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):


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.