Peebles (surveyed in 1856)


Peebles lies among hills at the confluence of the rivers Tweed and Eddleston, a little over 20 miles south of Edinburgh. The name appears to derive from a Cumbric or Brythonic word, pebyl or pebyll, which has been interpreted as meaning both 'a place where tents were pitched' and 'place of sheilings', sheiling being a Scots word for a temporary shelter used by shepherds. The burgh was built around a royal castle, at a ford on the principal route between Edinburgh and England. This location gave Peebles a strategic importance, and it was chartered as a royal burgh by David I in 1152 and made the caput or centre of the Sheriffdom of Tweed-dale in 1184. Peebles developed the institutions associated with significant and prosperous towns in medieval Scotland – a weekly market, a monastery, a hospital, a friary and a second castle, Neidpath, a mile west of the town. However, its strategic significance also made Peebles a target for enemies of the King, and the burgh was burned down twice by English troops, in 1403 and 1548. After the second burning, the town was rebuilt several hundred yards east of its original site, on the opposite bank of the Eddleston Water, and defensive walls were erected. Although Peebles had enjoyed some early trade with the continent, via Leith, it did not burgeon as a trading burgh, and despite its medieval prominence, the town did not expand to the same extent as many other Scottish burghs during the country's greatest period of industrial growth, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The burgh population in 1851 was measured at 1,982.

Town Planning

Although the present town of Peebles was not built until the mid-sixteenth century, it follows a typical Scottish burghal layout, similar to that of the original medieval town. The High Street slopes slightly from the Castle Hill at the west end (sheet 5) to the market cross at the east end (sheet 6), broadening slightly to provide an open area for the market. The current site of the parish church of Peebles, directly in front of the Castle Hill facing east along the High Street, is not its original location: a church was first built here in 1784, as a replacement for the old parish church, which was situated at the west end of the old town. At each end of the High Street the roads fork. At the east end, one road runs towards Edinburgh, the other towards Innerleithen and Galashiels. At the west end, one road crosses the Tweed towards the south and England, and the other crosses the Eddleston into the old town (sheets 4-5), where some houses continued to be built despite the relocation of the town centre.

Trade and Industry

Peebles in the mid nineteenth century appears to have supported little industry. Indeed, Wilson makes the point in the Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland (1857), that 'Peebles has often been twitted for its want of enterprise'. The Statistical Account for 1845 attributes Peebles' lack of indigenous manufacturing to the high price of coal. Nevertheless, in the 1850s there was a textile mill on the Eddleston Water, a woollen mill on the Tweed, and a brewery in the town. Stocking-making was also a small industry in nineteenth-century Peebles. Other ventures were attempted, but failed, including cotton fabric making, leatherworking and a second brewery.

As the capital of Peeblesshire, Peebles was a retail and market centre for the surrounding countryside, and corn and meal markets were held every Tuesday. Seven fairs were also held each year, although these tended to be of only one day's duration.


According to Smith (2001), the land around Peebles is 'of only limited agricultural potential' because of its hilly setting, and the Statistical Account of 1845 noted that the 2,500 ploughed acres in the parish of Peebles amounted to almost all the land that could be profitably cultivated. The staple crops grown were oats, barley, pease, wheat and turnips, and crop rotation took place over a cycle of five or six years. The most commonly farmed livestock were Teeswater cattle and Cheviot and black-faced sheep.

Religious Life

In the 1850s the only intact Church of Scotland building in Peebles was the parish church. Other denominations represented in the town included the Free Church, United Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and the Episcopalians. The Cross Kirk, which had once housed seventy Red Friars, and after the reformation had served for a time as the parish church, had fallen into ruin by the nineteenth century.


Schools in mid-nineteenth-century Peebles included a burgh school, a grammar school, a Free Church school, a boys' boarding school, a ladies' school and two girls' schools. The county hall and jail, now known as the Sheriff Courthouse, was built in the 1840s. In 1857, the Bank of Scotland, British Linen Company Bank and Union Bank had branches in Peebles, and there were fifteen insurance agencies operating in the town. There was one local newspaper, the Peebles Advertiser, which was published monthly.

Culture and Society

In the mid-nineteenth century, cultural and social amenities in the town included a literary and scientific institution, a horticultural society, an agricultural society, a total abstinence society, a masonic lodge and a curling club.

The most notable reference to Peebles in Scottish culture is in an anonymous vernacular poem entitled Peblis to the Play, earlier but similar in form to the more famous Chrystis Kirk on the Grene, whose authorship has been attributed to both James I and James V of Scotland. The poem was probably written in the fifteenth century, and the choice of Peebles as a setting reflects its significance in medieval and renaissance Scotland.