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Old Edinburgh Reborn

How the magic is done

Edinburgh's history is incredibly well documented. There are maps, paintings, prints, diagrams, architects' drawings, seating plans, sketches and written accounts going back to the middle ages and beyond. Yet none of these really let us experience what the city looked like. In today's world photographs are captured in their millions. If we go back to the 1950s photos are fewer - and perhaps a little faded and more grainy. Much before that, and they're in black and white, or shades of sepia. But Edinburgh is fortunate to be one of the birthplaces of photography. The first Edinburgh cityscape was shot in 1839 by Thomas Davidson - the same year that the first practical Daguerrotype was captured in France. Edinburgh was right there at the cutting edge of technology! David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson set up their studio in 1843, just four years later. Their photographs of Edinburgh record many Edinburgh streets and buildings which were ancient in their time and now long lost. 

Cardinal Beaton's House, Cowgate, Edinburgh Thomas Davidson photograph

Cardinal Beaton's House,

The Cowgate, Edinburgh

Photographer - Thomas Davidson


Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Gift of Mrs Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell 1985

By combining contemporary sources it's possible to draw up plans and take these into a 3D modelling application. Here's Parliament Square with the old Parliament Hall at the top, and St Giles Cathedral on the right.

Parliament Square Blender CGI plan

There is more than one print based on original artwork. This one is by H Arnot from the History of Edinburgh published in 1816.

Parliament Hall H. Arnot, History of Edinburgh

Based on sources like this it's possible to build a virtual 3D model. Here the software used was Blender, which is freely available. So by applying colour and texture to surfaces you can start to build a more realistic image. And the proportions and perspective are more accurate than they are in Arnot's drawing.

Parliament Square visualisation from the same vantage point as the Arnot print

Parliament Hall, Edinburgh

Modelled by Robert Sproul-Cran

Not for reproduction - this is still just work in progress.

But this is just where the fun starts. Because once you have a model you can change the lighting, the time of day and the weather. And you can move the camera about to take photos from your own preferred vantage point. Let's make it night time, on a starry evening. We can drive the carriage forward towards Parliament Hall, then take a few steps up the side entrance to St Giles to see over the horses. Let's light the carriage lamps too and add a little mist. And here we are stepping back in time to see a view which nobody has seen since the early 1700s.

A carriage waits outside the Scottish Parliament on a starry evening in 1700
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