About this artwork

This photograph was featured in the book ‘Picturesque “bits” from Old Edinburgh’, published in 1868. It comprises several photographs by Burns alongside descriptive and historical texts by Thomas Henderson. This work highlights the typical living conditions of Edinburgh’s old town at this time – with overcrowding and poor sanitation prevalent. The scene was chosen, according to Henderson, “to show the earliest form of timber-fronted houses”. Despite acting as a documentary record, this photograph also displays a beautiful and almost mystical quality. The ghostly apparitions of figures at windows and walking along the Cowgate, creates a sense of foreboding which anticipates the demolition of these buildings following the 1871 Act of Improvement.

Archibald Burns

Archibald Burns

Archibald Burns was a professional photographer in Edinburgh, best known for his landscape and architectural images. He published an illustrated book in 1868, called 'Picturesque Bits from Old Edinburgh'. This was a photographic guide to the Old Town, which paid attention to social issues such as overcrowding and poor sanitation. Apart from being documentary, Burns's work is quite obviously picturesque. For an added nostalgic look, he often used salted paper which makes pictures appear old and faded.