Highlights from the photograph collections

Archibald Burns

Edinburgh street scene
The Horse Wynd, Edinburgh.
Salted-paper print from wet-collodion
negative, 1871. [Library reference:

Photographer Archibald Burns was based in Edinburgh from the early 1850s, working as a bookseller for the publishers and printers Oliver and Boyd. He was first recorded as a member of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1858. Around 1866 he set up in business as a commercial photographer and his photography business continued until his death, aged only 49, in 1880.

Burns made his living principally from selling stock-images of Edinburgh for the burgeoning tourist market. He also provided photographs to illustrate books of Edinburgh.

Slum clearances

In 1870 Burns was appointed by the Edinburgh Improvement Trust to document buildings in the area between the Cowgate and what is now Chambers Street. These buildings were shortly to be demolished as part of a slum-clearance programme.

The area had been grossly over-populated, with families cramped into squalid housing. The conditions prompted John Murray's 'Handbook for Travellers in Scotland' in 1868 to describe the Cowgate as 'one of the poorest and filthiest lanes in the United Kingdom'.

Sense of upheaval

Burns's photographs were taken quickly in November and December 1870, while the buildings were in the process of being demolished. The photographer captured the sense of desolation and the impending sense of upheaval for one of Edinburgh's oldest areas. The images have a hint of melancholy, which is heightened by his use of the (by then) old-fashioned salted paper process in the set owned by the Library.

This is one image in a collection of 26 prints we acquired in 1929.


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