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Tag Archives: Edinburgh

  • Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide by Jan-Andrew Henderson

    For much of Edinburgh’s long existence, there was only the Old Town. Perched on a high basalt ridge, it slowly turned from a collection of rude cottages with a fort at the top and arable slopes on either side, to a collection of towering tenements clinging to the ridge.

    The original New Town. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This was the perfect defensive site. Scotland’s history was a turbulent one, so the Old Town never really expanded. It just got more and more crowded. Surrounded by a fortified wall, the greenery disappeared under a rash of tenements, which grew so high they were the tallest in Europe, reaching fifteen stories in some spots. People lived in underground cellars and tunnels, sanitation was non-existent, and the dwellings were rickety fire hazards and living conditions utterly deplorable. By the time the New Town came along, The Royal Mile’s glory days were fading. A huge number of Edinburgh aristocrats and ambitious, well educated innovators had taken off for London, were no longer willing to live in such a dirty, smelly, violent place.

    North of the city, however, were vast swathes of pastoral land. Separated from the Royal Mile only by the pungent expanse of the sewage filled Nor’ Loch, it was too tempting a prize to ignore. Along with Glasgow, Edinburgh was the focal point of the Scottish Enlightenment and still teeming with men of learning. Though the crowded conditions in the Old Town had actually been a perfect cauldron for brilliant ideas and innovation, better living conditions were deemed essential if all those geniuses were to be persuaded to stay. In 1752 a pamphlet called Proposals by Sir Gilbert Minto (1693-1766) argued that a nice new northern development was just the ticket to stop a potential brain drain and bring the cream of Edinburgh society back.

    Princes Street Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This required more than a new area to inhabit. It called for something to equal, or even surpass, the finest suburbs of London. Nothing parochial. British rather than Scottish, to give a cosmopolitan and classical feel. After all, you couldn’t beat the Greeks and Romans at this sort of thing.

    The man who got the ball rolling properly was Lord Provost George Drummond (1688-1766). His tentative first step was to build a gateway between the Royal Mile and the flat, open lands ripe for development – the North Bridge. Next, Drummond needed a builder with a grand plan. So, in 1766, the city launched a competition to design a New Town for Edinburgh.

    The winner was a little-known architect named James Craig (1739-1795), only 26 at the time. His layout wasn’t exactly earth shattering, merely a simple grid structure of three parallel main streets with a large square at either end. But it was loaded with allegory, (very) roughly mimicking the Union Jack, symbolizing the union of Scotland and England under the reigning king George III (1738-1820).

    Walter Scott Monument. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    But the New Town was also symbolic of the Scottish Enlightenment and its beliefs – that society and its environment could be improved by logical and pragmatic thinking. Though grand in scale, the layout was deliberately functional and uncomplicated, rather than the organic, messy development of most cities.

    A natural reluctance by Edinburgh’s citizens to embrace change meant that it took almost fifty years to finish the first New Town. But the result was stunning and the influx slow and steady.  Ironically, the aristocrats Scotland hoped to entice back avoided the place, since they couldn’t plonk some stately home with a mile long driveway in the middle of such a carefully regulated area. This was no great loss, for it was the wealthy and cultured middle class who were most enthused by the ideals and aspirations of the Scottish Enlightenment. And they loved the place.

    This, to me, is the great irony of the New Town. In my opinion, the truly innovative ideas of the Enlightenment came out of the Old Town. Carried to the New World, they found a receptive audience in the thousand of Scots Irish and Scottish Presbyterians who had relocated there. This irrevocably shaped the ethos and national character of what would become the most powerful country in the world – the USA.

    Naturally, the occupants of the New Town were less radical, happy to keep up the momentum that had started on the Royal Mile. The ‘Scottish School’ of thought argued that we were ultimately creatures of our environment – and what an environment the residents now had. But they had no intention of resting on their laurels. They acquired knowledge like sponges. Considered bettering themselves a necessity. Exuded an unshakeable self confidence that their English counterparts now lacked and their predecessors in the Old Town, brilliant though they might be, had never really known. Along with Glasgow’s more free-wheeling counterparts, they altered the face of the globe by becoming the practical and intellectual backbone of an even greater force than the USA. The British Empire.

    Albert Memorial, Charlotte Square Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    The city of Edinburgh finally had a civilized veneer and projected itself as ‘the Athens of the North’, despite the Old Town being a total cesspit. And that’s the sad part, in a way. For the first time, true public division had arrived. Instead of the rich and poor living cheek by jowl, complimenting each other in the generation of innovative ideas, the haves and have-nots were suddenly segregated by distance and class. Civilization had arrived and Edinburgh embraced the fact that it wasn’t just riding the coat tails of Britain’s bid to take over the globe. It was leading the charge.

    The New Town isn’t simply an architectural masterpiece but a monument to the body of men (and a few convention defying women) who changed the entire world.

    Jan-Andrew Henderson's new book Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Leith by Lisa Sibbald

    Places - People - History

    Citadel Caption - The remains of 17th century Leith Citadel. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite having visited Leith on many occasions over several decades, and only living a few miles away in another part of Edinburgh, I never really appreciated Leith’s history until I wrote a small piece for my previous book, A-Z of Edinburgh. I spent a short time walking around parts of Leith and taking photographs, and I knew then that I wanted to write a book about Leith. I spent several months researching the area, taking photographs, and talking to Leithers both online and in person, and I learned so much in the process.

    I was always aware that Leithers were very proud of their heritage and their home, and now I feel I can understand why. There are centuries of history still evident in the very stones and streets – the remains of Leith Citadel date back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and Leith Fort to the late eighteenth century. The street names themselves hark back to a bygone time and Leith’s overseas trading connections – Cadiz Street, Elbe Street, Madeira Street, Timber Bush. Leith’s proud history as a port and docks is all around, from the wonderful Trinity House which was the base of the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipbuilders and is now a maritime museum, to the Malmaison Hotel which is in a former sailors’ home, to the Corn Exchange building with its magnificent frieze showing cherubs taking part in sowing, harvesting and transporting the grain which would eventually make its way to Leith. It has survived wars, sieges, bombings, and being amalgamated, against its will, into the city of Edinburgh!

    Swing Bridge Caption - Victoria Swing Bridge built in 1894 to connect the east and west sides of the harbour. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    From the sixteenth century, Leith had been a centre for storage of wine and brandy, and later whisky production and storage. The whisky industry, with its associated trades such as coopering and transporting, employed thousands of people in Leith, and several famous names were created here, including VAT 69 and Highland Queen whiskies, Glayva, Crabbie’s Green Ginger and, unusually, a non-alcoholic drink, Rose’s Lime Juice. Sadly, from there being as many as 100 whisky bonds at the peak of the industry, the last whisky bond closed in 1995, but the buildings still remain, converted into flats or commercial property.

    Shipbuilding was of course another major trade and employer in Leith for many centuries, with the shipyards having built vessels which sailed all over the world. The last Leith shipyard, Henry Robb, closed in 1984 and another great tradition and major employer came to an end.

    Reflections Caption - Reflections of old and new Leith, with modern flats alongside the Malmaison Hotel, situated in the former Sailors' Home of 1885. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    But Leith isn’t all about history. After a decline which saw many sub-standard tenements being demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, property developers began to see its potential for water-front redevelopment. This led to many new properties being built, along with wine bars and expensive restaurants. Old, run-down, historic buildings were repaired and restored, and given new life and a new purpose. This ‘gentrification’ has been, and continues to be, a subject of great debate, as the price of these luxurious new water-front housing developments is far beyond what many long-time Leith residents can afford. The wine bars and restaurants have replaced the pubs and fish and chip shops that had been there for decades. The Shore area in particular has gone from being the haunt of sailors and “ladies of the night” to a place where people arrive from other parts of town or other countries to eat expensive meals and drink expensive wines in Michelin-starred restaurants.

    Despite some of the new developments being given almost a “theme park” image with nautical themes and paraphernalia seemingly randomly dropped in, Leith isn’t just an area looking to its past. Leithers never forget their motto - “Persevere” - and they move forward. There are now many new businesses dealing in design and IT, buildings providing hubs for small businesses, and unique shops and coffee bars serve locals and visitors alike. The area continues to produce writers, artists, and musicians. It remains a vibrant community, proud of its past, but always looking to the future.

    Lisa Sibbald's new book A-Z of Leith is available for purchase now.

  • Greyfriars Graveyard by Charlotte Golledge

    Greyfriars Graveyard, east wall. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Greyfriars Kirkyard has been described as being the leading burial ground in Scotland. Not only for its place in history but also for those whose final resting place is beneath its turf. These great figures who, although may have been forgotten over the passage of time lent their achievements and successes to the City they called home, contributing to the modern day Edinburgh lived in by a population of over 482,000 people. Within in its walls are forty-four ministers of both Old and New Greyfriars Kirks; forty-one Lord Provosts; thirty-three lawyers and senators of the College of Justice; twenty-six principles and professors of the University of Edinburgh, including two of its founders.  Not to mention numerous doctors, surgeons, solicitors, soldiers, sailors, authors, merchants, artists, architects to name but a few along with families of great fortune and prestige and the more ordinary folk. Collectively they all played their part no matter how big or small in the history of Edinburgh.

    However, it is not these great and ordinary citizens of yesteryear that captivate the visitors to Greyfriars. It is the fantastic monuments the more wealthy citizens left behind. For example, if someone was asked to identify the monument for James Borthwick, most people would not be able to clarify which one it was, especially as his name is no longer visible. With extra information that beside Greyfriars Bobby’s marker it is one of the most photographer mural monuments in Greyfriars, some people would be able to guess which one it is. However if the monument was described by its appearance as a near life size skeleton that appears to be dancing, then apart from a first time visitor who had entered the kirkyard by the lower original entrance then the monument would be instantly identified. This depiction of the King of Terrors instantly draws attention and sets the imagination running. In one hand he holds the book of Destiny and in the other a scythe. There are clues to James Borthwick’s profession in life with the surgical tools that can be seen at either side.

    Flodden Wall, Greyfriars. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    The majority of the symbolism falls into three main themes: mortality; immortality through resurrection and finally the means of salvation. The emblems of mortality are to remind us that death will come to us all. So the time spent in our earthly bodies should be spent well, living a good and moral life before judgement. The most recognisable of these emblems is the death head. There are hundreds throughout the graveyard in different guises: the full face; without a bottom jaw; facing front; partial profile; with cross bones below or behind the skull; the sextons’ tools in place of the bones and the winged skull. There is also the addition of the words Momento Mori which translates as ‘remember that you must die’. There are incorrect theories of what this symbol represents, the most popular being that they are for pirates or plague victims. In the late 1640s plagues began to disappear from the Scottish capital and there are certainly no known pirates buried it its grounds!

    One possible explanation for the use of the skull and cross bones stems from those on medieval monuments when during the times of the crusades, knights or persons of note who died in distant lands and the need for the body to be transported home. Mos Tentonicus was a funerary process that stripped the flesh from the bones that entailed the more hygienic means to transport the bones for proper burial once home. While the skull is pretty self-explanatory the bones being most likely the sword arm that was fighting for God.

    Some symbols of the freemasons. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    The emblems of immortality are there to remind us of the resurrection and the immortal life of the soul. Again the most numerous of these emblems shows the head. In this instance a head coupled with wings, known as the winged soul. It can be used as a main feature or as multiple decorations along the upper detail of a mural monument, such as can be seen on the monuments along the east wall. The winged soul is commonly depicted as a face, often taking the form of a cherub or angels whose gender is not identified, with feathered wings like that of a bird. This represents the deceased person’s soul leaving the body at death and ascending, the body will then rise and join it on the day of judgement.

    The third theme is that of the moral emblems, these are usually the personification of the moral messages they represent. The use of female forms of the classical Greek or Roman world are typical of the early seventeenth century. These include the seven virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity. These along with other virtues are there to remind us of how to live a good life.

    Other symbolism includes animals, plants and flowers and, though few in number in Greyfriars, the emblems of trade. All of these are covered in detail in Greyfriars Graveyard and enables the reader to gain the skills to read the monuments and depict what that person, or their family, is trying to say.  Giving clues to the character of the deceased and how they lived their own lives. These skills can be used not only in Greyfriars but other Scottish graveyards and while the carvings may differ in accuracy, depending on the skill of the mason, the meanings are nearly always the same. As George Elliot said ‘Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them’.

    Charlotte Golledge's new book Greyfriars Graveyard is available for purchase now.

  • Phillimore's Edinburgh by Jan Bondeson

    Reginald Phillimore’s house ‘Rockstowes’ at what is today No. 9 Melbourne Road, North Berwick. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore was born in 1855, one of five children of Dr William Phillimore, the superintendent of a lunatic asylum near Nottingham. He showed promise as an artist already as a schoolboy, winning a Government Art Prize for the painting of a still life group in watercolour, from nature. After a third-class Oxford B.A. in history, he worked as an assistant schoolmaster for many years. A shy, retiring man, he very much disliked the boisterous pupils and their unseemly shenanigans, and wished to be free of his humdrum day job to concentrate on his art, but he could not make a living with pen and brush. The turning point came when three capitalist aunts of his, who had taught school in North Berwick, East Lothian, all died in 1900 and 1901, leaving their house, school and money to Reginald. He decided to move into ‘Rockstowes’, the house formerly occupied by the aunts, with its splendid seaside views. The contrast from the impoverished assistant schoolmaster who hated his job, to the financially independent North Berwick property owner of great expectations, could not have been a greater one.

    Reginald Phillimore with his friend Dr Richardson. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore did not want to live in idleness, and anyway there was a need to accumulate money and provide for his old age. At an early stage after he had come to North Berwick, he began to produce picture postcards from his own drawings. All his early cards had local motives, from North Berwick and its immediate surroundings. The start of the picture postcard boom in Britain coincided with Phillimore’s move to North Berwick, and the quaint East Lothian surroundings must have inspired him to become a full-time postcard artist. From the bay window of his first-floor study at ‘Rockstowes’, he had a good view of the Bass Rock, a steep-sided volcanic rock that is home to many thousand gannets and other sea birds; it inspired several of his early cards. He employed a teenaged North Berwick schoolgirl, Mary Pearson, to do the delicate colouring; since she liked some variation, no two hand-coloured cards are the same. Most of his early picture postcards were conventional in that they depicted a standard view, like the Bass Rock or Tantallon Castle, with brief explanatory text; from the very beginning, they enjoyed good sales locally, since people appreciated that they were of superior aesthetic quality. As he grew more experienced, Reginald invented a style of his own for his picture postcards: there was still a main motive, but often several smaller vignettes as well, and brief explanatory text describing the history of the building, close or street depicted. This proved both a novel and felicitous manner to produce a postcard, and Reginald’s business flourished as a result. He sold his postcards for a halfpenny each to a network of dealers, initially mainly in the Lothians, but with time all over Britain. Between 1904 and 1914, he was one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, admired and collected by many, and easily able to make a living for himself.

    Edinburgh Castle. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Little is known about Reginald’s private life during his North Berwick Edwardian fame and fortune. He kept busy producing his cards, some from his own etchings, others from motives in the Lothians that he personally visited, yet others from old prints he procured in Edinburgh. He more than once went on tour looking for inspiration, and visited Gloucester, Malvern, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and the West Country, producing a series of felicitous cards with various local landmarks. He also visited Manchester, toured Northumberland and Yorkshire, and travelled to most parts of the Scottish lowlands. Since he did not approve of Glasgow, only one of his cards (Cathedral) is from the sprawling Scottish metropolis; nor did he like London particularly, and again just one card (St Paul’s) is from the English capital. The most felicitous of his cards were those from Edinburgh, a city he knew very well, and his many cards from East Lothian. Reginald remained a shy, introverted man during his North Berwick heyday, with a dislike for social pursuits and a fondness for a solitary life in his comfortable Rockstowes studio. The only woman he is known to have befriended was the aforementioned schoolgirl Mary Pearson, who became his housekeeper once she gained adulthood.

    Phillimore’s books about the Bass Rock and Tantallon. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    The Great War came, with its depressing influence on commerce in general and the postcard industry in particular, although Reginald continued to produce postcards throughout the war years. When hostilities ended in 1918, he was 63 years old, but it was not yet time to retire. Since the market for his picture postcards had largely disappeared, he had to conduct an orderly retreat for his postcard company, which once had enjoyed such meteoric success. He sold the occasional painting and etching, but the influx of money was nothing like it had been in pre-war times. He had produced 122 cards from early 1914 until 1919; from the summer of 1919 until the end of his life, he would make only 37 more cards. The market for his postcards continued to decline: town after town on the English mainland was lost, and shop after shop stopped stocking his cards since they were no longer fashionable; yet he remained well represented in Scotland throughout the 1920, particularly in his Edinburgh and East Lothian strongholds.

     

    Reginald Phillimore in his old age. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore’s health, both mental and physical, had always been very good, but in 1936, he suffered a serious stroke, becoming paralysed in the right side of his body and experiencing an impairment of his speech. On sunny days, the loyal Mary Pearson wheeled him about in an invalid chair, and he liked to sit in the small garden to the rear of his house. He is said to have learnt to write, with difficulty, with his left hand, and even to have attempted to copy an old water-colour painting of his; still, this is scant consolation for an artist whose creative power had been broken, for good. As the Bass Rock gleamed in the bright North Berwick sunshine, the shadows grew longer in the Rockstowes geriatric gloom. The memories of a man in his old age are the dreams and hopes of a man in his prime, and as Reginald sat lopsidedly in his armchair in the downstairs parlour, he must have pondered his unhappy days as a schoolmaster, the great inheritance triumph in 1901, the heady Edwardian days as one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, and the slow but steady post-war decline. Reginald Phillimore died on Christmas Eve 1941 and was buried in the family vault at Bridgnorth.

    Jan Bondeson's new book Phillimore's Edinburgh is available for purchase now.

  • Edinburgh at Work by Malcolm Fife

    Edinburgh owes its existence to the Castle Rock, which could easily be defended. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    There have been untold numbers of books on the history of Edinburgh. Few of them, however, have been devote to the City’s economy and industries. My book, ‘Edinburgh at Work’ should go some way to remedy this situation. Its development was very much bound up with the skills of its tradesmen and the enterprises of its merchants. There is evidence that the inhabitants of the region traded with the Romans when they built their fort at Cramond, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

    In the early Middle Ages a small town grew up in the shadow of the Castle which was perched on a rocky hill. Although Edinburgh had yet to become the official capital of Scotland, its kings often resided in its Castle or at the important abbey of Holyrood. This created a demand for luxury items some of which were manufactured locally by craftsman living in the town. Others, particularly wine from France were imported through the nearby port of Leith. Over the centuries Edinburgh’s merchants built up considerable fortunes. They often acted as an early form of bankers lending out their money for business ventures or the purchase of land.

     

    In the days before steam, watermills were the main source of power for driving industrial machinery. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Towards the end of the 16th century a university was established setting Edinburgh on course to be an important centre of learning. It was also becoming an important legal centre with numerous lawyers among its inhabitants. The thirst for knowledge and the demand for legal documents   gave rise to a flourishing printing industry. The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 were a setback for this as well as the development of the City. The King and his court moved to London taking with it their considerable spending power. The Scottish Parliament, however, remained in Edinburgh which somewhat cushioned the economic blow.

    The 17th century also saw the introduction of new skills such as watchmaking and the manufacture of surgical instruments. One of the first attempts to produce beer on a large scale was undertaken by an Englishman who built a new brewery at Yardheads, Leith. The prosperity of Edinburgh was dealt a further blow with the Act of Union in 1707 with an exodus of numerous members of the aristocracy to England.

    Towards the latter part of the 18th century, the City experienced a period of unprecedented expansion. It broke free of the confines its old town walls with the construction of the New Town. This created work for thousands of stone masons and artisans. Large quarries, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, were opened up on the edge of Edinburgh to supply building material. With many of the well to do now living in spacious houses there was more room for household items such as furniture. Large numbers of women found employment as maids looking after the new residences. Horse drawn coaches began to appear on the streets in increasing numbers. Many were built locally. Such was the reputation of their quality that many were exported overseas.

    Statue of James Young Simpson in West Princes Street Gardens. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh also had a booming textile industry manufacturing woollen goods and high quality linen items. With the Agriculture Revolution taking place in the surrounding countryside numerous former farm labourers made their way to Edinburgh in search of employment. Many were unsuccessful and had to resort to begging.

    The coming of the railways in the mid-19th century had a profound effect on the way Edinburgh developed. Up until that point many of its industries such as paper making were concentrated along the Water of Leith their machinery driven by mill wheels. Coal now became the main source of power and industries now became concentrated next to railway tracks particularly in the vicinity of Haymarket and Gorgie.

    Brewing which had first been practiced by the monks at Holyrood now became one of Edinburgh’s most important economic activities. By 1896 of the ninety nine breweries in Scotland, thirty one were located in Edinburgh. Another more recent industry which Edinburgh became noted for was the manufacture of biscuits. The well-known firm McVitie’s started life in a shop in Rose Street in 1830. Somewhat unusually, the City also became a noted centre for the manufacture of rubber goods including Wellington boots. This was due more to a quirk in the patenting of certain forms of rubber manufacture than to any natural advantages of the location.

     

    The Tennent Caledonian Brewery at Roseburn in the mid-1980s. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh had the distinction of having a higher proportion of professional workers than most other cities in Victorian times. It had risen to become the most important financial centre in Britain outside London. Several banks had their head offices here as did numerous insurance companies. With the growing availability of consumer goods in the 20th century, Edinburgh became an important retail centre serving south east Scotland. Princes Street was home to many well-known department stores some of which were household names. There were also thousands of small shops scattered across the City. In the early 20th century, the manufacture of electrical goods such as refrigerators and radios became increasingly important activity in southern England. Edinburgh was initially slow to adopt these new innovative industries tending to rely on its traditional activities.

    During the Second World War, however, Ferranti established a factory to manufacture gun sights for Spitfires. By the 1960s it had become the City’s largest employer manufacturing radar and missile guidance systems. The long established industries, however, such as brewing and the printing of books at this point in time continued to flourish. The situation changed drastically as the 20th century drew to a close. International competition and the mergers between many long established companies saw the almost total extinction of the important brewing, biscuit and printing industries. Many other once important sources of employment also suffered including food processing and engineering.

    Construction cranes in the centre of Edinburgh at sunset. With a booming financial sector there is a constant demand for new offices. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh, however, successfully adopted to meet these new challenges. The growth of the tourist industry and associated services has more than compensated for the loss of jobs in other sectors with some 30,000 jobs now depending on it.  Edinburgh is the second choice for foreign visitors as a destination to visit after London. It has also become an important destination for cruise ships.

    Another major source of employment is the financial sector which has a long legacy in Edinburgh. It is second only importance to that of London and is of international importance. The Royal Bank of Scotland has its headquarters, close to the airport and new financial institutions are also well represented including Tesco Bank. Digital technology now plays a vital role in financial transactions. Edinburgh has gained a reputation a reputation as a driving force in the evolution of the fintech sector which includes e-commerce and mobile banking.

    By 2017 Edinburgh had over 25,000 people working within the digital sector and the number of software companies number over 100, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in Britain. The City’s overall place as a centre of learning has also continued to grow in importance. A hundred years ago there was only one university. The number has now increased to four. The 82,000 university and college students drawn from numerous countries across the world provide a major stimulus for the local economy with their demand for accommodation and services. In 2017 one survey named Edinburgh the best city in Britain to launch a business. It ranked ahead of London, Bristol and Glasgow because of its ‘speedy internet connections, reasonable office rent and a host of university graduates’.

    Malcolm Fife's new book Edinburgh at Work is available for purchase now.

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  • Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80 by Malcolm Fife

    In the late 1960’s I was interested in aviation, and I purchased a camera to record my visits to airports and air shows. Not long after, I decided I did not wish to restrict myself to photographing a single subject, and I began to build up a collection of colour slides on shipping. Leith Docks, on the northern edge of Edinburgh, was just a 30 minute bus ride from where I lived, and I began to make frequent visits there. In those days security was almost non-existent, and one was free to walk almost anywhere. Health and safety regulations were not rigidly applied like today, and it was possible to stand close to cranes unloading cargoes from the holds of ships. There was, however, no way of knowing what ships were in the port in advance, and every visit would be one of hopeful expectation. Sometimes it would end in disappointment, with an absence of vessels, but generally there was almost something of interest to be seen.

    Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80 Grain Warehouse Standing at the heart of Leith Docks is the large grain warehouse built in 1934 and extended in 1958. (Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80, Amberley Publishing)

    At the heart of the port of Leith was the large grain warehouse, constructed in 1934. Standing 150 feet tall, it dominated the skyline. There was often a continuous stream of trucks racing through the docks to collect their consignment of grain, which was loaded onto them by chutes. Large numbers of pigeons often flocked around the base of the warehouse to feed on any grain that may have been spilt. During the early twentieth century, imported grain was one of the main commodities handled by Leith Docks.

    Standing to the east of the grain warehouse on the northern edge of the Edinburgh Dock was the Scottish Agricultural Industries fertiliser plant. It was a major employer in the area, with a workforce numbering over 300. The building itself was a long featureless concrete structure, with a tall chimney at one end, which spewed out white smoke. The plant imported most of its raw materials, which included sulphur from France and the Netherlands, and potash from Germany and Spain. They were unloaded at the bulk handling quay at Imperial Dock. It was one of the busiest parts of the harbour, with the cranes often continuously at work. Coal for power stations was also discharged there. In the late 1970s some of it came from as far away as China, which was particularly unusual for that time, when little trade was conducted with that country. Coal was also exported from Leith Docks, but the amount had declined considerably from previous decades, as many mines had, by this time, closed in the Lothians.  Another bulk item that was imported in considerable quantity was that of timber. For many centuries, southern Scotland had been short of wood for the construction of buildings, and this was a long established trade. Leith had been the main port for Edinburgh since the twelfth century.

    Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80 Merchant Ship Greek flagged Lendoudis Evangelos at the Riverside Quay. It was operated by Evaland Shipping of Piraeus. Built in 1961, this was a typical design for a merchant ship of that era with the superstructure in the centre of the ship. (Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the Middle Ages, ships tied up alongside wooden wharfs on the banks of the Water of Leith. There was a broad expanse of sand, which lay between the harbour and the sea. Merchant ships had to negotiate a narrow channel, carved out by the River running into the Firth of Forth. Despite this natural handicap, Leith in time became one of Scotland’s major ports. Due to its strategic importance, it was also frequently fought over, and the town was burnt on a number of occasions. One of the first improvements to the harbour was a wooden pier extending out to sea, which was later replaced by a stone example in the eighteenth century. As trade expanded and hostilities declined, numerous other improvements were undertaken.

    The first docks were constructed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Over the next hundred years they were followed by larger examples, which were situated further out to sea. The final and largest one was Imperial Dock, built between 1897 and 1904. Around thirty years later, in an effort to encourage further growth, a large expanse of sea was enclosed by the building of the West Breakwater. This was followed by the construction of a lock gate at the entrance to the docks in the late 1960s, which made the whole complex no longer dependent on the tides. Large passenger ships could now dock at Leith instead of having to anchor in the Firth of Forth. At that time the cruise industry was in its infancy, and only a handful of vessels called at the height of summer. Around the same time, a container crane was erected at Leith. It was hoped that this may be the first of many, with the large expanse of water now enclosed by the West Breakwater being developed to handle the newly introduced containers.

    Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80 Oil Tanker Although Leith saw frequent movements by oil tankers in the 1970s, most sailed past the port and docked at Grangemouth, where there was a large oil refinery. (Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the 1970s a number of feeder services operated from Leith Docks, but it was Grangemouth that was destined to become the main container port on the east coast of Scotland. A totally unexpected stimulus to the fortunes of Leith Docks came with the discovery of North Sea Oil at the end of the 1960s. A motley collection of ships assembled here to exploit this resource. Many initially came from the Gulf of Mexico where there was a long established offshore industry. Throughout the 1970s they were gradually replaced by vessels built to withstand the more extreme conditions of the North Sea. They could often be found in the Albert and Edinburgh Docks, which often included several diving support ships.

    In time, every piece of available land on the edge of the quays was occupied by pipes, destined for the seabed. Leith was the hub for the construction of the network of undersea pipelines. Pipes were delivered here on board large cargo ships, to be treated with special protective coating. Once this was completed, they were loaded on to offshore support vessels, to be taken out to sea to their final destination. In contrast to the brightly painted ships that served the offshore energy fields were the N.A.T.O. warships that frequently visited Leith Docks in the 1970s. They were often open to the public at weekends as a goodwill gesture.

    I still visit Leith Docks occasionally, but it has undergone great changes over the last forty years. Cargo ships are now few and far between, with coal no longer being imported, as the power stations that were fuelled by this mineral have closed. The offshore oil industry is now in its twilight years, although vessels associated with it still operate from Leith Docks. The former Henry Robb shipbuilding yard has long since disappeared, replaced by the Ocean terminal shopping centre. On a more positive note, Leith has become a major destination for cruise ships, which bring thousands of tourists to visit Edinburgh each year.

    9781445662565

    Malcolm Fife's new book Edinburgh's Leith Docks 1970-80 is available for purchase now.

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