Local History

Portobello reputedly got its name from a house built around 1750 on the desolate Figgate Whins between Leith and Musselburgh. Its owner was said to have been a naval veteran of the capture from Spain in 1739 of Puerto Bello in Panama but more likely was a herdsman looking after the stock that grazed on the Whins. By the end of the 18th century many fine new houses had been built either as summer residences or permanent homes for members of Edinburgh’s middle-classes.

Industrial development had begun in the 1750’s when brickworks and potteries were established to exploit the clay-beds. It continued with the arrival of a paper mill and the glass bottle works and on earlier maps the area now bounded by Bath Street and King’s Road is shown as Brickfield. Fortunately, the more attractive name of Portobello was the one that became more generally used.

The population grew steadily around these industries and also in the residential middle-class areas towards Joppa and in 1833 Portobello became an independent burgh with its own elected council. In 1896 the citizens succumbed to the blandishments of its larger neighbour and voted to amalgamate with Edinburgh, but not before extracting promises to build a Town Hall that could be used as a theatre, a golf course and seawater swimming baths.

Portobello reigned as Scotland’s premier seaside resort from the late 19th century and the era of cheap public transport. Trams brought folk from Edinburgh and trains brought holidaymakers in thousands especially from Glasgow during the Fair to enjoy the beach, the fun fair and the entertainments. Portobello Pier was unique in Scotland for as well as being a pleasure pier with a concert pavilion at the end it was also a port of call for Firth of Forth pleasure steamers.

Portobello’s popularity may have declined with the advent of package holidays to the sunshine resorts overseas and people know that a new market needs to be catered for. On fine summer days the beach and promenade are crowded with day-trippers and the many bed and breakfast guest houses, in the best Portobello tradition, provide hospitality at reasonable rates for an ever increasing number of visitors who prefer to lodge by the sea-side and travel in to see the sights of Edinburgh.

Additional Resources

We have many historic photographs and postcards scanned from Margiorie Mekie’s collection. They are all very interesting and show how our town has changed. A number of these images show Portobello and Joppa railway stations which were so heavily used in their time. We also have other railway related information and links to other sites, plus an extensive collection of old maps, a few of which are included here.

This document is A brief history of Portobello Railway Station, by John S. Wilson, 2014 (recently found in our extensive archive, but not certain how it came to us. If anyone has any additional information, please get in touch.

Nick Catford has created a website called ‘Disused Stations’, and this page is all about the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway, the remains of which are still visible in Figgate Park alongside Baileyfield Road where the line passed under the current mainline, continuing to Leith. Nice photos and very informative site. Thank you Nick!

The National Library of Scotland have a great selection of maps, available online, and they can be viewed as an overlay on top of the current map or satellite image. This is a 6 inch to 1 mile map of Portobello area from 1843 to 1882 showing the Portobello branch of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway. If you follow it South, you can see on the modern map where it crosses The Jewel before branching into the current main line (use the slider at the bottom of the pop-up window to fade in the overlay map). Here’s a slightly later and more detailed/clearer map showing Portobello Railway Station.

Some more interesting links: