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Portobello is a beach resort located three miles (5 km) to the east of the city centre of Edinburgh, along the coast of the Firth of Forth, in Scotland. It is now a suburb of Edinburgh, with a promenade fronting on to the wide sand beach. Its heyday as a resort was almost certainly in the late 19th century, and it was in slow decline throughout the 20th century. Its attraction was mainly limited to the inhabitants of Edinburgh, but some claim it was an attraction to Glaswegians, particularly when the Glasgow Fair "trade holiday" signalled the start of a 2 week holiday for the west. By the 1960s it had evolved into an area of amusement arcades and some permanent funfair attractions. From the 1980s onwards these also gradually disappeared and by the end of the 20th century the Promenade had almost no attractions specific to its seaside location, although the Tower Amusements and Fun City amusement arcades remain as the only 'seaside attractions' to this day.
But the beginning of the 21st century has seen a rapid revival of Portobello's fortunes. Perhaps helped by tourism and council initiatives, but also by a wealth of bottom-up community action, Portobello beach can be as crowded on a summer's day now as it was in the photos from the 19th century. The community action spurring this regeneration is taking many forms: from the arts group 'Big Things on the Beach' with events that have attracted thousands to the Prom to 'Portobello Open Doors' Village fair, and from PEDAL (Portobello Transition Towns) Community Market, Community Orchard and Car Free Day to the revived Portobello Kayaking and Sailing Club (PSKC) bringing a very active groups of adults and children in a range of sailing dinghies and kayaks to the beach. PSKC incorporates RowPorty who have built two St Ayles rowing skiffs, Ice Breaker and Jenny Skylark. The skiffs are part of a renaissance in traditional rowing around the coast of Scotland, and were built by local people and craftsmen. Over the years, the water quality in the area has improved, thanks largely by the decision to stop dumping Edinburgh's sewage into the sea.
The area was originally known as Figgate Muir, an expanse of moorland through which the Figgate Burn flowed from Duddingston Loch to the sea, with a broad sandy beach on the Firth of Forth. The name Figgate was thought to come from the Saxon term for "cow's ditch". However, the land was used as pasture by the monks of Holyrood Abbey and the name is more likely to mean "cow road" as in Cowgate in Edinburgh. In 1296 William Wallace mustered forces on the moor in a campaign that led to the Battle of Dunbar, and in 1650 the moor was the supposed scene of a secret meeting between Oliver Cromwell and Scottish leaders. A report from 1661 describes a race in which twelve browster-wives ran from the Burn (recorded as the Thicket Burn) to the top of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh.
By the 18th century it had become a haunt of seamen and smugglers. In 1742 a cottage was built on what is now the High Street (close to the junction with what is now Brighton Place) by a seaman by the name of George Hamilton, who had served under Admiral Edward Vernon during the 1739 capture of Porto Bello, Panama, meaning literally "beautiful port or harbour", and who named the cottage Portobello Hut in honour of that victory. By 1753 there were other houses around it, and the cottage itself remained intact until 1851, becoming a hostelry for foot-travellers and becoming known as the Shepherd's Ha'.
In 1763, the lands known as the Figgate Whins were sold by Lord Milton to Baron Mure for about £1500, and afterwards feued out by the latter to a Mr. William Jameson or Jamieson at the rate of £3 per acre. Jameson discovered a valuable bed of clay near the burn, and built a brick and tile works beside the stream. He later built an earthenware pottery factory, and the local population grew so that Portobello became a thriving village. Land values subsequently rose, and by the turn of the century some parts had been sold at a yearly feu-duty of £40 per annum for every acre.
Portobello Sands were used at that time by the Edinburgh Light Horse for drill practice. Walter Scott was their quartermaster, and in 1802 while riding in a charge he was kicked by a horse, and was confined to his lodgings for three days. While recovering, he finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The Scots Magazine in 1806 said the lands were "a perfect waste covered almost entirely with whins or furze." Portobello developed into a fashionable bathing resort, and in 1807 new salt-water baths were erected at a cost of £5000. In 1822, the Visit of King George IV to Scotland, organised by Scott, included a review of troops and Highlanders held on the sands, with spectators crowding the sand dunes.
During the 19th century Portobello also became an industrial town, manufacturing bricks (the distinctive "Portobello brick" being locally famed), glass, lead, paper, pottery, soap, and mustard. Joppa to the east was important in the production of salt.
In 1833 the town was made a burgh, then in 1896 it was incorporated into Edinburgh by Act of Parliament. A formidable red-brick power station (designed by Ebenezer James MacRae) was built in 1934 at the west end of the beach and operated until 1977. It was demolished in the following 18 months.
Between 1846 and 1964 a railway station provided ready access for visitors to the resort, whose facilities came to include a large open air heated swimming pool (where the actor Sean Connery had once worked as a life guard) which made use of the power station's spare heat. It was closed in 1984. There was also a lido (now demolished) and a permanent fun-fair which closed in 2007. Two small amusement arcades remain (Fun City - Amusement Emporium) and (Tower Amusements). In 1901 Portobello baths were opened on The Promenade overlooking the beach. The baths, now known as Portobello Swim Centre, are still open today and are home to one of only 3 remaining turkish baths in Scotland. The turkish baths are open to the public.
A pleasure pier (in typical Victorian manner) existed (near the end of Bath Street) from 1871 (opened on May 23) until the start of World War I. This was 1250 feet long and had a restaurant and observatory at the end. It cost £7000 and was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch infamously linked to the Tay Bridge Disaster. In a similar ending the iron supports rusted away and the pier was demolished as uneconomic to repair in 1917.
The Promenade/Esplanade was created between the town and the beach in 1876.
More short-lived, the Edinburgh Marine Gardens were built north of Kings Road in 1908/09. This included an al fresco theatre, an industrial hall, a ballroom (later used as a skating rink), a scenic railway, a "rustic mill and water-wheel", a Somali village and 70 natives and a speedway track. It fell out of use in World War I and never recovered, giving it a mere 6 years of "full use". The speedway/motor cycle track continued in use until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. The entire site was cleared in 1966 and is now home to the Lothian Buses Marine bus depot and various car showrooms.
The building of Portobello Lido (1933) and Pool (1936) helped revive the area for a while. It boasted the first wave-making machine in Scotland.
The abduction and murder of young Caroline Hogg by Robert Black (serial killer) in July 1983 from the Promenade area had a severe impact on the area, spending months as the centre of police and media attention. It did little to help the already declining attendances to the fairground attractions.
Portobello used to have traffic lights at the King's Road junction up until 1986, when they were replaced with a roundabout. The junction was converted back to a traffic light controlled junction in 2009 following a number of accidents.
The classic ice-cream cornet with a flake pushed in it, the "99", is widely thought to have originated at Arcari's Ice Cream parlour at 99, Portobello High Street. The Arcari family still make ice cream nearby but not at the original location.
The William Ramsay Technical Institute on Inchview Terrace (opposite Kings Road) is listed category A, of national importance, being one of the UK's first reinforced concrete structures from 1906 (even though it appears to be brick). It is now split into flats.
The five-a-side football pitches, The Pitz, stand on the site of the old swimming Lido. They appear at the start of Trainspotting (film) with the stars playing football there by floodlight in the dark.
Portobello is situated next to Joppa, Edinburgh, another suburb of Edinburgh.
The tiny cottage at 3 Bridge Street, Portobello, was the birthplace of music hall entertainer Sir Harry Lauder and his small cottage still stands there, and the memorial garden beside the 'new' Town Hall (built in 1912 by architect James A Williamson) is named after him. The Celtic fiddle virtuoso Johnny Cunningham was also born in Portobello. TV presenter Gail Porter grew up in Portobello, attending Portobello High School.
Hugh Miller a founding father of geology lived in a house on Tower Street (committing suicide there in 1856).
Dr David Laing LLD (1792-1878) librarian to the Signet Library and noted archaeologist lived at 12 James Street.
2012 is the centenary year for Portobello Amateur Swimming Club. A section of the club is Portobello Water Polo Club who are 2012 British Champions as well as holders of the 2012 Scottish Cup. They are the only Scottish team in the Premiere Division of the British Water Polo League. There is also a sailing club at the foot of Bath Street.
- "Placenames of Midlothian" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-07-06.
- Grant, James (1880). "14: Portobello". Old and New Edinburgh V. London: Cassell & Company Limited. pp. 143–149. Retrieved 2009-08-20.
- Gilbert, W.M., editor, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901: 45
- Gilbert, W.M., editor, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901: 176
- Gifford, John; McWilliam, Colin; Walker, David; Wilson, Christopher, editors, The Buildings of Scotland - Edinburgh, London, 1984: 650, ISBN 0-14-071068-X ,
- Lauder, Sir Harry, Roamin' in the Gloamin (autobiography) Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., London, 1928: 34
- Gifford, John; McWilliam, Colin; Walker, David; Wilson, Christopher, editors, The Buildings of Scotland - Edinburgh, London, 1984: 653, ISBN 0-14-071068-X ,
- Porter G., Irish Independent, They told me I'd be crazy to go into TV, , 29 November 2007
- BBC News website, Porter's star turn at old school, , 2 March 2007
- Portobello Community Website
- Big Things on the Beach
- Portobello Sailing and Kayaking Club
- Porty Rowers