It’s a really engaging story, for all the wrong reasons, and it helps us understand the mindset of the people who visited and wrote about the slums.  Most of the stories we have of the slums are from these ‘visitors’, not from those who lived there.  

Story 3 - The Edinburgh Poorhouse.
Charles Dickens wrote about the Workhouse.  The Poorhouse was the Scottish equivalent and just as grim and just as depressing. We’ll visit a street which lets us see the remaining section as we find out about life in the Poorhouse.  Clue - it wasn’t much fun! You’ll hear about some very unpleasant links to Edinburgh’s medical experts, and you’ll also discover what the hierarchy of poverty was.  

Story 4 - Making improvements.
Edinburgh was fortunate to have some people who wanted to make a difference.  The City’s Medical Officer of Health- Sir Henry Littlejohn worked tirelessly to improve the lot of our slum dwellers.  He was often helped by the Lord Provost, William Chambers. You’ll find out what diseases were causing problems, the very modern way Littlejohn mobilised support and what improvements were made to the Old Town.

Story 5 - Slum dwellings recreated - and why TripAdvisor wouldn’t have worked.
We’ll stop in the shadows of the city’s Flodden and Telfer Walls.  This lets us catch one of Edinburgh’s best views and gives us space where we can recreate a typical furnished slum room. We’ll use eyewitness accounts to provide you with a bit of a taste of what life was like.  Spoiler - imagine it’s terrible, then multiply that thought! We’ll also spend some time talking about why TripAdvisor would have been a totally alien concept to Edinburgh’s slum occupants.

Story 7 - Fun and sin in the lodging houses!
This is quite a serious tour - although ‘serious’ does not mean ‘boring’.  Robert, your guide, wouldn’t want to disrespect Edinburgh’s Victorian poor by making light of their stories. However, there is a need to make this tour work on all levels and the sites of the infamous Grassmarket lodging houses let us look at the stories of partying, fun, and sin, which took place in these popular dens.








Story 8 - When an improvement isn’t an improvement.
We’ll move along the Grassmarket and then up the picturesque West Bow.  Our tour doesn’t stop at the typical tourist spots, and we’ll walk up the little steps to the Over Bow before stopping at the old Bowhead House site. We’ve got photos of this pretty building to share with you, and we’ll also look at the story of the nearby Ragged School (which we can visit if you’re feeling like a wee hike). We’ll also look at how successful the Improvement Acts actually were. 

Story 9 - The Police Refuge.
Robert will take you down Castlehill and the High Street and on to the old Police night refuge site.  Here we’ll share some images of how this would have looked, and we’ll take a moment to discover a few surprising things about how the police force handled the locals.  We might also examine some of the more amusing dodges used by some unscrupulous citizens to get money from middle-class visitors.

Story 10 - One city - two worlds.
This tour of Edinburgh takes place in the Old Town, but as we pass North Bridge, we can see the affluent New Town in the distance.  The contrast between the two Edinburgh ‘towns’ is what we’ll look at here. You’ll most probably be surprised at just how little people in the New Town knew of the lives of people only a mile or so away in the Old Town.

Stories 11 - Blackfriars Wynd Analyzed.
Our tour now changes as we approach the site of two of the most impoverished streets in Edinburgh. The tour will now explore Blackfriars Street and St Mary’s Street.  Robert will use eyewitness accounts, many from books called ‘Blackfriars Wynd Analyzed” and “Day and Nights in the Closes and Wynds of Edinburgh”.  These books were written about the people who lived in the very places you’re now visiting.  The full nature of the horrors of slum life will become apparent, as will the incredibly sectarian views of some of Edinburgh’s people.

Story 12 - A friendly sporting rivalry.
Often opposing sports teams have a shared past which is full of conflict. You’ll hear about the formation of  Hibernian Football Club.  This club was set up to help the lives of those in the slums.  One of their big breaks came when Heart of Midlothian Football Club broke an embargo to play their new capital city rivals.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And what a history! 

Story 13 - Coming together.
Your Slums life in Victorian Edinburgh tour finishes in the shadows of the John Knox House. We’ll share some images that show how this area looked in the Victorian times, and we’ll talk about the importance of the Temperance Movement.  A building next to the John Knox House was a well known Temperance Cafe. We’ll finish our tour with a heart-warming story about a ‘raffle’ held to raise funds for a local man in trouble with the law.

We’ve gone into some detail with these notes, but the full stories are even more fascinating.  This tour holds an average five-star rating and is the most popular of our Edinburgh tours.

Robert uses archive images, in an A3 book, to help you understand the places you are visiting.
A wonderful image of the John Knox House, we'll tell you about a much less attractive side of this area of the Old Town.
Greyfriars Bobby - Edinburgh's most famous Victorian?