Looking at its green and pleasant expanse today, it’s hard to think The Meadows once used to be a loch. Whilst the Nor Loch (now West Princes Street Gardens) used to provide defence and – unfortunately – waste disposal for Edinburgh in the middle ages, the South or Burgh Loch was a little more sanitary and therefore used to be the source of much of the city’s drinking water.
In the mid-17th century, the springs further to the south were tapped and used to bring piped water into the city (these springs still stand today around the Comiston area of the city and some of the original water pipes can be seen in Huntly House museum, which is well worth a trip). As a result, the Burgh Loch was drained and its marshy land began to be reclaimed. Only a few place and street names around the area now remain to remind us what this space used to be, such as Boroughmuir (from the land south of the Burgh Loch, now Bruntsfield Links) to the Lochrin streetnames around Tollcross.
In the 18th century, the area was landscaped and many of the amenities and features still enjoyed today were introduced, most notably Middle Meadows Walk itself, the beautiful tree-lined avenue cutting directly across the park in a north-south direction. Around this time also, the Royal Company of Archers began to use the area as a practice ground, a traditon that continues to this day and marked this year by the 300th Edinburgh Arrow ceremonial competition.
In 1886, the Meadows was the location for the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, which was perhaps the first instance of a temporary installation making use of the wide and beautiful surroundings. A few reminders of this still exist, such as the stone pillars at either end of Melville Drive or – more famously – the whale’s jawbone still standing at the southern end of Middle Meadow Walk.
Since then, the Meadows has become one of the most loved and treasured green spaces for residents and visitors alike. Due to its closeness to the Edinburgh University buildings, it is a popular location for students – either in its capacity as a sport practice ground or just somewhere to hang out and relax.
In recent years, many events and temporary venues have made use of the Meadows, most infamously the Ladyboys of Bangkok and their circus tent during the Edinburgh Festival. Some feel that this constant use of the space is damaging to the environment, and the Friends of The Meadows & Bruntsfield Links group has campaigned for more strict protection of the area.
The Meadows is a beautiful area of the city with a fascinating history which this article has only touched on. Recently-introduced information panels tell more to those visiting, whilst the Friends of the Meadows site has an excellent in-depth article on the topic.
So, the next time you visit, why not imagine how it must have looked when it was covered with water; or with a large Victorian exhibition pavillion in the middle of it – or just think of all those people throughout the years who have enjoyed the same space before you.