The History of Leith

May 29, 2004

The Story of Portobello

Just along the coast from Leith is the town of Portobello now part of Edinburgh. It was once a desolate place and was known as the Figgate Muir and was probably part of the Drumsheugh Forest. Through this flowed the Figgate Burn from Duddingston Loch a continuation of the Braid.

Figgate is said to be the corruption of an Anglo-Saxon word for a cow ditch and here the monks of Holyrood used to pasture their cattle. Traces of early people were found in 1821 when three stone coffins were discovered under a tumulus of sand midway between Portobello and Craigintinny. These were rudely put together and each contained a human skeleton “These bones were quite entire” reported the “Weekly Journal” “and from their position it would appear that the bodies had been buried with their legs across. At the head of each was deposited a number of flints from which it is conjectured the burial had taken place before the use of metal in this country. What is remarkable the roots of some shrubs had penetrated the coffins and skulls of the skeletons about which and the ribs they had curiously twisted themselves. The cavities of the skeletons indeed were quite filled with vegetable matter”

It was on the Figgate Muir that during the War of independence Sir William Wallace in 1296 mustered his troops to join John Lauder and Crystal Seton at Musselburgh for the traitor Earl of Dunbar whom they fought at Inverwick afterwards taking his castle at Dunbar.

In the Register of the Privy Council 1584 in a bond of Caution for David Preston of Craigmillar, Robert Pacok in Brigend, Thomas Pacok in Cameron and others are named as sureties that John Hutchison merchant and Burgess of Edinburgh “shall be left peaceably in possession of the lands called Kings meadow beside the said burgh and that part next to the Figott Burn on the North side of the same being a proper part of the sands of the Kings Meadow” Among the witnesses is George Ramsay Dean of Restalrig.

When next hear of the locality when in 1650 it was the scene of a secret meeting between Oliver Cromwell and the Scottish Leaders about the execution of Charles I and the dissolution of Parliament.

By 1661 the “Mercurius Caledonius” records the race of twelve baker’s wives from Portobello to the top of Arthur Seat. The “Mercurius” adds “All of them in a condition which makes violent exertion unsuitable to the female form”. The prize was a hundredweight of Cheese (112lbs), along with Dunkeld Whisky and Brunswick Rum. The next day sixteen fishwives ran from Musselburgh to the Canongate Cross.

By the 18th century the area became the haunt of smugglers and seamen In 1742 Portobello Hut was built by an old seaman who served under Admiral Vernon in the West Indies in 1739 and so the name Portobello comes from a port in central America. By 1765 William Jamieson discovered a valuable source of Clay near to the Figgate Burn and erected a brick and tile works afterwards he dealt in earthenware. By 1801 The Edinburgh Light horse used to drill on the sand at Portobello and this is where Sir Walter Scott was kicked by a horse but while recovering he completed the “The lay of the last Minstrel”.

Portobello developed throughout the 19th century with the manufacture of Brick, Lead, Glass, and soap, now all unfortunately gone. By 1833 it was created a Parliamentary Burgh governed by a Provost, two Bailies and seven councillors.

A number of famous people are connected to Portobello such a Sir Harry Lauder, Hugh Millar famous as a thinker, social reformer, but mostly as someone who put Geology onto a scientific footing, and David Laing Librarian of the Signet Library Edinburgh who was one of the greatest historians of the 18th century. Portobello is now famous for its beaches and sea bathing and although the area became run down after the second World War the area is now being improved.

Portobello Beach about 1880

Plan of Portobello about 1880

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