Portobello is an eastern suburb of Edinburgh whose long sandy beach faces out onto the Firth of Forth. At its heart is the busy Portobello High Street which roughly parallels the coast and lies a little inland from it. Here you find the town hall built in 1912, opposite the old (and much more attractive) town hall, built in 1877 and now the town's police station.
Portobello's Esplanade runs, as the name implies, along the rear of an attractive beach of light coloured sand, whose presence is stabilised by the frequent lines of wooden groynes projecting out into the Firth of Forth. The Esplanade is strictly for pedestrians only, and the town is characterised by the many cul de sac roads which run down from the main street to stop just short of the Esplanade. The effect can be to make the beach seem inaccessible to motorists, but if you persevere it is possible to find parking, especially towards the east and north west ends of the town.
The small river flowing into the Firth of Forth on the west side of the centre of Portobello is known as the Figgate Burn. Until the mid 1700s this area, despite being only some three miles east of the centre of Edinburgh, was known as Figgate Muir and comprised a stretch of uninhabited moorland crossed by the road from Edinburgh to Musselburgh. Its proximity to Edinburgh made it popular with smugglers, but otherwise little of note had happened here since the moor was crossed by the armies of William Wallace and Oliver Cromwell, three an a half centuries apart.
In 1742 a retired sailor called George Hamilton built himself a cottage next to the road crossing the moor. He had served in the Royal Navy and had taken part in the capture in 1739 of Porto Bello in Panama by a fleet commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon, during what became known as the War of Jenkins' Ear between Great Britain and Spain. Hamilton called his cottage Portobello Hut and by the 1750s it was the focus of a small settlement which became known as Portobello. The original cottage survived until 1851, serving as a public house called the Shepherd's Ha'.
More systematic development followed in the 1760s, during which clay deposits were found and a brickworks established. By 1800 Portobello was a thriving village whose sands were used for drill practice by the Edinburgh Light Horse. It was here that their quartermaster, Walter Scott, was injured by a horse in 1802. The surrounding landscape was still described by the Scots Magazine in 1806 as "a perfect waste covered almost entirely with whins or furze."
As the 1800s progressed, more and more of the moorland was swallowed up by development. A post office arrived in 1802, and five years later public baths were built. In 1827 Portobello was described as home to many villas and serving as a resort in which sea bathing was popular in summer. The horse drawn railway arrived in 1838, and the steam railway followed in 1846. A public park and a golf course were added in the 1850s, and a pier complete with a pavilion large enough for concerts was opened in 1870. Portobello baths were opened in 1901 and an open air heated swimming pool was later added: among those who served as life guards was a young Sean Connery.
Portobello's high point as a resort was probably at the end of the 1800s, when it was attracting visitors from across the Lothians, as well as, more surprisingly, from Glasgow: especially during the Glasgow Fair, the traditional holiday held during the last fortnight in July. Since then many of the resort facilities have disappeared. The real downturn probably took place as a result of World War I, and the pier was demolished in 1917. Today the beach remains, probably cleaner than it has been in a very long time as a result of investment in treating Edinburgh's waste, which once simply flowed into the Forth. A fish and chip shop, a couple of amusement arcades and an indoor bowls and leisure centre still give some sense of Portobello's history as a resort, but today it is primarily a genteel suburb by the sea.
Portobello was bypassed by what is in effect a continuation of the A1 in the 1980s. The bypass was named after one of the town's most famous sons, Harry Lauder, and though "Sir Harry Lauder Road" takes much of the through traffic out of the town, it remains a bustling place.
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