The thread about Smokey Brae; how it got its name and how it made a showpiece public housing scheme “unfit for human occupation”

This thread was originally written and published in April 2023.

Smokey Brae. An evocative name which conjures up all sorts of nostalgia, commemorating a time gone by when Auld Reekie lived up to her nickname – but also a major public health saga that took 30 years to resolve. So why was Smokey Brae so smoky? And how did it come to be such an issue at a time when the smoke and soot from a hundred thousand open fires was an accepted part of everyday life?

Smokey Brae street sign in 2023. Photo © Self
Smokey Brae street sign in 2023. Photo © Self

The answer to that first question is simple. Smokey Brae is immediately adjacent to and downwind of what was Scotland’s largest railway motive power depot – St. Margarets (64A for a certain type of anorak!) – where over 220 steam locomotives were based for over 100 years on a very cramped site.

The eastern end of St. Margaret's Depot, with the houses of Smokey Brae in the background.
The eastern end of St. Margaret’s Depot, with the houses of Smokey Brae in the background.

But it wasn’t always known as Smokey Brae, formally it was – and remains – Restalrig Road South – and it wasn’t always such an issue. It wasn’t until the Corporation built its showpiece Piershill Housing Scheme next door from 1936-38 that the problems began to be noticed.

Piershill Housing, Edinburgh, John Harper Campbell, 1951. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Piershill Housing, Edinburgh, John Harper Campbell, 1951. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Before the City purchased this site in 1935, it was the site of Piershill Cavalry Barracks, and the relatively low buildings and open site seemed not to suffer from its railway neighbour, St. Margaret’s Depot. The 1893 OS Town Plan shows just how close the two were.

1893 OS Town Plan. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1893 OS Town Plan. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

On this site the City Architect, Ebenezer James Macrae, was balancing a client brief that desired the latest, modern, European, urban planning ideas with his own penchant for the best traditions and concepts of Scottish tenement buildings.

1944 OS Town Plan showing the Piershill Housing Scheme next to St. Margaret's Depot. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1944 OS Town Plan showing the Piershill Housing Scheme next to St. Margaret’s Depot. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

As such, the site plan was heavily influenced by contemporary European design, but the form and finish was unmistakably Scottish vernacular in style. Macrae successfully lobbied to use traditional 3 and 4 storey tenements against a reluctant Department for Health (who oversaw such schemes). This allowed 342 modern flats to be incorporated onto the plot of the barracks, but retain a lot of open space and not be overly packed together. But it also meant that the tall, U-shaped blocks of Piershill Square East and West form something of a wall and obstacle to the prevailing winds. Somewhat ironically, despite being the last word in municipal housing in Scotland at the time, heating and hot water still came from coal fires and back boilers, the forest of chimney stacks required further adding to the traditional appearance of such modern houses.

Piershill Square West, Edinburgh. CC-by-SA 2.0, Tom Parnell
Ebenezer J. Macrae’s “Masterpiece” – Piershill Square West. CC-by-SA 2.0, Tom Parnell

As early as 1937, the Musselburgh News reported the Lord Dean of Guild (the head of what was akin to a council planning committee in those days) as saying “the houses at Piershill had only been up a year, but one could imagine that they had been erected for the last 50 years“. The development was not even complete then, and already the pollution from St. Margaret’s Depot was posing a problem requiring official remark.

Steam and Smoke at St Margaret's
Steam and Smoke at St Margarets. Embedded from the Flickr of Brian Flannigan

In May 1938, as the scheme was barely completed, the Public Health Committee of the Town Council discussed the question of the smoke emitted from St. Margaret’s with respect to Piershill. The committee heard from the Town Clerk that 40 of the houses at Piershill closest to the depot had been “rendered unfit for human occupation” on account of the soot and smoke plaguing them. A deputation was therefore sent to the London & North Eastern Railway. It was found that at the cramped, overpopulated and antiquated depot there were sheds sufficient for barely 50% of the 220+ engines stabled there: as such there was no way to contain much of the smoke and soot while the boilers were lit and it blew straight across the road to the adjacent new houses.

The Town Clerk told the committee, “I think your hands will be forced in this matter. You will have to do something“. Answering a question from the committee, he told them that the Smoke Abatement Act could force the railway to “take the best practical means” to curtail emissions. If the means weren’t practical, the railway didn’t have to take them. So nothing was done and less than a year later the Evening News and Scotsman both reported – in May 1939 – that the Public Health Committee would once again ask the railway to provide sheds for all engines. The Committee was now being directly lobbied by residents; mothers from Piershill had joined the Women’s Section of the East Edinburgh Labour Party to complain about the issue.

The problem rumbled on in 1939. The Public Health Committee again discussed it in July, and the outbreak of war saw the metaphor of a the blackout being used by the housewives lobby group. They claimed that their health was being “seriously affected” by the smoke and soot. They wrote: “We do not know what it is to have fresh air because as soon as the windows are opened, they have to be closed again to keep out the smoke and soot. Clothing hung out to dry is black when taken in.” A reporter was shown the houses closest to the depot, barely 18 months old, which were stained black, in sharp contrast to those at the other end of the scheme.

"Black-out" at Piershill.
Housewives and the Soot Menace.
Evening News, 23/10/39
“Black-out” at Piershill. Housewives and the Soot Menace. Evening News, 23/10/39

Another resident showed the reporter her house. She drew her finger over the window sill. “Look at that!” as she demonstrated a filthy finger tip. She showed the kitchen walls, the paint scrubbed back to the plaster from trying to keep the walls clean. “The soot is actually into the walls” she said: the Council had told her not to paper the walls for this reason. The smoke “ruins everything, even the blankets on the bed. You can wash them as often as you like but you cannot get the smell off them“. The reporter took a picture from her window, showing the depot breakdown crane barely yards away across Smokey Brae.

Picture from Piershill flats towards St. Margaret's Depot from the Evening News, 23/10/39
Picture from Piershill flats towards St. Margaret’s Depot from the Evening News, 23/10/39

Another neighbour – who suffered from asthma – complained she was tired of scrubbing the woodwork clean and that her curtains were washed barely days before and already soot stained. Referring to the back green, “If the shrubs were to be green, they would have to be painted“. Another neighbour complained that her little girl was having trouble with her chest, causing doctors bills. The doctor had said they would have to move away but they could not get another house. This was October 1939 however, and when the realities of the war hit, people were expected to keep calm, carry on, to make do and just grin and bear it. “There’s a war on, don’t you know.”

So what were the specific problems that made St. Margaret’s so bad for smoke and soot? The obvious ones – alluded to already – were its cramped size, its huge allocation of engines, the topography and prevailing winds and also the lack of cover for engines.

Smoky St Margaret's
Smoky St Margarets. Embedded from the Flickr of Brian Flannigan

But there were other issues. A kiln used for drying the sand for the locomotive’s adhesion sand boxes was coal fired. The travelling crane? Coal fired. Steam around the site was provided by condemned locos, with the fires left running as static boilers, burning anything that was handy and perpetually belching out thick black smoke.

J83 BR 68477 at St Margarets Shed c1963
J83 68477 in use as a stationary boiler at St Margarets, c.1963. Embedded from the Flickr of Paul Kearley

In winter, the water columns, water tanks and boiler injectors of locomotives were prone to icing up, so endless braziers of coal were lit in the sidings to prevent this happening. Every shift, some 50-60 locomotives would come in to have their fireboxes and smokeboxes cleared. This was a filthy task, where the hot ash and clinker was dropped or scraped and shovelled out the firebox into a pit between the tracks, where it cooled and smouldered. At St. Margaret’s, the ash pit sidings were as close to the Piershill houses as it was possible to get. The wind whipped up the dropped soot and ash, blowing it across the road to the houses. Firebox cleaning scraped tarry “char” out the front end. It was black and abrasive.

B1 61404 at the St. Marharet’s ash pits, 27/3/65 . Brian J. Dickson, Steam Finale Scotland

With the fireboxes and smokeboxes scraped clean, the fires were re-stoked and left smouldering to keep the boilers simmering, burning inefficiently and producing a lot of smoke (a steam engine running at speed and burning efficiently produces relatively little visible smoke). Worse still was that St. Margarets was the parent shed to a myriad network of 14 stabling points and 20 shunting yards and sidings around the district. At the end of the week, all these locos came back to the shed in a filthy condition to have their innards emptied and cleaned. Worst of all was Sundays, when the “firing up” process took place for the week. 40 engines at a time would have their fireboxes lit, using the hot embers from that smoky sand kiln. These fires too burned inefficiently, until the locos left in groups of five to wait for shifts at Craigentinny sidings. This cycle of clearing and re-firing the 220+ locos, not to mention the countless visiting engines coming up from the north east of England went on week in, week out, all of it in the open, and most of it as close to the Piershill Houses as possible.

It was the Great Smog of 1952 that kindled a widespread public awareness and alarm at the health hazards of the smoke that had hitherto just been accepted by most as a part of city life.

Nelson's Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. CC-by-SA 2.0 N. T. Stobbs.
Nelson’s Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. CC-by-SA 2.0 N. T. Stobbs.

Government Committees now sat up and began to take action, and in April 1954 they arrived in Edinburgh on their fact-finding mission, and the City’s Public Health Committee marched them straight down to Piershill to see for themselves.

"To Take the Reek from Auld Reekie". Scotsman 22/4/54
“To Take the Reek from Auld Reekie”. Scotsman 22/4/54

The Evening News report of this visit is the first written reference to “Smoky Brae“. The residents had spotted the committee – headed by Sir Hugh Beaver (no sniggering at the back) – arriving and had sought out the following reporters to make their voices heard. The residents told the reporters the same stories they had done 15 years ago, they showed them the same soot and smoke stained walls, furniture, curtains and windows, and heard the same complaints of perpetually smelling of smoke, difficulty washing clothes and health worries. Mrs Jane Gray, who resided on the ground floor at no. 2, said:

I see that they’re going to take a mobile mass X-ray machine round Pilton. They want to bring it here and X-ray every man, woman and child. What bairn can be healthy living down here? And we can’t open our windows at night

Edinburgh Evening News, 23rd September 1954

The Public Health Committee once again agreed to lobby the railway authorities. But by this time of course, the railway was nationalised, so it was the British Transport Commission’s Railway Executive to whom they went. The BTC was quick to point the blame at another nationalised industry – the National Coal Board. It was the low quality of post-war coal that was the problem they said, not the depot itself or its practices. There is a grain of truth that the crisis that the coal industry found itself in – and tried to dig itself out of before long term projects could start producing – caused the quality of coal to drop, but to suggest that was the problem at St. Margaret’s was pure buck passing and Mr George Hardie of New Restalrig Church was quick to denounce the BTC’s reply.

Edinburgh Evening News, 23rd September 1954
Edinburgh Evening News, 23rd September 1954

It was accepted that the solution Smokey Brae needed was long term, to totally phase out steam on the railways altogether. Diesel or electric were the future – and indeed the Railway’s own Modernisation Plan intended this. Mr Jamieson, of the Scottish National Congress (a socialist splinter party of the SNP) wrote to the papers to say the problem was that Scotland was getting an unfair allocation of the diesel locomotives which had already been produced by British Railways. He had calculated a Goschen Ratio (a government formula for allocating spending in Scotland compared to other parts of the UK) himself, he said, and Scotland could claim 37 diesel locomotives already, and Edinburgh at least 10 of those, and that this would improve the atmosphere at St. Margarets.

"PROGRESS". A poster optimistically heralding the ultimately disastrous Modernisation Plan, with a bold new diesel locomotive replacing a rust steam engine alongside.
“PROGRESS”. A poster optimistically heralding the ultimately badly flawed Modernisation Plan, with a bold new diesel locomotive replacing a rust steam engine alongside.

The modernisation plan actually made things at St. Margaret’s worse – not better. This is because the depot was so antiquated and run down, it could not seriously handle any new diesel locomotives or multiple units, so all steam in the district was concentrated there. Haymarket would become the primary diesel depot, and Leith Central would become the depot for diesel multiple units, and the former’s steam allocation and those from other smaller sheds began to concentrate at St. Margarets. The latter’s workload concentrated on the remaining local steam services: large numbers of 0-6-0 J-type tank engines to work the docks, still plentiful traffic of the Lothians coalfields, and the steam for Waverley Route goods services.

St Margarets Locomotive Depot, 8334, 13 August 1948. CC-by-SA 2.0 Ben Brooksbank
St Margarets Locomotive Depot, Dock Tank 8334, 13 August 1948. CC-by-SA 2.0 Ben Brooksbank

The writing was on the wall for the depot: as its engines were replaced with diesels they would go to either Haymarket, Leith Central or the new yard at Millerhill. But the residents of Piershill had to suffer a further 13 years of smoke, soot, ash and grime. By 1965 only a handful of steam locos remained, but it was not until May 1st 1967, some 30 years after Piershill residents first started experiencing the effects of living on “Smoky Brae” that St. Margarets finally drew out the last firebox and shut its doors for good.

J36 0-6-0 No. 65234 at St Margaret's shed, Easter 1967 CC-by-SA 3.0 8474tim
J36 0-6-0 No. 65234 at St Margaret’s shed, Easter 1967 CC-by-SA 3.0 8474tim

And in all that time, despite all the representations to the City authorities, and by them to the Railway authorities, what had actually been done about it? Nothing. It was purely the inevitability of modernisation that posed a solution.

The houses of Smokey Brae had the carbonation sandblasted off of them in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and at some point around this time, somebody thought it would be good to informally rename the road in a manner reminiscent of an Oor Wullie cartoon. Nostalgic, yes, but also a reminder that the residents of this street probably had years shaved off their lives as a result of their proximity to unrestricted emissions of coal smoke, soot and ash.

Stoorie Brae, a common place in the Oor Wullie universe.
Stoorie Brae, a common place in the Oor Wullie universe.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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