Edinburgh is a city with many museums. One of the least well known is the superb Museum of Fire in the old fire station in Lauriston Place, which can be found about a quarter of a mile south of Edinburgh Castle.
While the building it occupies is hard to miss, the only hint of the museum itself is provided by glimpses through the windows in the large doors of a row of magnificently preserved historical fire engines. The building is listed, so prominent signs advertising the presence of the museum cannot be erected: and as a result it is quite likely that there are people who pass by on their way into work every day who would simply look at you blankly if you asked them about the Museum of Fire.
The Museum of Fire tells the story of the oldest municipal fire brigade in the United Kingdom. The Edinburgh Fire Establishment was formed in 1824 under James Braidwood, a man who pioneered a scientific approach to fire fighting and placed great emphasis on the training of his firefighters. Within weeks of the formation of the Establishment it was severely tested in what has become known as the Great Fire of Edinburgh. Braidwood went on to lead what became the London Fire Brigade in 1833, and the Edinburgh Fire Establishment eventually became part of the Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service. More recently that itself became part of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
While the exterior of the museum may not actually tell you it's a museum, it is home to some poignant memorial plaques. One was placed here on the first anniversary of 9/11 to commemorate the 343 firefighters killed on that day, while another remembers Firefighter Ewan Williamson, killed fighting a fire in Edinburgh on 12 July 2009. The plaques are a reminder that firefighters risk their lives for the rest of us every day, whether they are involved in extraordinary events that change the world, or the "ordinary" day to day work of a modern fire service.
You gain access to the museum via the building's main entrance, which is a little around the corner to the left as you look at it. Then you proceed into the main room of the fire station that once occupied the space behind the four large doors you'll have seen from the outside. Here you come face to face with the main reason why the Museum of Fire is such a great place to visit. It has a truly magnificent collection of beautifully restored and cared for historical fire engines and horse drawn fire pumps.
The fire engines in the main room come from far beyond the confines of Lothian and the Borders. An open Dennis engine which came into service in 1930 is painted up as belonging to Fraserburgh Town Council, while other engines carry the names of the "South Eastern Fire Brigade" and the "Norman Cross Huntingdon" fire brigade. Other engines on show were more locally based, including a vehicle which looks more like a bus than a fire engine and served in Musselburgh until 1960. Perhaps the most important vehicle in this area is a Halley Fire Engine manufactured in Glasgow and purchased by Leith Fire Brigade in 1910. This is a truly beautiful historical object of which the museum is justifiably proud: but to modern eyes the bespoke controls look as if they would make it a nightmare to drive.
A small side room is set up as a fire control centre. Inside you find a switchboard and a couple of phones, and it is sobering to think that within the lifetime of many of the visitors to the museum, there used to be another world in which fast changing information could only be conveyed by voice, whether over land lines or, later, radio. The idea of a "control room" not festooned with computer screens is a difficult one to get (back) to grips with.
The museum's second main area lies to the rear of the first. This takes you right back to the origins of organised fire fighting and includes a horse drawn pump dating back to 1901 and used to protect the Tullis Russell paperworks in Fife, and a hand pulled pump used by the Edinburgh Fire Establishment when it formed in 1824. Another part of this room is home to the stables, where you are reminded that horse drawn pumps required a ready supply of well cared for horses. Although the horse shown being brushed down is certainly not real, there seemed on our visit to be a distinct aroma of an active stable in the rear room, a very nice touch.
It's easy to get carried away with all the big red stuff on display and overlook the fact that the fire engines and pumps are only part of what you can see here. Around the sides of the main rooms are a series of collections and exhibits highlighting other aspects of firefighting over the last two centuries. And earlier: the oldest exhibits are iron "cleikes" used in the 1400s to pull burning thatch off roofs in Edinburgh Castle. One corner of the main room is home to a fine collection of fire hydrants and hydrant plates. Elsewhere is a row of fire extinguishers; and a collection of brassware associated with firefighting.
Meanwhile kids of any age will be thrilled by the large number of toy fire engines on show in a display cabinet. A little way from the main exhibition area is a stairwell which is home to a fine collection of uniforms and protective equipment from different eras, while the stairwell itself shows off the height of an extendable ladder. There is also an exhibition focusing on Scott's Close, a recreated close from the Edinburgh of the early 1800s, showing the problems faced by the pioneers of the Edinburgh Fire Establishment.