Edinburgh's picturesque surroundings are nowhere near as old as people might think


White Horse Close after its restoration in the 1960s.  Image: Lost Edinburgh.

White Horse Close after its restoration in the 1960s. Image: Lost Edinburgh. -Credit:No credit

Tucked away in the bustling heart of Edinburgh's Old Town lies White Horse Close, a charming courtyard that transports visitors back in time – or so it seems.

White Horse Close, just a short walk from Canongate on the famous Royal Mile, appears to have remained unchanged since the 17th century and to have its historic aura intact.

The conclusion is steeped in history; Here the White Horse Coaching Inn, founded by Laurence Ord in 1623, served as a starting point for stagecoaches to Newcastle and London.

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The inn is rumored to have hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops during the Jacobite occupation of Edinburgh in 1745, and is also the birthplace of William Dick, the famous veterinarian, in 1793.

But not everything is as it seems. Despite its historic charm, White Horse Close was extensively restored after the Second World War, leaving very little of the original buildings remaining.

The reconstruction was so extensive that the original configuration of the building's structures was obscured, leading one architectural historian to remark that the work was “…so obviously a forgery that any intention to deceive can be excluded from it.”

White Horse Close, a popular subject for photographers in the late 19th century, underwent careful restoration in 1889 alongside the Canongate Tolbooth. During this period, preservation of the Royal Mile's architecture was a rarity, while numerous tenements were demolished due to decay.

White Horse Close was excluded from this trend due to its historical significance.

Scots Magazine vividly described the condition of the building during this time: “Although it looks run-down, unkempt and smeared with whitewash, the place is an ancient poem, beautiful in its decay, with the calm colors that old buildings have.”

As the mid-20th century approached, it became clear that a far more ambitious renovation plan for White Horse Close was necessary. In 1959 the stones of these structures were acquired by Edinburgh Corporation with the intention of raising resources for their modernization.

While the renovation carried out by Frank Mears and Partners in 1965 brought out the building's quintessentially Scottish features – wood lattices, pantile roofs and the classic stepped gables – the deteriorating buildings required extensive reconstruction, losing some of their original authenticity.

White Horse Close in Edinburgh appears to be one of the oldest parts of the city, but its history is more complex than it seems.

Although White Horse Close may not be a true 'survivor' of 17th century Edinburgh, restoration work in the 1960s managed to retain the courtyard's picturesque charm.