interesting facts about Edinburgh

7 Interesting Facts About Edinburgh

It’s one of the United Kindom’s most picturesque cities, but how much do you really know about the Scottish capital? From knighted penguins to the world’s largest arts festival, here are a few interesting facts about Edinburgh that might surprise you.

Interesting facts about Edinburgh

1. Edinburgh had the world’s first fire brigade

Edinburgh was the first city in the entire world to have its own fire service. Formed in 1824 under James Braidwood, it became the UK’s first municipal fire brigade. Firemen wore dark blue tunics with brass buttons and white canvas trousers and carried an axe, hose, spanner and a length of cord.

2. Edinburgh boasts the largest arts festival in the world

Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. Now in its 75th year, this larger-than-life celebration was born when a group of misfit performers ventured up to Edinburgh to perform in the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival — uninvited. But instead of performing on the city’s acclaimed stages, they performed on the fringes of the festival. The rest is history.

Today, hundreds of artists take over the city for three weeks in August. There are performances from some of the biggest names in entertainment to unknowns at the start of the career, encompassing a range of theatre, comedy, dance, physical theatre, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals, opera, music, spoken word, exhibitions and events. This year, the festival takes place 5-29 August (2022).

Editorial credit: Madison Muskopf /

3. Over 75% of Edinburgh is listed

Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site covers almost two square miles. Over 75% of all the buildings here are listed too – a whopping total of more than 4,500 buildings. That’s the highest concentration of listed buildings anywhere in the UK. Some of the city’s most famous heritage buildings include St. Giles’ Cathedral, Bute House and Scottish Parliament.

Many of these buildings came under threat in the past few years, but following the pandemic, city leaders declared almost all of the city’s most important historic buildings are safe.

interesting facts about Edinburgh

4. Edinburgh castle has an interesting history – and it hasn’t always been fit for a king

Edinburgh Castle’s roots date all the way back to the Iron Age, with a hill fort on top of the mighty rock Edinburgh Castle stands on today. When the Angles invaded in 638 AD, the rock became known by its English name – Edinburgh. The town then grew out from the castle, with the first houses erected along Lawnmarket and down the slope of the rock to form the Royal Mile.

The castle became Scotland’s chief royal residence in the Middle Ages. Dozens of Scottish and English monarchs have lived in Edinburgh castle, as well as military troops. The oldest known inhabitant was Margaret, the English princess. She was born and raised in exile in Hungary, returned to England aged 10, and then fled to Scotland after the Norman invasion in 1066. She married King Malcolm III in around 1070 but died soon after her husband in 1093. Other famous residents include Mary Queen of Scots, King James VI, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scot.

How long did it take to build Edinburgh Castle?

Edinburgh Castle acted as an excellent prison too. During the Scottish Wars of Independence, many fighting for the opposition found themselves captive. Then during the Seven Year’s War, prisoners from America, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands and Poland piled into the vaults. Today, Edinburgh serves as a military station and is home to the Scottish National War Memorial. It’s also home to the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny.

5. Edinburgh is home to a knighted penguin

Edinburgh Zoo is home to a knighted penguin. Sir Nils, officially Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III, is the Norwegian King’s Guard mascot and colonel-in-chief. The unusual tradition kicked in 1961 when Lieutenant Nils Egelien of Norway visited the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland. While he was there, he took a trip to the zoo and fell in love with the penguins. When the Norwegian King’s Guard returned in 1972, Egelien persuaded them to adopt a penguin at the zoo. They named him Nils Olav after Egelien and the King of Norway, King Olav V. In 1982 the penguin was promoted to lance corporal. Every time the guards returned, they promoted him. The original Nils Olav died in 1987, but he was replaced by Nils Olav II in the same year.

The newest mascot was knighted in 2008 and now lives with the rest of the colony on Penguins Rock. The decorated penguin even got a promotion in a special ceremony in 2016. More than 50 Norwegian soldiers from the unit attended the ceremony. They then went on to participate in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

6. Edinburgh invented the jaffa cake

Fan of the famous Jaffa Cake? You have Edinburgh to thank for that. Confectionary giants McVitie invented the orange-flavoured delicacy in 1927, though it was named Jaffa Ora back then. Apparently, Palestinian farmers first developed the recipe, which used apricot, sugar and tangerine oil.

But is it a cake or a biscuit? The debate still rages, despite a court ruling in 1991 that Jaffa Cakes should be considered cakes for tax purposes. The Irish Revenue Commissioners also ruled in favour of Jaffa Cakes being cakes due to the fact that their moisture content is greater than 12 per cent. It’s still VAT today.

interesting facts about Edinburgh

7. There are more statues of animals than women in Edinburgh

Edinburgh has more than its fair share of statues, but where are all the women? The Royal Mile features six statues of men and a grand total of… zero women. In fact, the city boasts more statues of named animals than women. You’ll find Greyfriars Bobby on George IV Bridge, and Wojtek the Bear and Bum the Dog in Princes Street Gardens, but only two public outdoor statues of named women. These aren’t even in the city centre: the bronze sculpture of Queen Victoria is in Leith and the sculpture of social activist Helen Crummy is in Craigmillar.

Edinburgh’s history is packed full of influential women too, from Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven to Elsie Inglis, the pioneering doctor and suffragist. Over the years there have been a few campaigns inviting Scots to nominate famous Edinburgh women that they would like to see recognised, without much success.

Allie D'Almo

Allie is a passionate traveller with a hearty interest in great food and stories. She likes to travel slowly, particularly to underrated and underloved places. She’s lived in Italy and is now based in London, where she spends most of her time either plotting her next trip or writing about her last one.

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