Edinburgh’s never-built inner ring road

(or Not-Lost Edinburgh).

I’ve been following the excellent Lost Edinburgh Facebook page for a while now. Though sometimes it does get a bit depressing to see pictures of all those amazing buildings and streets that either aren’t there anymore or have been ruined by more recent developments. But when I found detailed plans online for Edinburgh’s (thankfully never built) inner ring road recently, I realised how much worse it could have been. So this blog entry is a tribute to some amazing places that haven’t been lost.

The road plans fascinated and horrified me, a bit like a horror film that you somehow can’t bring yourself to stop watching. The audacity of them seems incredible now, although it was probably par for the course back in the 60s. Basically, as far as I can piece together from what I’ve read, the plan was to have an inner ring road (possibly a full three-lane motorway but definitely at least a dual carriageway) encircling the city centre, running through Haymarket, Tollcross, the Meadows, St Leonards, Waverley, Leith Street, Inverleith, Craigleith, and back round to Haymarket again. When I say “running through”, I really do mean right through. Many of these places would have been either destroyed or at least blighted forever under the plans. In a few places (such as under Donaldson’s School) the road was to be in tunnels, but these were the exception.

Here’s a map I made of the plans (only intended to give a rough idea of the route, may not be fully accurate):

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Here is a link to a scan of one of the original plans (frighteningly it says “Phase 1” at the bottom – if this was only phase 1, god knows what might have got wiped out by phase 2+), and here is a Google map where someone (not me) has added the road routes to a map of present-day Edinburgh (though I don’t think the branch going straight through Arthur’s Seat is supposed to be there. It was bad, but not quite that bad!).

In addition to the central ring, two other motorways would have branched off and joined up with major routes into the city. The A1 would have left the ring road at St Leonards and cut right down the side of Holyrood Park, obliterating the Innocent Railway route and passing very close to Duddingston Loch and the nature reserve. The M8 was also intended to come right into Edinburgh and terminate on the inner ring road. In contrast to the damage that would have been done by the ring road and the A1, this might actually not have been too bad – it was mostly planned to use vacant land parallel to the railway line (where the tramline is now being built) and the route of the old railway line into Princes Street Station (now occupied by the West Approach Road) so the demolition required would have been minimal compared to the other roads.

At first I wasn’t sure whether this was all a wind-up, or some over-zealous student project that wasn’t ever seriously intended to be built. But then I saw this. At some point, someone was serious enough about it to build a huge, detailed scale model of the road through the east end of the city, so it seems probable that the plans were actually genuine back in the late 60s.

But enough background. Onto the not-lost places!

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This is Duddingston Loch, a tranquil wildlife reserve on the edge of the stunning Holyrood Park. Under the plans it would have had a motorway running right alongside it.

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On the Innocent Railway, now a popular traffic-free walk and cycle route into the city, Scotland’s earliest railway tunnel survives. The junction between the A1 and the inner ring would have been near the top of the tunnel and the A1 would have followed the old railway route along the edge of Holyrood Park for some distance.

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The Meadows. A lovely green space in the heart of the city, with imposing old tenement blocks on the south side and views of Arthur’s Seat. Always busy with pedestrians and cyclists, especially in the summer. Melville Drive, the road through the park, would have been turned into a motorway if the plans had gone ahead.

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Tollcross, a historic meeting of routes at the bottom of Lothian Road, with some impressive old buildings. The inner ring road would have had a large roundabout junction right here, which looks as if it would have taken out at least a block in every direction.

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A nice green stretch of the Water of Leith Walkway, behind the modern art galleries on Belford Road, offering a much-needed escape from the noise of the city. The motorway would have emerged from the tunnel under Donaldson’s and crossed the river at this point.

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Inverleith Pond, on the edge of Inverleith Park near the Botanic Gardens. The ring road would have gone either straight past the pond or straight through it, depending on which map you go by. It would then have converged with the river again, following its north bank opposite the Stockbridge Colonies closely for a while before crossing over again at Canonmills.

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Picardy Place roundabout, by the Omni Centre and the Playhouse at the Edinburgh end of Leith Walk, would have become a large motorway junction with an elevated roundabout.

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At Waverley Station there would have been another major junction, with motorway slip roads flying over the tracks to the east and replacing Market Street through the arch of the North Bridge.

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The Pleasance area certainly wouldn’t have lived up to its name as the inner ring road would have been built either on top of it or much too close for comfort for most of its length. It is likely that the courtyard (now part of Edinburgh University and a major fringe venue) would not have survived.

Although not part of the same scheme, there was also a proposal to turn the Union Canal into a motorway into the city at some point, presumably an alternative route for the M8 into the centre, similar to what was done with the Monkland Canal in Glasgow. This never came to pass either and the old canal (now fully restored) survives as a popular walking, cycling and boating route instead.

So there you go. People may somewhat justifiably bitch and moan about the disruption caused by the tram line construction, but the ring road plan was on another level entirely. It’s easy to complain about the traffic congestion as well, but it’s far from certain that the planned motorways would have helped much in the long term. After all, Glasgow does have a motorway network built right into the city, but the traffic levels have caught up and large parts of it are at a standstill again during rush hour. For all its flaws, having had a glimpse of the alternative, I’d much rather drive on Edinburgh’s antiquated road network as it is now.

12 thoughts on “Edinburgh’s never-built inner ring road

  1. I’m not sure of all the detail – my recollection is that there was to be a fly-over at Tollcross as well. The last of this scheme (an extension of the Western Relief Road) was not put to bed until the council elections in the early part of the 1980s.
    I think there was also a plan to create a second level pedestrian walkway along Princes St. You can see the vestiges of this in the wide balconies above some of the 1960s blocks.

  2. Hi James, I was the one who drew that Google map. It was available for open collaboration when I posted it on the SABRE forum, but that strange Arthur’s Seat bit wasn’t of my doing! 🙂 I’ve fixed it now.

    I think there have been at least three iterations of the grand plan for motorways in Edinburgh, and the model of the Eastern Link Road is certainly the most fully realised. The 1949 model by Abercromby & Plumstead (pre-St James Centre and pre-New St Andrew’s House) covering the East End and Picardy Place incorporated more vehicle tunnels and a splendid centrepiece of a concert hall where NSAH now is.

  3. How sad so many people think no further improvement to Edinburgh’s infrastructure is sensible. Funny how the tunnelling of the railways through to Haymarket and the building of The Bridges south across the rolling hills of the Canongate and Newington were/are OK. Such misguided focus on what’s old is OK but anything new would be ‘disastrous’ is typical of this thinking and has meant our great Scottish Capital city has been strangled commercially for over 50 years. Generations of our sons and daughters have paid the penalty for the complete lack of vision. It’s too late now of course. Other cities around the world have attracted the businesses that would have been happy to locate in Edinburgh had the road network been efficient. What’s more, the quality of life for Edinburgh residents would have been immeasurably improved had pedestrian/cycle separation from motorised transportation been possible. Once again, the backward, blinkered, stiflingly ineffectual attitudes of the anti-car fanatics has meant lost jobs, lack of investment, pollution based ill health and above all, a hugely missed opportunity to keep Edinburgh a ‘world city’. Sadly, it never will achieve what other cities around the world now do. It’s all the more depressing to realise that our missed opportunities will never present themselves again and Edinburgh, while quaint and old fashioned, will simply fade away as a place to do business leading to an ever increasing exodus of our best young people in search of a more vibrant lifestyle with better career and business-related prospects.

    • I’m not usually very anti-car or anti-development… I don’t object to most road improvements, but I do think it’s just as well this particular scheme never saw the light of day. Improving the road network is fair enough, but bulldozing a motorway through some of the most historic parts of the city, seemingly without even trying to minimise its impact, doesn’t seem such a good idea, especially for a place that relies so heavily on tourism.

  4. I accept bulldozing historic buildings makes no sense. The Victorians realized this and so put the railway lines underground, using navvies! With today’s tunnelling technology, there is absolutely no reason why an orbital inner ring couldn’t be routed underneath certain areas of Edinburgh’s beautiful architecture, just as the railway does and has done for over a hundred years! To do nothing simply means steady economic decline.

  5. As part of the North Edinburgh organisation in the 60s we have an accurrate map of the proposed inner ring road including photographic records and press comments. A proposal which we successfully faught and won thus saving areas like Canonmills, Warriston Crescent, the Colonies, Inverleith and many other significant and historical areas of Edinburgh from traffic blight and destruction. We always intended to lodge these records with the Edinburgh reference library but now live overseas. Edinburgh should be grateful that a number of very dedicated people spent a lot of time and effort fighting the plans of the city engineers.

  6. Edinburgh should be grateful ? We have a spiteful tram system that nearly bankrupted the council. and it serves a small portion of the population. The inner ring motorway would have been a godsend. A means to provide a well designed corridor that encircled the city and facilitated the movement of people. Edinburgh just now is crying out for decent transport. The city lives and breathes people and hindering the movement of people is a backward step. transport links being the deciding factor in any city. Saving the city or preventing progress ? Id say preventing progress. limiting the movement and curtailing development. it can take an hour and a half to exit the city weekdays – by building in good transport and getting the network right you make a city that people want – that people can navigate and get around.

  7. I love and care about Edinburgh just as much as anyone else. The city has a lot to offer in terms of historical sights and fantastic scenery. However, some folk are living a deluded, nostalgic dream that in my opinion is severely outdated when it comes to this topic. For a capital city and one which is only getting bigger -2nd biggest behind Glasgow (first when festival is on) and now 7th I think in the UK, why on earth are there no modern efficient transport infrastructure routes especially around the city centre? The city is now by far an absolute nightmare to travel through for buses and cars. But typically, nothing will ever be done about it because we seem to care more about a few private parks and some extra noise. It’s saddening as I feel our city is now falling behind in modern times and we are really starting to suffer because of it. Tin Hat on but it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for a more than a while now and hope to see something done within my lifetime.

  8. A very interesting historical array of comments. I grew up in the London road/ Leith walk area. My daily High School (Drummond High) walking route would have been perilously close to the flyovers proposed at Picardy place. I was reminded by local old worthies that Edinburgh was saved from just such a project for my benefit. You see, after moving out of Edinburgh, I have recently returned to living right in the centre, near the Castle. Interestingly, Edinburgh is not just a museum piece or a visitor pleasure palace but a place to live and work in. I walk and bus around my city as a freelance worker. I educate my daughter from home, using the libraries, museums and galleries etc on hand. Having worked in Dudley and Birmingham, being surrounded by the constant noise and vibration of traffic and raised concrete flyovers I am delighted at the wisdom of keeping this living vibrant city centre free of unrelenting motorway traffic. The centre of Edinburgh DOES have families and old residents who just like being here and live cheek by jowl with the constant parade of tourists. Happily and meaningfully. A modern city with a respectful nod to the past.

  9. Edinburgh was once one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It was largely saved from planning destruction thanks to the campaigning efforts of residents in the 60s,70s, and 80s. They were wasting their time. Since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site the destruction has recommenced – the demolition of listed buildings in St Andrews Square, the proposed desecration of the Royal High, the Hotel proposed for St James Square, another by Geo IV Bridge Library, more hideous University development (for a University where only 20% of students are actually Scottish), the whoring of Princes St etc as a fun fair, the tram idiocy. The last generation fought to save Edinburgh for future generations. The present IKEA generation doesn’t seem to give a dam. So long, suckers.

  10. I worked on the Site Investigation of the proposed Edinburgh Inner Bypass in 1968/69. It involved approx. 300 boreholes (cable percussion and rotary) sited from Leith, Waverly, The Pleasance, the Meadows and Tollcross.
    I shudder when I think about moving a rotary rig onto a burial/memorial ( site up from the post office at the end of Princess Street) The site was elevated and looked over Waverley station. Sorry about the vague details but it was a long time ago and we were unfamiliar with Edinburgh being from Warwickshire.
    We had a site office/depot in the grounds of a motor garage in the Pleasance.

    There was a report prepared comprising of 3/4 factual account showing borehole locations borehole sections and a summary interpretative report.
    I have a copy of the latter report and would be prepared to let it go to anyone who had a serious interest.

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