A Most Elegant Dirt Heap

The Mound, view uphill
The Mound from near Princes St

If you are on Princes Street, whichever end you are coming from the line of sight will be dominated by the Castle and Old Town atop the rock, and The Mound rising up as a grand processional way.  I can never resist its graceful sweep, the views that open up as I gain height; my quickening breath from the climb accompanied by a sense of traversing a threshold from New to Old far stronger than crossing the actual Bridge a few hundred metres to the North.   You might think The Mound has been there forever, a natural feature; in fact it came into being only in 1780, and is as man-made as the Georgian architraves it overlooks in the New Town.  

As elegant as it seems today, this route wasn’t part of the city’s grand 18th Century design for Edinburgh.  Rather The Mound was a rather incongruous dirt heap spawned heedless to the hallowed perfection of the City’s vision.  A creation of the populace, it stands testament to practicality, the ultimate ‘Desire Line’: evidence that the paths directed by human feet can trounce town plans even of the bold scale of Edinburgh’s New Town.  It shows the simple power of a good idea.

Allow me to share this story which for me conjures across the centuries, as if carried on the bracing wind, the voices of the ordinary people whose feet walked these streets before us, were here when it underwent its most exciting transformation.  The story was immortalised by Edinburgh writer Robert Forsyth in his 1805 work The Beauties of Scotland.    

Seeing the New Town take form on the opposite side of what had until 1765 been the polluted ancient Nor’ Loch (now Princes Street Gardens), must’ve been of great interest for the Edinburghers housed nose-to-tail atop the crowded crag-and-tail.  Here was a world-class development par excellence: cutting edge architecture and design showcasing spacious, aesthetic, living for the rich and famous of Edinburgh Society.  With construction on such a grand scale these works must’ve been a sight to behold.  

One of the curious citizens known to have ventured daily across to the site to observe progress was Mr George Boyd, “clothier” and keeper of a tartan shop on the Royal Mile, in the upper stretch near the castle called The Lawnmarket  – where tartan shops still abound though both merchandise and clientele are somewhat altered today. With clients already based in the New Town, he had regular business to attend over on ‘the other side’. Forsyth tells us that Boyd found crossing the gully by the newly completed North Bridge an inconvenient detour.   Anybody crossing in poor weather knows it as an exposed, windy route; one can imagine the novel allure of instead cutting straight across the drained floor of what had until recently been an obstructing body of water.  

Boyd persuaded a handful of like minds to chip in modest funds to lay a simple pathway of planks and stepping stones across the loch bed which, though drained, was still “as like a swamp”.  He next persuaded some construction workers in the New Town to “convey to the same spot their rubbish and the earth dug out in laying the foundations of their buildings”, providing a firmer base for the footpath which no doubt was tamped down by ever-increasing traffic as people started to use this short cut.  The builders couldn’t have taken much persuading to dump their rubble in such a convenient location! Indeed a veritable heap soon sprung up and the resulting causeway became known in the neighbourhood as ’Georgie Boyd’s Brig’ and ‘The Mud Brig’.  

One can just imagine the City Fathers’ consternation: “Typical: we pioneer the engineering marvel of the North Bridge and they take a mud-path!”  But evidently they saw the advantages of this land-bridge “dividing the long Princes Street into two manageable halves”, because although it must have been an absolute eyesore the City authorities soon granted formal permission for all the New Town builders to remove their spoils to the same location.  No doubt it helped to firm the boggy basin of the drained “foul-smelling, stagnant” loch too.  

An average of 1800 cartloads of soil from the New Town would be deposited here daily over the subsequent decades, and gradually The Mound on the scale we see today took form.  It was wide and firm enough to be “passable for carriages within three years”. According to Forsyth’s back-of-a-snuff-packet reckonings, with three cartloads equating to roughly “a cubical yard” the mound “contained 1.3 million cartloads in all” – and that was only by 1805.  The accumulation continued until 1830, comprising a full fifty years and an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of rubble. Forsyth points out that had this work been paid for, at the expense of, let’s say, “four pence per cart”, plus the necessary dues for “digging, filling and carrying”, then, as of halfway through the construction, it would have cost the Burgh some Thirty-Three Thousand Pounds, a tidy sum equivalent to (only!) £2.6 million today.  Yet it cost the canny City nearly nothing. The ‘Earthen Mound’, as it was known for much of the 19th century, was born – and all thanks to Georgie Boyd’s vision.  

This is indeed a tale of triumph of the little man, but one with an unfortunate sting in its tail.  For after its fifty-year development, when this finished route was finally, officially incorporated into the town plan and the street layouts adjusted to connect properly with The Mound, guess who saw his own shop torn down to make way for the new access?  You’ve guessed it: poor Georgie Boyd!

Let his sacrifice live on, and may we marvel at the achievement and cherish this exhilarating passage that conveys us direct from the shops into the city’s ancient spiritual heart.  Now, who wants to chip in with me for an escalator?