Portobello is a coastal suburb of Edinburgh, which is regaining a reputation as a beach resort. It lies in eastern central Scotland, three miles (5 km) to the east of Edinburgh city centre, facing the Firth of Forth, between the suburbs of Joppa and Craigentinny. Although historically it was a town in its own right and is often still felt to be such, it is officially a residential suburb of Edinburgh. The promenade fronts onto a wide sandy beach.

Changing fortunes

Portobello's peak as a resort was in the late 19th century, and it was in slow decline throughout the 20th century. Whilst visitors were primarily drawn from the inhabitants of Edinburgh,[1] it was also once popular with Glaswegians, particularly when the Glasgow Fair "trade holiday" signalled the start of a two-week holiday for the west of Scotland.[2] By the 1960s, it had become an area of amusement arcades and a number of permanent funfair attractions. From the 1980s onwards, these 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 arcade remains in business).

The 21st century has seen a visible change along the Promenade: the kayaking and sailing clubs hold annual skiff races, beach volleyball is well established outside Portobello swimming baths, and the beach is home to occasional art installations by arts group "Big Things on the Beach", while the now iconic "Cressida" octopus sculpture delivered by Art Walk Porty is a permanent feature that is submerged every high tide. Amongst other examples of the changing nature of Portobello are August's Big Beach Busk[3] and Portobello Village Fair,[4] as well as the monthly Portobello Market in Brighton Park,[5] and the community orchard at Brunstane.[6]

Along the Promenade, Towerbank Primary School's popularity called for expansions,[7] cafes have proliferated to cater to increasing numbers of visitors,[citation needed] the establishment of a beach rowing and sailing club provided a focal point,[8] and a wild swimmers' club began to brave the waves throughout the year,[9] with Portobello's public swimming and Turkish baths offering safer alternatives.

In October 2016, Portobello became the first urban community in Scotland to register a Community Right to Buy after the 2016 expansion of land reform to cover urban areas too. The purchase of Bellfield Old Parish Church and Halls by Action Porty for £600,000 was confirmed by Scottish Government Ministers on 3 May 2017, a purchase partly funded by the Scottish Land Fund and partly by community donations and borrowing. Action Porty [10] is a new community organisation owned by its members and open to membership for all Portobello residents.


The area was originally known as Figgate Muir, an expanse of moorland through which the Figgate Burn flowed as the Braid Burn continuation 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 for cattle by the monks of Holyrood Abbey and the name is more likely to mean "cow road" as in Cowgate in Edinburgh.[11] In 1296, William Wallace mustered forces on the moor in a campaign that led to the Battle of Dunbar, and in 1650 it 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.[12]

By the 18th century, it had become a haunt of seamen and smugglers. A cottage was built in 1742 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 walkers and becoming known as the Shepherd's Ha'.[12]

In 1763, the lands known as the Figgate Whins were sold by Lord Milton to Baron Mure for about £1,500, 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.[12] Land values subsequently rose, and by the beginning of the 19th century some parts had been sold at a yearly feu-duty of £40 per annum per acre.[13]

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 confined to his lodgings for three days. While recovering, he finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel.[12] The Scots Magazine in 1806. He noted that 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 £5,000.[13] 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.[12]

Three pillars in Coade stone from a local garden, re-erected on Portobello Promenade

During the 19th century, Portobello also became an industrial town, manufacturing bricks (the "Portobello brick"), 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.[14] 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.[15]

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 once worked as a lifeguard. It made use of the power station's waste heat. The pool was closed in 1979. There was also a lido (now demolished) and a permanent funfair which closed in 2007. In 1901, Portobello Baths were opened on The Promenade overlooking the beach. The baths, now known as Portobello Swim Centre, are now home to one of only three remaining operational Turkish baths in Scotland still open to the public.[16]

Portobello Pier was a pleasure pier situated near the end of Bath Street. It operated from 23 May 1871 until the start of World War I. The pier was 1,250 feet (381 m) long and had a restaurant and observatory at the end. It cost £7,000 to build and was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, who was 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.[citation needed]

More short-lived, the Edinburgh Marine Gardens were built north of Kings Road in 1908–9. They included an open-air theatre, an industrial hall, a ballroom (later used as a skating rink), a scenic railway, a "rustic mill and water-wheel" and a speedway track. It fell out of use in World War I and never recovered. The speedway/motor cycle track remained in operation until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. The site was cleared in 1966 and taken over for the Lothian Buses Marine bus depot and various car showrooms.[citation needed]

Portobello Town Hall fell into redundancy when Portobello was officially placed under the jurisdiction of Edinburgh and the building was converted into a cinema in 1912 by Robert Lorimer and Robert Matthew.[17] On the demise of cinemas in the 1970s the building returned to council ownership and was renamed as Portobello Town Hall again. It is a venue for wedding functions etc. but despite its name has no "town hall function".

The building of Portobello Lido in 1933, and of a pool equipped with the first wave-making machine in Scotland three years later, helped to revive the area for a while.[citation needed]

The abduction and murder of young Caroline Hogg by Robert Black in July 1983 from the Promenade area had a severe impact on the area, which spent months as the centre of police and media attention.

By the turn of the century, Portobello's fortunes had begun to revive (see previous section).


Portobello compared Portobello Edinburgh
White 92.6% 91.7%
Asian 4.8% 5.5%
Black 1.4% 1.2%
Mixed 0.7% 0.9%
Other 0.5% 0.8%



Portobello is served by Lothian Buses, which provides eleven services to the area, continuing towards Joppa and Eastfield, or down Brighton Place to the Jewel or Royal Infirmary, or from Kings Road to Craigentinny.[18]


Portobello's first railway station was initially served by the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway. The Portobello (E&DR) railway station operated from 1832 until 1846, when it was replaced by the Portobello (NBR) railway station operated by the North British Railway. The station closed in 1964 as a result of the Beeching cuts.

Notable people

In birth order:

Notable buildings

St John the Evangelist RC Church, Portobello


The centenary year of the Portobello Amateur Swimming Club was in 2012. A section of the club is Portobello Water Polo Club who were the 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. Portobello Golf Club play over a nine-hole course in Stanley Street. Portobello parkrun, a free-timed 5 km run, takes place in Figgate Park every Saturday morning.[26]

See also


  1. ^ McCall, Chris (9 June 2016). "In pictures: Scots enjoy the seaside, now and then". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved 20 August 2017. 
  2. ^ Foley, Archie; Monroe, Margaret (6 September 2013). "Portobello & the Great War". Stroud: Amberley Publishing. Retrieved 20 August 2017. 
  3. ^ Event site Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  4. ^ Rotary Club Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  5. ^ Portobello Transition Town Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  6. ^ Portobello Transition Town Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  7. ^ City Council site Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  8. ^ Club site Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  9. ^ Wildswim Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  10. ^ https://www.bellfield.scot
  11. ^ "Placenames of Midlothian" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 August 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-06. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Grant, James (1880). "14: Portobello". Old and New Edinburgh. V. London: Cassell & Company Limited. pp. 143–149. Retrieved 2009-08-20. 
  13. ^ a b Gilbert, W.M., editor, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901: 45
  14. ^ Gilbert, W.M., editor, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901: 176
  15. ^ Gifford, John; McWilliam, Colin; Walker, David; Wilson, Christopher, editors, The Buildings of Scotland – Edinburgh, London, 1984: 650, ISBN 0-14-071068-X ,
  16. ^ http://www.victorianturkishbath.org/_6DIRECTORY/Lists/Scotland/ScotlandEng.htm
  17. ^ Dictionary of Scottish Architects: Robert Lorimer
  18. ^ Bus map Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  19. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1911
  20. ^ Lauder, Sir Harry, Roamin' in the Gloamin (autobiography) Hutchinson & Co., Ltd, London, 1928, p. 34.
  21. ^ Gifford, John; McWilliam, Colin; Walker, David; Wilson, Christopher, eds, The Buildings of Scotland – Edinburgh, London, 1984, p. 653, ISBN 0-14-071068-X ,
  22. ^ http://www.blueplaqueplaces.co.uk/william-russell-flint-black-plaque-in-edinburgh-31364#.WhBb8ORLHGg
  23. ^ Porter G., Irish Independent, They told me I'd be crazy to go into TV, [1], 29 November 2007
  24. ^ BBC News website, Porter's star turn at old school, [2], 2 March 2007
  25. ^ https://www.scotsman.com/news/fame-at-last-for-1970s-group-but-where-are-iron-virgin-1-1199019
  26. ^ "Portobello parkrun, Edinburgh Portobello parkrun, Edinburgh". www.parkrun.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-08-08. 

External links