Actually, the sands that became known as Portobello Beach featured in Scotland’s history before the village came into being. It was here in 1745 that Bonnie Prince Charlie reviewed his Highland Jacobite army after it had routed Sir John Cope’s Government troops at the Battle of Prestonpans and before it returned to its camp at Duddingston.
Nothing would have been further from the mind of the Young Pretender in the exhilaration following such a victory than the thought that less than a century later a Hanoverian monarch would still be on the throne and be reviewing another generation of Highlanders parading at the same location.
This happened during King George IV’s visit to Scotland in August 1822 at a grand military occasion organised by Sir Walter Scott who knew Portobello and its beach well having trained there regularly as a member of the Edinburgh Light Horse during the Napoleonic Wars. What was described as the “grandest military spectacle ever before witnessed in Scotland in modern times” was principally to have been a review of the Lowland Volunteer Yeomanry Cavalry but there was also a very large contingent of Highland clans led by their chiefs. George IV asked that they should march past where he was standing after he had reviewed the cavalry. It was estimated that over 50,000 persons, led by the Scottish nobility and persons of rank, attended the event in Portobello and in the evening the village was brilliantly illuminated.
The spectacle of horses exercising and drilling on the beach was a common one all during the 19th and first half of the 20th century. The Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars billeted at nearby Piershill Barracks were regular visitors and many of the rising population were members of the prosperous Edinburgh professional classes and retired army or naval officers who used the sands for recreational riding.
The print above shows a pleasant, peaceful scene on the beach around 1850, just the type of picture the promoters of Portobello as a fashionable watering place with the finest and safest bathing beach in Scotland wanted the world to see. By contrast the cartoonist’s depiction below of ladies bathing at Portobello is a lot more animated with an almost chaotic atmosphere but does show how popular sea bathing was. It also has a sense of fun that is more in keeping with the way in which Portobello was to develop as a holiday destination for the working classes in the second half of the 19th century.
It was the advent of cheap travel with the growth of railways and employees getting annual holiday breaks that made Portobello Scotland’s foremost holiday resort and its main attraction was undoubtedly the beach. The income for the town generated by the thousands who flocked to it year after year was considerable. Shopkeepers, hotel, guesthouse and lodgings proprietors, caterers and providers of entertainments prospered and the wider community benefited.
People, even children, did not take their clothes off when they went to the beach in Edwardian times. Indeed, they tended to dress up. At this time too, deckchairs had still to make an appearance so folk either just stood around or sat on the sand.
Concert party entertainers were popular as was taking out a rowing boat
The 17th Lancers was one of the many cavalry regiments that came down from Piershill Barracks to practice their drills on the beach. This photograph dates from before World War One but the barracks did not close until the 1930s.
Photographs and picture postcards show a busy beach between the wars and for a few years afterward after World War 2.
These 1930s holidaymakers on deckchairs are intent on enjoying themselves despite being well wrapped up.
Visitor numbers declined rapidly in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of cheap package holidays to overseas resorts that gave a greater guarantee of sunshine. Nevertheless, the beach still attracts local residents and day visitors in more than reasonable numbers on fine sunny days.
Portobello Beach in 1954
The beach is still a tremendous community asset and, as it has become less patronised by visitors during the summer, has been used by residents for an increasing variety of purposes. One could say that local ownership has been asserted.
Big Things on the Beach is a local public arts trust set up in 2003 with the aim of promoting Portobello Beach as a site for the creation and presentation of cutting edge, contemporary public art and its commissioned temporary artworks, while sometimes controversial locally, have generated national publicity for Portobello.
Portobello Open Door, POD for short, is an organisation dedicated to promoting and developing culture and arts in Portobello by involving the talents and interests of local people, and regularly uses the beach and its surrounds for its events.
The by now annual Big Beach Busk, more informally put together by one or two enthusiastic individuals, attracts instrumentalists of all ages and genres to create a mile of musical entertainment along the shore line.
Portobello Sailing and Kayaking Club
The revival of open water rowing, using community owned boats, and the formation of a yachting and kayaking club have proved extremely welcome developments. Regattas attract competitors and visitors from around the Scottish coast.
Volleyball competitions and other sporting activities take place regularly on the beach and joggers and walkers can be seen at all times of the year.