Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for Portobello

Portobello, a town and a quoad sacra parish in Duddingston and South Leith parishes, Edinburghshire. A favourite watering-place and a parliamentary burgh, the town stands on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, 3 miles E of Edinburgh, 3 SE of Leith, and 2½ WNW of Musselburgh. With Leith it is connected with a branch of the North British; and with Edinburgh by the main line (1846) of that railway, by the Edinburgh Suburban railway (1884), and by a tramway 31/3 miles long, opened in 1875, and doubled in 1881. Prior to 1762 its site and the lands around it were a moorish furzy waste, called the Figgate Whins, of no value whatever for agricultural purposes, and differing from a desert only in the presence of one human dwelling. But in that year they were let to a tenant at a rent equal to £11, 2s. 2¾d. sterling, and a few months afterwards sold to Baron Muir for £1500. Parts of them now began to be feued out at £3 per acre; and so early as 1804 some portions were sub-feued at a perpetual rent of £40 per acre. Even the solitary hut, which was destined to give its name to the town, was built no earlier than 1742. A humble thatched cottage, it stood till 1862 on the SW side of the High Street, on the site now occupied by the old town-hall, an object of interest to the townspeople and of curiosity to strangers. It was long used as a hostelry for travellers on a road which led out from the Fishwives' Causeway, across the whins, towards Musselburgh; and, according to tradition, it was built by a sailor, or marine, who had served under Admiral Vernon in the expedition of 1739, and was called by him Porto-Bello, in memory of his having acted a part in the capture of the town of that name on the Isthmus of Panama. The Figgate Whins bore an evil reputation as a haunt of smugglers and robbers. Scott makes Effie Deans embark here on the smuggling lugger (1736); and in 1753 we find one 'George Hamilton in Portobello' advertising in the Edinburgh Courant that he would pay a reward of £3 to any one who should discover the author of a scandalous report representing him as having harboured robbers in his house. In 1765 Mr William Jamieson, the feuar under Baron Muir, discovered near the Figgate Burn a valuable bed of clay; and he erected on the banks of the stream, first a brick and tile work, and afterwards an earthenware manufactory. These public works gave rise to a small village, and co-operated with other and subsequent works to swell the village into a small town. About the beginning of the century the beauty of the beach, the fineness of its sands, and its general eligibility as a bathing-place, began to draw the attention of the citizens of Edinburgh; and thenceforth many neat dwelling-houses and numerous villas arose for the accommodation of summer visitors, converting the town into a fashionable watering-place. Great as has been the growth of Portobello, that growth is by no means complete, the wide projected extensions of 1876 to the E of Joppa and the S of the railway being still only partly finished, going on, or not even yet begun. In its existing or compact condition the town forms a belt along the firth 7 furlongs in length by from 250 yards to ½ mile in breadth. The principal street extends from NW to SE along the Edinburgh and Berwick highroad, and bears over its NW half the name of High Street. The Figgate Burn intersects the town near its north-western end; the only parts of the burgh on the Leith side of the stream being mainly occupied by brick and bottle works. The High Street sends off at brief intervals, and generally at right angles, 12 or 13 alleys and streets to the beach. Those to the NW are narrow, and belong to the early periods of the town's existence; but those in the middle district, and towards the SE, increase in elegance as the distance recedes from the burn. The principal-mentioning them in regular order-bear the names of Tower, Bath, Regent, Wellington, Melville, Pitt, John, James, and Hamilton Streets. The centre of the town, or what in old times would have been called the Cross, is a point at which Bath Street goes 330 yards north-eastward to the sea, and a spacious beautiful street, called Brighton Place, 400 yards south-westward to the station-Brighton Place being flanked by Brighton and Lee Crescents. So formidable an array of street lines, disposed over so great a space, would seem to indicate no small magnitude of town, and a very considerable amount of population. But much of its area is open ground, much is occupied by garden plots or villa enclosures, and much is rather a sprinkling of houses separately produced by individual taste or caprice, than a collection of edifices upon any preconcerted plan. Yet most of the newer parts are comparatively regular both in their street lines and in their houses, and promise to combine with future extensions to render Portobello one of the neatest, or even one of the most elegant of second-rate provincial towns in Great Britain. The extensive brick-work which figured so prominently in the origination of the town has contributed much to disfigure it by tempting the construction of many of the houses with brick. But, over by much the greater part of the area, the building material is the same beautiful light-coloured sandstone which gives so pervading a charm to the architecture of the metropolis; and, as the brick edifices decay, it will probably be used for the houses which succeed them, and be allowed the universal adoption it deserves.

The curious Tower which overlooks the beach at the foot of Tower Street is a fantastic pile, built by the eccentric Mr Cunningham, who was one of the earliest subfeuars under Mr Jamieson. Antique carved stones appear in the cornices and the windows, and are alleged to have belonged partly to the Cross of Edinburgh, and partly to the dilapidated ecclesiastical piles of St Andrews. An excellent suite of hot and cold salt-water baths was erected in 1806 at a cost of £4000, between the foot of Bath Street and that of Regent Street. An edifice at the head of Bath Street was once an assembly-room, but is now an inn. A neat town-hall, in a mixed style of French and Flemish, was built in 1862-63 by a limited liability company at a cost of £3000, on the S side of the High Street, to the E of Brighton Place. To the W, on the opposite side of the High Street, are the fine new Municipal Buildings, Scottish Baronial in style, erected in 1878 at a cost of £7000, from designs by Messrs R. Paterson & Son. A principal feature is a three-dialled clock tower, surmounted by a flagstaff; and the town-hall also has its public clock. The fine level sands, 230 yards broad at low-water, on a Saturday afternoon of summer present an animated scene, with the ponies and donkeys, the pleasure boats and bathingcoaches, the throng of holiday-makers, and what not else besides. They are skirted by a smooth esplanade (1860), 1420 yards long, or a little over ¾ mile, midway on which, at the foot of Wellington Street, is the Prince of Wales's Drinking Fountain. In 1870-71 a promenade pier was constructed by a joint-stock company near the foot of Bath Street, at a cost of £7000. It extends 1250 feet into the sea, and is 22 feet broad, or 60 at the head, which is surmounted by a restaurant and an observatory. The pier is a calling place for excursion steamers, and serves not only for promenade concerts, but also for boating and (up to 9 a.m.) for swimming.

The view from the pier-head is one of singular beauty and interest-Inchkeith to the N, and the winding shores of Fife; to the NE, North Berwick Law and a peep of the Bass; to the E, Aberlady Bay, Prestonpans, Musselburgh, and the spire of Inveresk; to the S, the woods of Niddrie, Craigmillar Castle, and the Pentland Hills; and to the W, Arthur's Seat and a glimpse of Edinburgh. See these burnished by setting sun, or silvered by summer moon, and think of their many memories-the Pentlands, or ` lands of the Picts,, and Rullion Green; Inveresk, with its Roman remains; Arthur's Seat, named after the 'Blameless King,' and Edinburgh, after Eadwine of Northumbria; Kinghorn yonder, where King Alexander met his doom; Wilkie's 'ain blue Lomonds;' the battlefields of Pinkie and Prestonpans; Craigmillar, where Queen Mary wept; and Carberry Hill, where she resigned her crown. Nay, on these very sands Prince Charlie arrayed his forces on the eve of the march to Derby; George IV. held a grand review; and Scott composed the Flodden canto of Marmion, walking his black horse within the beating of the surge, or going off as if at the charge, with the spray dasbing about him. * At Shrub Mount, Portobello, Hugh Miller (1802-56) died by his own hand; and Portobello has been the birthplace or residence of two or three other men of mark-David Laing, LL. D. (1790-1878), antiquary; Prof. Robert Jameson (17741854), mineralogist; and Samuel Brown, M.D. (1817-57), chemist and author.

The quoad sacra parish church, in Melville Street, is a plain edifice, with a clock cupola, erected in 1810 as a chapel of ease at a cost of £2650, enlarged in 1815 and 1878, and containing 966 sittings. The parish was constituted by the General Assembly in 1834. The Free church, in Hamilton Terrace, Joppa, was built in 187577, at a cost of £9000, from designs by Mr John Honeyman, and is a really striking edifice in the Early Decorated style of the close of the 13th century, its only defect being a certain thinness. It consists of an aisled nave, with 660 sittings and traceried stained-glass windows, and of a tower and spire 170 feet high, with a deep-toned bell of 36 cwt. The Windsor Place U.P. church, built in 1879-80, at a cost of £8500, from designs by Messrs Stewart & Menzies, is a less successful Gothic structure, consisting of nave and transepts, with 760 sittings and a N W tower and spire 130 feet high. The Regent Street U.P. church is a very plain but commodious building, reconstructed in 1880 from a previous church. St Mark's Episcopal Church, consecrated in 1828, is an ugly unecclesiastical building, with a heavy Grecian portico, a stained-glass window, and 400 sittings. St John's Roman Catholic church (1835; enlarged 1878; 400 sittings), in Brighton Place, is plain but neat; and the same may be said of the Congregational church in Wellington Street. An Established congregation also worships in the old Town-hall. A beautiful cemetery, nearly 1¼ mile SE of the centre of the town, and 4 acres in extent, was laid out in 1876-77. The new Board School, on the Niddrie road, a little beyond the station, was built in 1875-76 at a cost of £7000, and is a good one-story edifice, semi-collegiate in style, with four classrooms and a central mixed school hall, 54 feet square and 27 high.

The town besides has a post office, with money order, Savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branches of the Clydesdale, National, and Royal Banks, 2 hotels, a gas-light company, a drainage system which cost £11, 000, a good water supply from the Edinburgh waterworks, a second railway station at Joppa, a literary institute (1881), a young men's literary society(1859), Liberal and Conservative associations, a choral society, boating, curling, and swimming clubs, masonic and other lodges, etc. It is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, and 6 councillors, who also act as police commissioners under the Act of 1862. By the Reform Act of 1833 Portobello returns one member to parliament, conjointly with Leith and Musselburgh. Its parliamentary and its municipal constituency number 998 and 1368 in 1885. Valuation (1856) £16, 843, (1866) £25,196, (1876) £37,861, (1885) £46,075. Pop. (1841) 3587, (1851) 3527, (1861) 4366, (1871) 5551, (1881) 6926, of whom 3863 were females, 6794 were in the parliamentary burgh, 111 were in South Leith parish, and 4504 were in Portobello quoad sacra parish.—Ord. Sur., sh. 32, 1857.

* On one occasion Sir Archibald Allison. while a member of the Yeomanry Cavalry. after a six hours' drill on Portobeilo sands, dined, drove 2i miles to a ball, danced all night, drove back. bathed in the sea, and went to another six hours' drill. without either being in bed or experiencing the least fatigue. 'His righthand man in the front rank during this mimic war was Lockhart, Sir Walter's son-in-law.

(F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4); © 2004 Gazetteer for Scotland)

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "a town and a quoad sacra parish"   (ADL Feature Type: "cities")
Administrative units: Midlothian ScoCnty
Place: Portobello

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