Private Slum life in Victorian Edinburgh Tour

City Tour

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This tour is provided by

Historic Edinburgh Tours

Historic Edinburgh Tours was formed in 2013 with the intention of providing high-quality walking tours around the Old Town of Edinburgh. We research, write, plan and resource our tours ourselves and pride ourselves on a high degree of professionalism. Taking people around our home city is a great honour for us! It fills us with pride when people come from around the world to see Edinburgh!


  • 2 hours approx
  • Private Tour
  • Edinburgh, Scotland

Victorian Edinburgh was really a ‘tale of two cities’ – we’ve got the opulent and affluent New Town right next to the impoverished and packed Old Town. At one time the Old Town had been the key part of Edinburgh, by the mid- nineteenth century it was an area of extreme poverty. These two worlds clash when middle and upper class people went into the slums and reported back. It’s these eyewitness accounts which we will draw on heavily throughout this tour. Life in the slums will be brought vividly to life through excellent story telling, archive images and eyewitness accounts. This often forgotten period in time will be laid bare before you. This is our most emotionally hard tour and we think it is our most fascinating.

Meeting Point

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Walking Difficulty

Gradients and steps




Group size 1-4: £40

Group size 5-8: £60


Remember, this tour of Edinburgh is private – you can choose when it starts! We’ve also got some flexibility with distances and elevations on the walk Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss these alternatives. Robert, your guide, has lived in Edinburgh all his life. He can suggest alternatives, where possible. In this Edinburgh walking tour, all your locations will take place within the Old Town. We’ve outlined all the story possibilities for your tour. We may not cover them all, it depends on where your interests lie. Remember, this is YOUR tour and we’ve got opportunities to accommodate the things you are interested in!
Story 1 – Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful wee Skye Terrier.
Since Greyfriars Kirkyard is the starting point for most of our tours, we usually cover the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Our Victorian Slums tour is a very different type of tour and the Greyfriars Bobby story takes on a different role. Greyfriars is a fascinating burial ground, but in this case, it’s the worst place to start a tour about the lives of Edinburgh’s Victorian poor. We’ll share why with you. It sets us off on a really great footing!
Story 2 – “Gracious heavens!” The ‘Slums tour’ is a very emotional tour.
It’s full of stories of injustice and inequality. We’ll look at an eyewitness account of a lady who lived in Edinburgh’s slums. It’s a really engaging story, for all the wrong reasons, and it helps us understand the mindset of the people who visited and wrote about the slums. Most of the stories we have of the slums are from these ‘visitors’, rather than from the people who actually lived in them.
Story 3 – The Edinburgh Poorhouse Charles Dickens wrote about the Workhouse.
The Poorhouse was the Scottish equivalent and just as grim and just as depressing. We’ll visit a street which lets us see the remaining section as we find out about life in the Poorhouse. Clue – it wasn’t much fun! You’ll hear about some very unpleasant links to Edinburgh’s medical experts and you’ll also discover what the hierarchy of poverty was.
Story 4 – Making improvements
Edinburgh was fortunate to have some people who wanted to make a difference. The City’s Medical Officer of Health- Sir Henry Littlejohn worked tirelessly to improve the lot of our slum dwellers. He was often helped by the Lord Provost, William Chambers. You’ll find out what diseases were causing problems, the very modern way Littlejohn mobilsed support and what improvements were made to the Old Town.
Story 5 – Slum dwellings recreated – and why TripAdvisor wouldn’t have worked
We’ll stop in the shadows of the city’s Flodden and Telfer Walls. This lets us catch one of the best views in Edinburgh and also gives us a space where we can recreate a typical furnished slum room. We’ll use eyewitness accounts to give you a bit of a taste of what life was like. Spoiler – imagine it’s bad, then multiply that thought! We’ll also spend some time talking about why TripAdvisor would have been a totally alien concept to Edinburgh’s slum occupants.
Story 6 – Fun and sin in the lodging houses!
This is quite a serious tour – although ‘serious’ does not mean ‘boring’. Robert, your Edinburgh tour guide, would’nt want to disrespect Edinburgh’s Victorian poor by making light of their stories. However, there is a need to make this tour work on all levels and the sites of the infamous Grassmarket lodging houses let us look at the stories of partying, of fun and of sin which took place in these popular dens.
Story 7 – When an improvement isn’t an improvement
We’ll move along the Grassmarket and then up the picturesque West Bow. Our tour doesn’t stop at the normal tourist spots and we’ll walk up the little steps to the Ovir Bow before stopping at the site of the old Bowhead House. We’ve got photos of this pretty building to share with you and we’ll also look at the story of the nearby Ragged School (which we can visit if you’re feeling like a wee hike). We’ll also look at how successful the Improvement Acts actually were.
Story 8 – The Police Refuge
Robert will take you down Castlehill and the HIgh Street and on to the site of the old Police night refuge. Here we’ll share some images of how this would have looked and we’ll take a moment to discover a few surprising things about how the police force handled the locals. We might also look some of the more amusing dodges used by some unscrupulous citizens to get money out of middle class visitors.
Story 9 – One city, two worlds
This tour of Edinburgh takes place in the Old Town, but as we pass North Bridge we can see the affluent New Town in the distance. The contrast between the two Edinburgh ‘towns’ is what we’ll look at here. You’ll most probably be surprised at just how little people in the New Town knew of the lives of people only a mile or so away in the Old Town.
Stories 10 – Blackfriars Wynd Analyzed
Our tour now changes as we approach the site of two of the very poorest streets in Edinburgh. The tour will now explore Blackfriars Street and St Mary’s Street. Robert will use eyewitness accounts, many from books called ‘Blackfriars Wynd Analyzed” and “Day and Nights in the Closes and Wynds of Edinburgh”. These books were written about the people who lived in the very places you’re now visiting. The full nature of the horrors of slum life will become apparent, as will the incredibly sectarian views of some of Edinburgh’s people.
Story 11 – A nice sporting rivalry
Often opposing sports teams have a shared past which is full of conflict. You’ll hear about the formation of one of Edinburgh’s current top football teams – Hibernian Football Club. This club was set up to help the lives of those in the slums. One of their big breaks came when Heart of Midlothian Football Club broke an embargo to play their new capital city rivals. The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history!
Story 12 – Coming together
Your Slums of Victorian Edinburgh tour finishes in the shadows of the John Knox House. We’ll share some images that show how this area looked in the Victorian times and we’ll talk about the importance of the Temprance Movement. A building next to the John Knox House was a well known Temprance Cafe. We’ll finish our tour with a heart-warming story about a ‘raffle’ held to raise funds for a local man in trouble with the law.
We’ve gone into some detail with these notes, but the full stories are even more fascinating. This tour holds an average five-star rating and is the most popular of our Edinburgh guided tours.