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  • Writer's pictureHolly

Edinburgh - Colourising the Past

Being from Edinburgh, I've always had a fascination and interest in the history and old photos of Scotland's capital, especially the 1800s. It's relevance is more significant after investigating the geneology of my family who were settled predominantly around the Royal Mile from the 1700s. So by viewing these early photos I can get a sense of perspective to what the streets and people were like when my ancestors walked around the city.

Of course most of us know the Old Town (around the Grassmarket, the Cowgate and the Royal Mile) has remained reasonably consistent in look and design over the last two hundred years, but it stills leaves me with a sense of walking through history whenever I tread those streets.

With that in mind, I decided to try my hand at colourising some of these old photographs produced by the early photographers like Alexander Inglis, Archibald Burns, Patrick Geddes, Thomas Begbie, Hill and Adamson (David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson) and William Donaldson Clark.


This first photo, by Hill and Adamson, is a gem. Three guys having drinks in a tavern (it's actually Hill and Adamson) larking about. You could take that scene and place it in a pub today and only the clothes they are wearing would be different.

Life on the Street

This next photo is a street scene outside Huntly House in 1902. What fascinates me is the young girl standing outside a shop studying whatever is on display. She has her hair in a long pigtail, dressed very smartly and holding a basket. I wonder what she was thinking. Was there something there she wanted and was thinking if she could afford it. Meanwhile there are boys running up the street having fun. Or had they nicked something and were on the run? Further up, a lady is talking to someone leaning out of the window.

The wall is adorned with posters, possibly for products or events. It is a busy scene. There's a lot going on in that one moment.

The Workplace

The Scott Monument stands prominently in Princes Street. You ask most people what they think of it and (if they are of a certain age) they'll tell you it reminds them of the Thunderbirds No. 11 rocket. Look it up if you're not sure what I mean.

Anyway, this photograph shows masons at work on the monument. They are clearly engrossed in the work being done. There's a lot of thought and problem solving going on in this photo. No different from today when we're in our place of work and trying to resolve some issue.

Back then, you started working at a very young age and this photo illustrates that point. This timber yard, William Cummings and Son in Munro Place, Leith was taken in 1898. Young lads stand around with the men. Some of them look no older than fifteen. Apprenticeships obviously started early. Today, some kids struggle to even accomplish a paper round (I include myself).

The Family

Imagine you couldn't even afford a pair of shoes and that walking around the streets barefoot was the norm. Well in 1880, when this photo was taken, it would not be unusual. If you were lucky you might get a pair of hand-me-downs but otherwise you'd be left to run around barefoot.

This photo of a large family standing outside their house would be typical of the working class (that's if they were even lucky to have a job). You've got the mother and father with two olber boys and six young children. Fashion was limited and flat caps would be a staple clothing article for decades and a sign of your status in the Great British class system.

The Colourisation Process

Adding colour to these old photos really brings the scene to life. From faded black and white they are transformed into vivid colour which adds depth to the image.

Many of the original photos are in pretty poor condition, which is not surprising given their age. So the process to clean up and colourise the photo can take anything between one and three days on average, depending on the detail and condition. The first stage is to put the photo through a colourisation software. They process the conversion to colour but invariably the photos can be very tonal, either blue or red, so I then have to manually individually colourise the detail of the photo adjusting colours, tone, contrast and other aspect in the make-up of the photo, while removing blemishes and tears.

It is a labour of love and fulfilling to see the final product all clean and pristine.

The following are two example showing the photos in their original state and the transformation after completing the task.

You can see this photo is covered in white marks and spots.

And here it is, cleaned up looking nearly as good as new.

The next photo illustrates the removal of tears, a particularly time consuming process but the end result is worth it.

You can see this photo is full of scratches and a large tear right through the near middle of the image.

By creating layers and the use of rubber-stamping, you end up with a near perfect photo.

Now, when you pass the council building in the Royal Mile, you can think of this photo and imagine the shop fronts that once stood there.

With over one hundred photos colourised, I'll add more in future posts.


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