In Edinburgh, the tourist season never really comes to an end; like the sea at Porty beach it rises and ebbs but never goes away entirely. One thing that does seem to change as the seasons turn is where our visitors come from. Over the past month, American visitors seem to have predominated and it was while I was chatting to one of these that the topic of The Mound came up.
“What is its proper name?” she asked me, and I had to tell her it really is ‘The Mound’. To be fair, both Edinburgh/Auld Reekie and National Monument/Edinburgh’s Disgrace had come up earlier in the conversation so it might have seemed to her a reasonable assumption that many other things in the city have a colloquial name to go alongside their ‘official’ name and I’d just used the former. (In fact that is true but we’ll go into it another time).
The origins of the mound go back to around 1780 and an Old Town resident named George Boyd who had a clothing shop in the Lawnmarket, (one early 19th century book described him as a ‘dealer in Tartan’, which seems a little picturesque). George was fond of visiting the works in the developing New Town but disliked having to go around via North Bridge. He thought a direct connection from Lawnmarket to the new suburb would be the ideal thing. It appears other thought the same, for he managed to persuade his neighbours to help him with paying to have some stepping stones put in place across the bed of the Nor Loch. Though this had been drained, it was still swampy and otherwise impassable. This though, was just the beginning, for George was about to have a stroke of genius.
Over in the New Town the building works were proceeding apace. However, the levelling of ground and the digging of foundations were producing vast quantities of waste earth, where was all this spoil to go? ‘Why not make a bridge with it?’ suggested George, and the idea of the Mound was born.
Permission was sought from the city council and they readily agreed. For the next fifty years an average of 1,800 cartloads a day would be tipped onto what the locals first called Geordie Boyd’s Brig then the Earthen Mound and finally just, the Mound.
Because it was just packed earth, the Mound wasn’t suitable for stone buildings but a range of smaller wooden buildings, some little more than shacks, soon appeared, offering a range of low-brow entertainments such as gambling tables, shooting galleries and coconut shies. There was also the slightly more respectable Rotunda where visitors were entertained by moving circular panoramas, courtesy of a magic lantern show. These were all cleared away in the 1840s when the National Gallery was built. The roadway was widened and macadamised around the same time.
Today, the mound is still fulfilling George Boyd’s original vision of a thoroughfare connecting the Old Town to the New. However, I wonder if he ever had a moment of regret. For the town council decided that while the Mound was a splendid addition to the city, it didn’t join the Lawnmarket quite where they wanted. Therefore they added a sweeping curve round behind the Bank of Scotland to meet Bank Street. To do this they obtained parliamentary permission to demolish some old buildings ‘almost without value’, they said and ‘sinking fast under the pressure of their own weight’. One of these buildings, was George Boyd’s shop.
Reflecting back on my conversation, I can’t help but think that the city fathers of the day were a little remiss, and that our American visitor had glimpsed their error, for surely the proper name of the street should have remained, Geordie Boyd’s Brig, thus giving locals the opportunity, of referring to it, for obscure historical reasons, as ‘The Mound’. Somehow, that would be more Edinburgh.