Portobello

(Figget)
City of Edinburgh

Bottle Kilns: remnants of A.W. Buchan & Co., Pottery Factory, Portobello
©2024 Gazetteer for Scotland

Bottle Kilns: remnants of A.W. Buchan & Co., Pottery Factory, Portobello

Located just 3 miles (5 km) east of the centre of Edinburgh, this seaside town on the Firth of Forth originated from a single thatched cottage in 1763 held by a veteran of Admiral Vernon's 1739 campaign at Puerto Bello in Panama. Known initially as Figget, the settlement grew rapidly owing to a brick and tile industry which exploited beds of clay beneath the Figgate Burn. A harbour was established in 1788 to export these products. By the end of the century Portobello had become a fashionable bathing resort for Edinburgh's well-to-do. Other industries developed producing bottles, glass, lead, paper, pottery, soap and mustard; an oyster bed was exploited after its discovery in 1839. The town was made a burgh in 1833 and was incorporated into Edinburgh in 1896. By the 1840s the harbour was ruinous and the only reminder today is in the name of the Harbour Green housing development. A pleasure pier opened in 1871, designed by the later-notorious Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-80) and featuring a tea room and a concert hall. Having fallen into disuse and damaged by storms it was demolished in 1917. Two bottle kilns, which were built in 1906 and 1909 as part of the A. W. Buchan & Co pottery, remain as a monument to that industry. One partially collapsed while being restored in 2013, but was later rebuilt. In operation between 1923 and 1977, Portobello Power Station was run by Edinburgh Corporation and burned coal to generate electricity for Edinburgh and the surrounding area. Its cooling water heated the Art Deco Portobello Open Air Pool, which opened in 1936. This was the largest of its kind in Europe and could hold 1300 bathers and seat 6000 spectators. It featured multi-level diving boards and a wave machine, the first to be installed in an outdoor pool in the UK. The actor Sean Connery (1930 -2020) was a life-guard here in the 1950s. The pool closed in 1979, proving impractical to run without its source of free heat. Both power station and pool were later demolished, the former replaced by housing, the latter by sports facilities.

Portobello now serves as a fashionable residential suburb for Edinburgh, with a mix of fine Victorian villas, terraces, cottages and tenements, together with modern housing. Nearby is Joppa which was created in the early 19th century. A popular tourist attraction is the Portobello Promenade, which extends behind a fine sandy beach for 2 miles (3 km) west from Joppa to Seafield.

Notable buildings include the Old Parish Church (1809), the multi-spired St. John's Church (1909) and the villas along Regent Street (early 19th century). The Tower on Beach Lane was built c. 1786 as a summer house using Mediaeval carved stones. A railway station operated on Brunstane Road between 1846 and 1964. The site was redeveloped as a Freightliner Terminal (next to Sir Harry Lauder Road) which operated until the 1980s, although the facility remains intact and the East Coast Main Line railway still passes.

Distinguished residents of the town were geologist Hugh Miller (1802-56), who shot himself at his home on Portobello High Street, physicist Sir David Brewster (1781 - 1868), Antarctic explorer William Speirs Bruce (1867 - 1921) and a young Sir William Russell Flint (1880 - 1969). Music hall artist Sir Harry Lauder was born here in 1870, as was pianist and composer Helen Hopekirk in 1856, and railway engineer James Bell (1844 - 1935). The art impresario Richard Demarco (b. 1930) was raised here. Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) visited the home of his son-in-law and biographer John Gibson Lockhart (1794 -1854) in Bellfield Street. Ian Charleston (1949-90), the actor noted for the film Chariots of Fire was buried in Portobello Cemetery.


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