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  • 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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