#NATIONALSTORYTELLINGWEEK – DAY FOUR – NOR’ LOCH
BEFORE PRINCES STREET GARDENS, THERE WAS NOR’ LOCH.
Once a marsh, Nor’ Loch was part of the natural defence of the Edinburgh Old Town. Because the Old Town was built on a steep ridge (still clearly visible today), it expanded on an east-west axis, eastwards from the castle; expansion northward, as would happen with the later New Town, was extremely difficult at this point. The Nor Loch was thus a hindrance to both invaders and town growth.
In 1460 King James III ordered the marsh to be flooded in order to further strengthen the castle’s defences.
At that, is how Nor’ Loch came to be.
Middle Ages to 19th century
As the Old Town became ever more crowded during the Middle Ages, the Nor Loch became similarly polluted, by sewage, household waste, and general detritus thrown down the hillside. Historians are divided on whether the loch was ever used for drinking water.
Nor’ Loch was used for a variety of things, spanning way further than your average castle defence. Some of it’s uses include;
- Witch Trials: It is a popularly held myth that the Nor’ Loch was the site of ‘Witch ducking’ in Edinburgh. ‘Witch ducking’ or ‘the swimming test’ was employed by Witchcraft prosecutors in some areas of Europe as a method of identifying whether or not a suspect was guilty of witchcraft.
- Suicides: The Nor Loch was a popular spot for suicide attempts during its existence.
- Crime: The loch appears to have been used both as a smuggling route and as a site for the punishment of crime.
It was a very handy, multi-purpose Loch.
In 1763 the eastern end of the Nor Loch was drained to allow construction of the North Bridge although frequent floods both then and now, threatened to “resurrect” it.
Draining of the western end was undertaken 1813 to 1820, under supervision by the engineer James Jardine to enable the creation of Princes Street Gardens. For several decades after draining of the Loch began, townspeople continued to refer to the area as the Nor Loch.
#Scaredinburgh Side note.
In 1628, a man called Sinclair confessed to committing incest with his two sisters. All three were sentenced to death, but it was said that the clergy commuted the sentence on the younger sister. Sinclair and his older sister were placed in a large chest with holes drilled in it and thrown into the loch to drown. Two centuries later, in 1820, the chest was rediscovered by workmen digging a drain near the Wellhouse Tower of the Castle. Although later 19th-century accounts report only two skeletons being found in the chest, the noted antiquarian Sir James Skene of Rubislaw, who was present at the work in the gardens, reported that the skeleton of a tall man was found between those of two women, suggesting that the younger sister had indeed also been executed.
The popular Princes Street gardens now stands where Nor’ Loch once did. Hundreds of people visit it per day, in summer children play on it and people ‘sunbathe’ (there isn’t much in the way of sun in Scotland). Little do they know, the history of what used to be.