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Portobello, Edinburgh

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

Portobello Beach.jpg
Portobello Beach
Portobello is located in Edinburgh
Location within Edinburgh
OS grid referenceNT304738
Council area
Lieutenancy area
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Postcode districtEH15
Dialling code0131
EU ParliamentScotland
UK Parliament
Scottish Parliament
List of places
55°57′11″N 3°06′50″W / 55.953°N 3.114°W / 55.953; -3.114Coordinates: 55°57′11″N 3°06′50″W / 55.953°N 3.114°W / 55.953; -3.114
Portobello Police Station, by Robert Paterson built as Portobello Town Hall in 1878 and in use as the Police Station since 1896.
Butcher's shop in Portobello High Street


Early yearsEdit

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". 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.[1] 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.[2]


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 Brighton Place) by a seaman called George Hamilton, who had served under Admiral Edward Vernon in the 1739 capture of Porto Bello, Panama, and who named the cottage Portobello Hut in honour of the victory. By 1753 there were other houses around it. The cottage remained intact until 1851, when it became a hostelry for travellers known as the Shepherd's Ha'.[2]

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 William Jameson or Jamieson at the rate of £3 per acre.[3] 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 into a thriving village.[2] 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.[4]

An advertisement for bathing machines for hire on Portobello beach appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 11 June 1795, according to a report in the Evening Dispatch. It says the bathing machines have steady horses and careful drivers, and the bathing sands are perfectly free from stones and "danders", the water clear and the beach very retired.[5]


Portobello Sands were used at that time by the Edinburgh Light Horse for drill practice. Walter Scott was their quartermaster. While riding in a charge in 1802 he was kicked by a horse and confined to his lodgings for three days. While recovering he finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel.[2] The Scots Magazine in 1806 noted that the lands were "a perfect waste covered almost entirely with whins or furze". Portobello grew into a bathing resort, and in 1807 new salt-water baths at the foot of Bath Street and Regent Street were erected at a cost of £5,000.[4][3] In 1822, a 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 dunes.[2]

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

Before Portobello had a promenade and public beach, there was only a belt of dry sand between the firmer sand of the beach and the private properties adjoining the shore. Access to the beach was restricted by these property holders, as Sir William Rae discovered in 1842 when he tried to gain access to his favourite section for bathing. The proprietor of a villa adjoining the chore had extended his garden to include the sand and had built a wall leading right down to the sea. Sir William, a former Lord Advocate, viewed this as interfering with his right of way, as a private citizen and as an officer of the Crown. After legal action over several years and an appeal right up to the House of Lords,[6], the proprietor and his neighbours were forced in July 1849 to demolish the walls they had erected. Fifteen years later, Portobello Town Council began to build the Promenade, so securing public access to the beach along its two miles.[7]

Portobello became industrialized in the 19th century, manufacturing bricks ("Portobello brick"), glass, lead, paper, pottery, soap and mustard. Joppa to the east was important as a salt producer.

In 1833, the town was made a burgh, but then in 1896 incorporated into Edinburgh by Act of Parliament.[8] A formidable red-brick power station (designed by Ebenezer James MacRae) built in 1934 at the west end of the beach operated until 1977 and was demolished in the following 18 months.[9]

Between 1846 and 1964, a railway station provided access for visitors to the resort, whose facilities came to include a large open-air swimming pool, heated by waste from the power station. The actor Sean Connery once worked there as a lifeguard. 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. These, now known as Portobello Swim Centre, include one of only three remaining public Turkish baths in Scotland.[10] The Swim Centre will soon undergo a £2.5 million refurbishment.[11]

Portobello Pier was a pleasure pier near the end of Bath Street, open from 23 May 1871 until the start of the First World War. All of 1,250 feet (381 m) long with a restaurant and observatory at the end, it cost £7,000 to build to a design by Sir Thomas Bouch, who was infamously linked to the Tay Bridge disaster. The iron supports rusted away and the pier was demolished as uneconomic to repair in 1917.

The Edinburgh Marine Gardens laid out north of Kings Road in 1908–1909 included an open-air theatre, an industrial hall, a ballroom (later a skating rink), a scenic railway, a "rustic mill and water-wheel" and a speedway track. It fell out of use in the First World War and never recovered, although the speedway/motor cycle track remained in use until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The site was cleared in 1966 for the Lothian Buses Marine bus depot.

The 1933 Portobello Lido received detrimental police and media attention with the July 1983 abduction of five-year-old Caroline Hogg from the Promenade area and her murder by Robert Black.[12]

Portobello's peak as a resort in the late 19th century gave way to slow decline through the 20th century. Whilst visitors were mainly from Edinburgh,[13] it was also once popular with Glaswegians, particularly as the Glasgow Fair "trade holiday" signalled the start of a two-week holiday for the west of Scotland.[14] By the 1960s, it had become an area of amusement arcades and permanent funfair attractions. From the 1980s these gradually disappeared, and by the end of the 20th century the Promenade had hardly any attractions specific to a seaside location, although the Tower Amusements arcade remains in business.


The 21st century has seen the emergence of community activities, some focused on the Promenade. The beach hosts regular beach volleyball, including Olympic beach-volleyball qualifiers,[15] and the annual Big Beach Busk event.[16] Other community activities focus more on the sea. They include the Portobello, Sailing, Kayaking and Rowing Club,[17] Rowporty,[18] and Eastern Amateur Coastal Rowing Club.[19] Others are concerned with community gardens,[20] a monthly local food market,[21], youth theatre,[22] and culture and music.[23]. In 2019 Portobello was voted the best neighbourhood in the UK at the 2020 Urbanism Awards.[24]

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) classed the quality of the swimming water as "sufficient" in its 2019 survey, a small improvement on the previous year,[25] when dolphins were sighted off the coast.[26] A wild swimmers' club that has been braving the waves through the year since 2010.[27] Meanwhile a warmer alternative is provided by the Turkish Baths in Portobello Swim Centre.[28]

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 in Scotland to cover urban areas.[29] Purchase of Bellfield Old Parish Church and Halls by Action Porty for £600,000 was confirmed by Scottish Government Ministers on 3 May 2017. The purchase was funded partly by the Scottish Land Fund and partly by community donations and borrowing.[30] The buildings and grounds formally passed from the Church of Scotland to Action Porty on 6 September 2017 and opened as Bellfield (Community Centre), Portobello on 23 June 2018.[31]

In 2018 a plan to relay the setts in Brighton Place caused controversy over the cost and duration of the work: the road, one of the main routes into Portobello, was due to be closed to all traffic for over a year while the work was done.[32][33]


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 and East Coast Buses, which provide eleven services to the area, continuing towards Joppa and Eastfield to Musselburgh, Port Seton, Tranent or North Berwick, or down Brighton Place to Fort Kinnaird or Royal Infirmary, or from Kings Road to Craigentinny.

Bus servicesEdit

21 Wester Hailes/Gyle Centre - Corstorphine - Clermiston - Ferry Road - Leith - Lochend - Portobello - Niddrie - Royal Infirmary

26 Clerwood - Corstorphine - Murrayfield - Princes Street - Abbeyhill - Piershill - Portobello - Musselburgh - Prestonpans - Seton Sands/Tranent

X26 Haymarket - Princes Street - Abbeyhill - Meadowbank - Portobello - Musselburgh - Prestonpans - Port Seton (Alder Road)

42 Craigleith Retail Park - Stockbridge - Hanover Street - Bristo Square - Causewayside - Kings Building - Cameron Toll - Craigmillar - Duddingston - Willowbrae - Portobello

45 Riccarton - Currie - Colinton - Firhill - Merchiston - Brunstfield - Tollcross - North Bridge - Abbeyhill - Piershill - Portobello - Queen Margaret University

49 Rosewell - Bonnyrigg - Hardengreen - Dalkeith - Sheriffhall - Royal Infirmary - Cameron Toll - Southside - Leith Walk - Lochend - Portobello - The Jewel - Fort Kinnaird

69 Willowbrae (Meadowfield Drive) - Northfield Broadway - Portobello Road - Sir Harry Lauder Road - Brighton Place - Portobello Town Hall

124/X24 Edinburgh (Semple Street) - Usher Hall - Princess Street - Meadowbank - Portobello - Musselburgh - Wallyford - Prestonpans - Longniddry - Aberlady - Gullane - Dirleton - North Berwick

  • Lothian Buses also run the N26 and N124 which also follow their respective day time routes via Portobello



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 under the Beeching cuts.


For two weeks in 2007 there was an experimental hovercraft service to Kirkcaldy in Fife. Stagecoach was interested in running a regular service, but the local authority refused planning permission for the infrastructure.[35]. Stagecoach planned to use a terminal to be built in Leith using public funds, which failed to materialise.[36]


The Promenade and beach host two annual four-mile (6.4 km) running races: Portobello Beach Race every summer since 2013,[37] and the Promathom most New Year's Days since 1987.[38] A weekly 5-km (3.1-mile) Park Run every Saturday in Figgate Park provoked press-reported controversy and exhibitionism in 2018.[39][40]

Town hallsEdit

As an independent burgh, Portobello had aspirations for a town hall, the Town Council having first met in rooms in Brighton Place and then in Rosefield House. The first purpose-built hall (now the Baptist Church in the High Street) was designed by David Bryce and erected in 1862. This proved inadequate for the purpose and was replaced in 1877 by the building, designed by Robert Paterson, which is now the Police Station.[41]

The Edinburgh Extension Act 1895, which amalgamated Portobello with Edinburgh, gave effect to a number of undertakings, including extension of the Promenade, building of the Baths, surfacing various streets, providing drainage, extending the trams, providing a public park and a town hall for public meetings. This hall was intended to hold at least 800 people and was built on the site of Inverey House to a design by the City Architect, James A Williamson, opening in 1914.[42] [43]

Notable peopleEdit

In birth order:

Notable buildingsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Placenames of Midlothian" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 August 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Grant, James (1880). "14: Portobello". Old and New Edinburgh. V. London: Cassell & Company Limited. pp. 143–149. Retrieved 20 August 2009.
  3. ^ a b Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: a survey of Scottish topography. statistical, biographical, and historical. New edition. V. London: William MacKenzie. p. 217.
  4. ^ a b Gilbert, W. M., ed., Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901, p. 45.
  5. ^ "Portobello's Rise to Fame". Evening Dispatch. 24 August 1950.
  6. ^ Alexander Smith, W.S., Edinburgh v. The Right Hon. John Hamilton Dalrymple, Earl of Stair, and others, Her Majesty's Officers of State for Scotland, for Her Majesty's interest [1849] UKHL 6_Bell_487, 13 July 1849, retrieved 29 June 2019
  7. ^ Catford, EF (24 August 1957). "The saving of the sands". EDinburgh Evening News.
  8. ^ Gilbert, W. M., editor, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1901, 176.
  9. ^ Gifford, John; McWilliam, Colin; Walker, David; Wilson, Christopher, editors, The Buildings of Scotland – Edinburgh, London, 1984, p. 650, ISBN 0-14-071068-X
  11. ^ "£2.5 million refurb for Portobello pool which has last of Edinburgh's Victorian-built Turkish baths". Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  12. ^ McEwen, Alan (8 July 2013). "Caroline Hogg murder: City scarred 30 years on". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  13. ^ McCall, Chris (9 June 2016). "In pictures: Scots enjoy the seaside, now and then". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved 20 August 2017.
  14. ^ Foley, Archie; Monroe, Margaret (6 September 2013). "Portobello & the Great War". Stroud: Amberley Publishing. Retrieved 20 August 2017.
  15. ^ "Porty to host Olympic beach volleyball qualifiers". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  16. ^ "Portobello Big Beach Busk hailed a huge success". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  17. ^ "Portobello, Sailing, Kayaking and Rowing club". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  18. ^ "Rowporty". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  19. ^ "Eastern Amateur Coastal Rowing Club". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  20. ^ "Donkeyfield Community Gardens". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  21. ^ "Portobello Market". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  22. ^ "Portobello Youth Theatre". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  23. ^ "Portobello Open Door (POD)". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  24. ^ "Portobello scoops top UK neighbourhood award". Retrieved 30 November 2019.
  25. ^ "Edinburgh beaches among 'dirtiest' in Scottish annual cleanliness report". Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  26. ^ "Pod of dolphins spotted off Portobello". Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  27. ^ "Swimming with the Wild Ones". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  28. ^ "Take the plunge at Portobello's Turkish Baths". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  29. ^ "Scotland's first urban right to buy". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  30. ^ "Action Porty". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  31. ^ "Right-to-buy community hub set to open in Portobello church". Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  32. ^ "Businesses fear for future as council plan to close Portobello road for a year". Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  33. ^ "Call for cobble work to be scrapped". BBC News. 4 June 2018. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  34. ^ Bus map Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  35. ^ Swanson, Ian (12 January 2017). "Calls for Forth hovercraft service following bridge closure". Edinburgh Evening News. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  36. ^ Insider site Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  37. ^ "Maureen Child Update 20 April 2017 – Portobello Online". Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  38. ^ "Portobello Promathon Results index". Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  39. ^ s-athletes-urinate-in-street-1-4653099 "Portobello Parkrun under threat as athletes urinate in street" Check |url= value (help). The Scotsman. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  40. ^ "Porty parkrun turns nasty after competitive athletes "push child over"". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  41. ^ W. Baird, Annals of Duddingston and Portobello.
  42. ^ The Scotsman, 23 October 1912.
  43. ^ Historic Environment Scotland.
  44. ^ Portobello Post Office Directory 1865.
  45. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1911.
  46. ^ Lauder, Sir Harry, Roamin' in the Gloamin (autobiography) Hutchinson & Co., Ltd, London, 1928, p. 34.
  47. ^ John Gifford, Colin McWilliam, David Walker and Christopher Wilson, eds, The Buildings of Scotland – Edinburgh, London, 1984, p. 653, ISBN 0-14-071068-X
  48. ^ Stuff, Good. "William Russell Flint black plaque in Edinburgh".
  49. ^ Porter, G., Irish Independent, They told me I'd be crazy to go into TV, [1], 29 November 2007.
  50. ^ BBC News website, Porter's star turn at old school, [2], 2 March 2007.
  51. ^ "Fame at last for 1970s group... but where are Iron Virgin?".
  52. ^ "Movie star Shauna rings in changes for Bellfield". Retrieved 17 June 2018.

External linksEdit