If you go down to the beach today, you’ll be in for a big surprise… No, the teddy bears are not having a picnic, but the sea and/or Figgate burn have performed one of their semi-irregular uncoverings of the old Portobello Harbour from the sand.
The harbour was built in 1787 for local “brick baron” William Jamieson, who had hit the big time when he fued land to the east of the Figgate Burn on which to build a house and instead hit clay, kicking off the town’s brick (and later, pottery) industry.
The other thing needed for brick and pottery kilns – coal – was readily available in the vicinity at Niddrie, around Musselburgh and along the coast at Prestonpans and beyond. Here is the harbour on Wood’s 1824 town plan of Portobello; it lies just east of the Figgate Burn, on the shore, in front of the new flats by the bottle kilns.
The stone pier extended some 100 feet, and a basin was excavated out of the beach between the burn and the wall; but it was doomed to fail thanks to the effects of sand transport along the beach consistently silting it up. Portobello really owes its existence to Jamieson and the clay. Before that, there wasn’t much except a few small cottages and hostelries strung along the road from Edinburgh to Berwick. The brickworks drew in workers and a village began to form.
The nascent workers village was known as the Figgate Village.
Long before it was Portobello, the area was know as the Figgate Muir; an expanse of muirland (Scots for moor) along the Figgate Burn which ran down to the sea. The Figgate Whins (whins in Scots are gorse) bordered the old road above the beach from Leith and Edinburgh to Musselburgh. “Figgate” is referenced as early as 1466 as “Fegot”, part of Duddingston Kirk parish. Fegot possibly comes from the norse Fé (cattle or sheep) and Gata (a “way”, as in the Scots Gait, but also pasture). You can also see it spelled Freegate, Frigate, Figate, Figgot, Thicket, etc. on older maps.
John Adair’s map of the area in 1682 shows it to be nameless and uninhabited, the Figgate Burn being the sole feature to help us orientate where Portobello is today. There is a vague suggestion of a track and stippling indicating the muir and whins. E. Didstoun is Easter Duddingston farm, where the King’s Manor Hotel is now.
Roy’s Lowland map of c. 1750 shows the area clearer, but it still appears uninhabited; nothing more than a road, muir and whins. The road was notorious for banditry; in 1762, the Scots Magazine records that the master of a fishing boat, Alexander Henderson, was attacked on the road across the Figgate Whins when making his way between Musselburgh to Leith and relieved of 12s 6d in money, hit on the head with a broadsword and left for dead. Travellers apparently preferred the open beach rather than the track through the whins, or took the longer route more inland from Jock’s Lodge to Duddingston to Musselburgh (via what is now Willowbrae).
A cottage on this road between Leith, Edinburgh and Musselnurgh (now the High Street) built in 1742 was named Portobello, in honour of the victory of Admiral Vernon at Porto Bello in 1739 (its builder, George Hamilton, by legend having served there.) A Court of Session record of has testimony that Portobello House or Hut was built by one Peter Scott. Adverts in 1753 record it as a tavern, proprietor George Hamilton, from where he ran a cobbler’s shop and also horse racing on the shore. Stuart Harris thinks the direct link to Admiral Vernon at the Battle of Porto Bello may just be a “sailor’s yarn”, and the name may just be fanciful, as was the trend at the time. The house was cleared around 1862 when the town hall was built.
In 1814, what was by now being referred to as the area of “Portobello” was detached from the parish of Duddingston to form a parish in its own right, the “chapel of ease” being raised to parish kirk. By the time the town became a burgh in 1833, it had adopted the name formally.
Back to William Jamieson. He built himself a mansion to the south of Portobello on his land called Rosefield in the 1760s. You can still see some of the garden walls (built, of course, in Portobello brick) and a few lumps of dressed stone from it in Rosefield Park.
Jamieson took on the feu of what would become a significant part of Portobello in 1763, from Baron Muir of the Exchequer. Jamieson’s brickworks developed in 1765, and contemporary accounts refer to the area as “Brickfield or Portobello“. There was a Brickfield on Leith Links too where there was an earlier brickworks. Jamieson’s clay pit provided the feedstock for the local brick and pottery industry. Part of it would later be filled in and flattened to form the Craigentinny sidings and depot, another part was flooded and landscape to become the Figgate Pond.
Around 1785, a lawyer from Edinburgh by the name of John Cunningham feud a parcel of ground near the beach from Jamieson and had built for himself a most curious villa upon it. Portobello Tower was built in Jamieson’s red Portobello bricks, but to the beach side of it was attached a great folly tower; a battlemented octagon with a square stair tower adjoining. It is in-filled with all kinds of curious bits of masonry tracework that were collected by Cunningham from old Edinburgh churches and houses (including parts of the original Mercat Cross and allegedly from the Cathedral of St. Andrews). An 1864 rebuild of the structure consolidated it somewhat from its more ruinous original form as a belvedere into accommodation.
The draw of the sea and the sand of Portobello has long been a draw for Edinburgh residents. Writing in 1806, Sir John Carr in Caledonian Sketches says “Portobello is a beautiful village, embellished with many genteel houses, and stands close to the sea shore… It is much frequented in the season by fashionable families and by respectable citizens of the capital, from which it is but a very short distance, as a delightful sea-bathing place“. In that year, a bath house was built with hot and cold salt water baths at what is the foot of the appropriately named Bath Street.
By the middle of the 19th century, Portobello was a fashionable suburb of large villas that were being built along the High Street in the direction of Joppa. We can get an idea of what it looked like from the below print of 1845. Coillesdene House (where the tower block now is) is the large house on the right, the spire on the left is the old Parish Kirk. It can be seen that the land immediately to the south is still fields and hedgerows.
On Portobello High Street stands the remains of one of the town’s Georgian villas; that of Shrubmount, the last residence of the geologist and evangelist Hugh Miller (1802-1856). The house has since been rebuilt into a Victorian row on the High Street – confusingly what we see of it from “the front” is actually the gable end of it, the pillars of the original portico entrance are buried within the back of a kebab shop now. (Thank you to Fraser Macdonald for correcting the location of Shrubmount, which is mispositioned in a couple of books). Miller had a geological museum in the house, but was tormented by mental illness and committed suicide when Victorian medicine failed him and he feared he might harm his family.
The gentlemen cavalry of the Royal Edinburgh Light Dragoon Volunteers, who counted Sir Walter Scott in their ranks, used to drill on the beach in the early 19th century. They were somewhat lampooned in the contemporary press in the manner of a well meaning Dad’s army that was more of a horseriding, dressing up and drinking club. John Kay caricatured the Edinburgh yeomanry in his typically acerbic style.
In 1822 on his state visit to Scotland, King George IV reviewed the Scottish yeomanry cavalry and a “picturesque force of Highland clans that had come to Edinburgh in honour of his visit.” On Friday, 23 August, the King reviewed 3,000 volunteer horse and “clansmen” on Portobello sands from his carriage, which had approached down a road that we now call the King’s Road for that reason. In the painting by Turner below, the King is on a silver horse dressed as a field marshall in the centre of the canvas. The crowds assembled on the sands include many men drinking from glasses and the east coast fishwives in their distinctive striped dresses and garb.
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