Doors Open Day goes digital at Central Library

Doors Open Day takes place in Edinburgh over the weekend of 26 and 27 September and this year goes digital. Previously on Doors Open Day in Central Library we’ve organised tours and displays of our Special collections but this year we’ll be taking you on a virtual visit tracing the history of our magnificent library building with some historical photographs and other images.

Starting with the opening of the Central Library building in 1890…

“We trust that this Library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come”, so said the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie from a telegraph read out at the Central Library’s opening.

In 1886 Andrew Carnegie offered £50,000 to establish a public library in Edinburgh and less than a year later, laid the foundation stone. The site selected for the library was the former home of Sir Thomas Hope, 1st Baronet Hope of Craighall, advocate for King Charles I. The structure, built in 1616, was demolished in March 1887 to make way for the library. You can still see the lintel from Hope’s home, bearing the carved inscription TECUM HABITA 1616 from the fourth satire of Persius, above an inner doorway of the library adjacent to the Reference Library. Roughly this translates to keep your own counsel.

Central Library opened on 9 June 1890 with 30 staff including a caretaker and fireman although only one member of staff was a woman. Library regulars will know that there are many more women working today and a few more staff. On opening there were three main departments: Lending, Reference and the Newsroom. Lending and Reference occupy the same spaces as they did on opening and the Newsroom now houses our current Edinburgh and Scottish Collection. Specialist local studies, music, art and design and children’s libraries were introduced during the 1930s.

Central Library by City Librarian, Charles Sinclair Minto, 1935

Selected from thirty seven competition entries, Central Library was built to a design by the Scottish architect George Washington Browne. As a young architect Browne had won a travel scholarship in 1878, travelling to France and Belgium. Browne’s architecture was greatly influenced by this period of study abroad: visiting Paris he was inspired by the city’s fairy tale gothic design and used the buildings of this romantic city as his model for Edinburgh Central Library, his design inspired by French renaissance architecture. Central Library is a magnificent stone building, standing three levels tall above George IV Bridge and reaching down to the Cowgate below.

Architectural Drawing of Central Library by George Washington Browne, 1888

Above the entrance are written the words in relief, ‘Let there be light’, which Carnegie insisted be placed above the entrance to every library he funded. Then higher up three large roundels, the coat of arms of City of Edinburgh, the coat of arms of Scotland and the Royal Arms. The iron gates are original to the building and comprise organic forms of thistles. There are also nine small square reliefs all relating to printers.

Inside the Central Library as you enter to the right is a grand and expansive central staircase leading up to the Reference Library which has a magnificent domed ceiling and gallery of book shelves accessed through spiral staircases hidden in the pillars.

Sketch of the proposed interior of the Reference Library by George Washington Browne, 1887

Another notable internal feature is the beautiful red and cream tiled text outside the entrance to the Mezzanine floor; this text originally formed a frieze round the News Room when it opened in 1890. These tiles were specially made for this building by Burmantofts of Leeds, an outstanding Arts and Crafts firm of the time.

Tiles on the stairs outside the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection

The tiles read:

`The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the Knowledge of the Holy is understanding. Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go, keep her for she is thy life. Wisdom is the principal; therefore get wisdom and with all thy Getting, get understanding and….’ (Proverbs).

The Mezzanine is now home to the Music Library, a Teenage area, the George Washington Browne room, an exhibition area, an acoustic pod and a public seating area. This Mezzanine was not part of the original plan of the library but was installed between 1957 and 1961.

Central Library has been adapted and expanded many times over the years. Only a year after opening the library was already running out of space and a book store was added in 1903. By 1928, the library was short of space again. Proposals were made for a better use of the space and a public lift was installed. In 1930, the adjacent building known as the Henderson building at no.3 George IV Bridge was acquired allowing the library to expand again. Designed by architect John Henderson in 1836, this building is basically a rectangular block with large windows and ornamentation inspired by the Renaissance. The Art & Design Library, housed in the Henderson building, opened to the public in 1936 occupying its top floor, and is much admired today in its original location for its magnificent views and light filled room of particular appeal to artists in the city.

Fine Art Library (now called the Art and Design Library), by City Librarian, Charles Minto Sinclair, 1949

Come for a virtual tour of the Central Library with Susan from our Digital Team. This film was made in 2010 – you might notice a few changes. Can you tell us what they are?

Feast your eyes on this wonderful collection of photographs of mainly Central Library: most are recent but you’ll also find some historic items included too.

Look back over 125 years of the history of Edinburgh City Libraries in our 125th  anniversary exhibition celebrated in 2015.

Read from our collections about the people who actually built the original library in the handwritten ledgers kept by the then Clerk of Works, William Bruce, which record in detail the building works as they progressed. Read more about the work of the tradesmen that built Central Library.

Edinburgh at play, 1910-1930

As we’re able to enjoy getting out and about more, we’re looking back to the beginning of the last century in our latest exhibition on Capital Collections, ‘Edinburgh at play’, to see how people enjoyed their leisure time.

The images come from a set of glass negatives which were kindly donated to Edinburgh Libraries for digitisation for our digital collections. The glass negatives are dated approximately between 1910 and 1930.

Scenes at Portobello show girls in their best clothes waiting patiently for the Carousel to start. In others, we can see children on the beach building sandcastles, all suitably wrapped up for a Scottish summer!

Image of children in their Sunday best clothes and hats sitting on carousel horses.

Portobello – c1920

Edinburgh Zoo features too, although images taken of visitors and animals at Edinburgh Zoo show a very different view of the zoo than what you would see today.

A zookeeper leads a group of four children on a camel ride.

Camel ride, Edinburgh Zoo – c1920

Two images from the 1930s show the Royal Company of Archers, The Queen’s Bodyguards in Scotland, practising on the Meadows.

A group of uniformed archers practice archery in a park.

Royal Company of Archers, the Meadows – c1930

To enjoy more of these wonderful images, visit the complete exhibition on Capital Collections.

Lockdown Edinburgh – short films by Jim Sheach

When we put out a call for contributions to our coronavirus scrapbook on Edinburgh Collected, we were contacted by Jim Sheach, who had been making short films as he cycled around Edinburgh capturing the atmosphere of the city during lockdown.

A view of Princes Street on a sunny day but deserted of people and traffic.

A film grab from Edinburgh Princes Street, 1 June 2020, deserted

He’s kindly contributed them to Capital Collections so that we could use them to create an online exhibition. As life returns to something more like normal already these scenes, from only a few weeks ago, seem extraordinarily quiet and alien.

Jim’s short films covering a wide geographical area of the city will be a valuable historic record in years to come and we’re tremendously grateful to him for getting in touch and sharing them with us. View the full collection of short films in our Capital Collections exhibition.

You can view pictures and memories from our coronavirus collecting project on the Edinburgh Collected website, where we still welcome your contributions recording this unusual summer in Edinburgh.

You can view more of Jim’s videos on his YouTube channel.

Redrawing Edinburgh event: Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920 – in the papers

Edinburgh Libraries have been working with colleagues from City Archives and Museums and Galleries and community representatives on an outreach project to mark the centennial commemoration of the 1920 Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act.

The Act meant that the city boundaries were extended in November 1920 to incorporate the Burgh of Leith in the north and the Midlothian parishes of Cramond, Corstorphine, Colinton and Liberton to the west and south of the city. This was a huge change for the city and for these parishes as the expansion saw the city grow from 17 square miles to 53 square miles and increased its population from 320,000 to 425,000.

The project entitled ReDrawing Edinburgh aims to bring together the communities which came into the City of Edinburgh one hundred years ago to commemorate the event, celebrate the diverse history of each local area and to raise awareness of the heritage of each area amongst the city as a whole.

ReDrawing Edinburgh plans have had to adapt to the impact of the coronavirus restrictions. At present, activities are focused online and we are using Facebook presentations to delve into the history of this momentous change for the city. We hope to expand the programme further over time and with activities from community groups.

Our next talk will be Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920: In the papers next Thursday 30 July at 6.30pm on Facebook. Join Iain from Central Library’s Edinburgh and Scottish Collection as he gives a broad overview of the events of Edinburgh’s Boundary Extension in 1920. He will attempt to bring alive the voices and opinions of the time by looking through what was written in newspapers of the era to discover what was being said and written about these events.

Advert image for Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920: In the papers Facebook event

Newspapers of the time were of course the major way people discovered information, fact and opinion. It was how authorities communicated their programmes and developments, as well as being a space where the public could make their views heard. A look back at the papers now reveals a rich historical resource that helps to bring fascinating aspects of this story to life.

You can catch up with the first presentation in the ReDrawing Edinburgh programme on YouTube. The first talk was an introduction to the history and debates surrounding the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramway Act 1920 which led to ‘The Birth of Greater Edinburgh’, given by Henry Sullivan from Edinburgh City Archives.

Our Town Stories website gets a fresh new look and enhanced features

We’re delighted to let you know that our heritage website, Our Town Stories (, for exploring Edinburgh’s history has a refreshed vibrant design, improved functionality and additional features.

We’ve focused on making sure the website provides enhanced functionality whilst retaining the look and feel (and of course all the wonderful pictures and stories) from the previous website. Our Town Stories is a fantastic resource for education, researchers and anyone interested in discovering a little more about the history of our beautiful city in a fun and interactive way.

We’ve retained:

  • the web-friendly stories curated by library staff and partner organisations telling all aspects of the city’s past
  • hundreds of fantastic images from Central Library’s heritage collections
  • the intuitive map-based search
  • search by timeline and by content type
  • and the ever-popular Then & Now images.

The new Our Town Stories also has:

  • a search function
  • mobile responsive design so that you can enjoy the website on computer, tablet or mobile phone
  • audio and video content
  • 7 extra historical maps.

We’d love to hear what you think of it.

We’ll be adding more new stories over the coming months and we’d be really interested to know what stories of Edinburgh’s past you’d like to see.

Discover Our Town Stories online.


John Johnson Collection

One of the many online resources we have available that you might not be too familiar with is the John Johnson Collection which gives a unique insight into everyday life in Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is an archive of printed ephemera from the Bodleian Library and contains an amazing amount of weird and wonderful pictorial information.

We’ve been having a dig about in the collection, looking at some of the things that have been keeping us occupied during lockdown and found these gems from the past.

We’ve all been trying to get our hands on soap, handwash, hand sanitiser and cleaning products. This advert below lists Bishop’s Pure Drug Co.’s ‘best and cheapest’ disinfectant supplies for combatting infectious diseases –

Special price list of disinfectants from Bishop’s Pure Drug Co., c1880

And after barbers and hairdressers had been closed a few weeks, we were reduced to some DIY haircutting from family members –

Dick Wildfire preparing for a dash – 1812

And when we all decided to keep fit, we took to the bicycle. Would we have been so keen if we had to wear all this?

The three best lady cyclists dress holders – [1890’s]

And of course, when we were finally able to track some flour down, we all took to baking-

Why they all use McDougall’s Self-Raising Flour – [1920s]

Why not have a browse through the intriguing John Johnson Collection yourself and see what you can find. All you need is your library card to access and if you’re not already a member, now’s the time to join!

Getting to grips with finding my past

Bronwen from Central Library’s Art and Design and Music team offers an insight into her first steps in family history…

“One of the great offers from the Library’s eresources over the lockdown period has been the opportunity to search the genealogy site Findmypast from outside the Library’s computer network. The site has always grabbed my attention but I’ve always been too busy… well, now’s the time and the opportunity.

With help and encouragement from the Library’s Digital Team guidance posted on Stay at home family history help, I’ve been dipping into this fantastic resource on family history. I’ve been focusing my search on one of my relatives.

Clarice Mary Watkins was my maternal grandmother. She later became Clarice Mary McGregor after she married my grandfather Michael Joseph McGregor in 1924 in Monmouthshire, Wales. Clarice died when I was 17 and for my part I knew her to be kind, softly spoken, an abstainer of alcohol and very good at making apple charlotte. After my own parents died I was passed down some of my grandmother’s writings and diaries. Married to an army school teacher she’d lived in Egypt, India and Germany at significant stages in the history of these countries and she’d written down much of her impressions of these experiences. I was fascinated to know more about this lady.

Clarice Mary Watkins

To begin with I found it quite difficult to find much information on Clarice. I was jumping in at the deep end wanting to insert a name and find records pinging back at me in a matter of seconds. It’s not as easy as that and takes a bit of patience.

Findmypast has some really good advice on how to start your family tree journey, writing down what you think you know, and asking relatives for information. There’s lots of advice on how to start creating and building a family tree should you wish to record this. For myself, I needed to go back to the basics.

I started off with the obvious – putting in the name Clarice Mary Watkins. I was fortunate to know my grandmother’s full name but you can use wildcards if you don’t know someone’s full name or the spelling, for example I could have searched for Clar* Watkins but I’d need to wade through more results. I knew she was slightly older than my grandfather who was born in 1900, so when some results came back with records dating 1896, I thought I’d struck lucky. I found a record for what was my grandmother’s birth and also a record for her in the 1911 Census but the dates of birth were out by a year. I knew the Census was a correct record because the names of her parents’ occupations and her brothers and sisters were correct. I’d learned a valuable lesson; not all dates, names, places etc are transcribed correctly in records at the time or later.

I started searching under my grandfather’s name to look for more information that might lead me back to Clarice. I was more sure of my grandfather’s birth and death dates but the only information I could find initially was an entry in the 1901 Census, and to me more interestingly, the record of his marriage to Clarice.

Findmypast includes information taken from many sources of records. This includes census returns, birth, death and marriage certificates and parish records but also some more unusual records, for example, passenger lists of people leaving the UK. Searching again under Clarice’s married name of Clarice Mary McGregor I found her bound for Port Said, Egypt in 1933: one of the clever features of Findmypast is that it lists other people with the same surname on the ship and there was my grandfather’s name Michael Joseph and my mother and her elder sister, so I knew for certain this was the right Clarice. Her date of birth on the passenger list was different to the earlier Census return and birth certificate so I now had her date of birth listed variously as 1898, 1897, and 1896 – and they say ladies don’t always tell the truth about their age!

Rather frustratingly I could never find my grandmother’s death dates nor my grandfather. I knew the dates of their deaths and also that they both died in Cupar, Fife. However, what I’ve learnt is that although Findmypast is a brilliant resources, it doesn’t have all the answers. With guidance from my library colleagues I was referred back to ScotlandsPeople where I was able to track down confirmation of Clarice’s death in 1980 and my grandfather a little later on.

I’m just on the start of my family history journey here. What I’ve learnt is this journey takes persistence but also patience and that you need to look at various sources and records. Different websites offer access to different sets of information and records from Scotland can be different from the rest of the U.K. A good starting point is to quiz relatives and stretch your own memory, gather together what you know, and be prepared to search records in different ways. But it’s addictive and I’ve discovered a brother to Clarice, a Benjamin Llewellyn Watkins, born 1895, who I’d never heard of before … he was never mentioned by the family … now that’s another story and given the timeframe I’m guessing one that didn’t end well.”

Find out more about how to gain temporary access to Find my Past from home and go to the Library’s Family Tree guide providing information on Library resources to help you trace your family tree.

Local and family history enquiries with the team from the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection

Over the past few weeks, members of Central Library’s Edinburgh and Scottish Collection team have been busy trying to solve various family and local history queries that members of the public have been sending in by email.

Examples of the kind of questions asked have ranged from the straightforward to the devilishly tricky. So far, staff have fielded questions about whether the Library holds Edinburgh Electoral Rolls for the year 1845 and copies of the Evening News for 1959. (‘Yes’ was the answer to both questions). They’ve helped trace ancestors by finding birth, marriage and death certificates. And really got their thinking caps on when asked – what influenced 19th century emigrants to the US and Canada to choose one town over another in where they eventually settled! There have been some great questions about the local area too, from helping to date a school building in Leith, to finding resources on who was working as a pharmacist in Edinburgh in the early 1800s (and under what conditions).

Answering enquiries in the Edinburgh Room, 1954. Image from Capital Collections.

With only having online resources to access currently and sadly, not the full library collection there are limits to what can be answered. However, if you do have your own local or family history query, please send it to and they will do the best they can to help out.

Here are some links to great history and heritage resources that may begin or continue your own research journey and assist with enquiries also.

Recording history today for the future

Central Library’s Edinburgh and Scottish Collection have a long history of collecting material relating to the changing life and times of the city.

Today, we also collect digital submissions from people who can upload their own pictures and memories to Edinburgh Collected, our online community archive (

During these strange times of lockdown living we are asking the public to help us record the visual signs of how life in Edinburgh has changed so that these momentous times are preserved for history.

Saturday at the Grassmarket, shared by Sufly9 on

We’re particularly keen to see the little acts of creativity and messages of thanks and positivity that are helping us all to keep smiling.

We’ve received some lovely picture memories so far but we’d like to capture a complete picture of Edinburgh at this time. Do you have any photos of your neighbourhood that you’ve taken whilst out for your daily exercise or going to the supermarket that you could share?

Anyone can create an account and add pictures and memories to Edinburgh Collected. Once added, we’ll add your contributions to the ‘Edinburgh 2020 – coronavirus pandemic’ scrapbook.

Stay home, shared on by jintyg

Our colleagues in Museums and Galleries and in the City Archives are also collecting material related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Museums and Galleries Edinburgh are looking to collect objects for their museum collections which represent experiences of people in Edinburgh during the pandemic. They’re hoping for donations of everyday objects that have helped you get through the lockdown, e.g. certain equipment you’ve used to keep you safe, a note from your neighbour or the rainbow you made for your window.

If you have something to offer, please email Explain what the item is, what it means to you, and include a photo if you can. (Please note, staff won’t be able to physically collect any material until it is safe to do so and venues reopen.)

Edinburgh City Archives are collecting diaries and journals covering this period. They will collect these in various forms; whether that is paper or digital, text or audio-visual, published on a website/social media or kept privately in an app, book, or document.  If you keep any of these and would be willing to donate it to the Archives for posterity please visit their webpage for more information:

My happy childhood memories living in the Dean Village – Gail’s story

Following on from Patrick’s blog post yesterday, this second article from the Dean Village Memories group on Edinburgh Collected features one wee girl that spent her childhood in Dean Village.

Many people will be familiar with the picturesque images of Dean Village with its bridges and housing and with the Water of Leith flowing below.

It wasn’t always like that, at one time there were no fewer than 11 working mills there fuelled by the waters below. Due to the development of larger and more modern flour mills in Leith, Dean Village’s trade diminished for many years and the village became associated with poverty and decay, reaching a low point around 1960. The community was predominantly working class. Times were very hard for families struggling to bring their children up in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s with poor social and economic conditions prevalent, with Village families having very little money and home comforts. Some of the Dean Village housing could best be described as Dickensian, in that they housed large families, in small rented rooms, with many families having outside toilets.

Thanks to one young girl growing up in Dean Village, we have a snapshot of what it was like during the 50s and 60s and her story has been shared on Edinburgh Collected.

Born in her granny’s home in 33 Dean Path in 1944, her name was Gail Featherstonehaugh. Together with her father, mother and older sister Avril, she lived in “the Village”. Luckily for us Gail was given her first camera when she was 7 and throughout her childhood and adult life took many photos of the Dean Village. Because of these images we can see what “village” life was like.

Gail, her mother,and sister Avril – 1945

The community of Dean Village has always been a strong one, with generations of families either living with each other or very close by. The village had its own school (Dean School which Gail started in 1948, aged 5), a Mission Hall and grocers (Burnside’s). The village was also home to several larger premises. There was Mutries, a Costume and Theatrical Hire warehouse, that burned down in 1957. Legget’s Tannery, who’s Clydesdale horse, Prince, Gail looked after. A Bottle Exchange (which paid money for handing in empty bottles) and a Stick Factory where Gail’s mother used to get kindling for the fire.

Life as a child growing up in the village seems to have been quite idyllic, with their playground the large green place that surrounded them. Gail has shared with us memories of family days out at Cramond and later as a teenager, of listening to Winifred Atwell on Radio Luxembourg with her sister Avril.

Dean Village children playing in the Auld Ducks Damside – 1954

When Gail left Bellvue Secondary school “for 1 year I walked the road from my house in Dean Path to train as an Electronic Assembler in Ferranti’s Technical College” which was now based in her old Dean School.

In 1962, aged 18, Gail joined the Red Cross and volunteered in the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and the following year she became engaged to Robert Haldane. They married in 1964 and became parents to twins Gillian and Paul.

Gail (left) and friend Helen pictured in their Red Cross uniforms – 1962

1965 found Gail still with Ferranti’s, now based at their Sub Station at West Granton Road. Also, in that year, STV were filming a documentary about Dean Village and Gail was asked if she would walk up Dean Path pushing her twins in their pram. She recalls that her mother watched it when it was aired.

Twins Gillian and Paul – 1966

Gail left the Dean Village in 1966, but she continues to keep the community of it alive. In 2013 she attended the 1st Dean Village Ex Villagers Reunion, which has been an annual event ever since. Her visits to the village continue, visiting on her 60th birthday in 2004 with her daughter and grandchildren, and latterly on Remembrance Sunday in 2019.

Group photo taken on the 6th Dean Village Reunion – 2017

We hope you have enjoyed reading Gail’s story. You can browse her complete scrapbook on Edinburgh Collected as well as many more memories from the Dean Village Memories group.

Stay at home family history help

We’ve lost count of the number of times people have told us that they would love to start researching their family histories, but simply don’t have the time, well, now might be the chance.

There’s a wealth of online resources out there to help you either get started or help you in your research. We have pulled together some online resources that we hope you’ll find useful.

Findmypast – we announced a couple of weeks ago that during this period of Libraries’ closure, we’re able to offer home access to Findmypast! Findmypast is a genealogical database giving access to millions of records including UK parish records, census records, Irish records and British military records.
If you’re just getting started with Findmypast, there is some excellent guidance in their ‘Help and more’ section within the site and they also have a YouTube channel where you’ll find wide-ranging video tutorials.

Scotland’s People – Scotland’s People is the official online source for parish registers, civil registration and census data. Also wills and testaments 1512-1901 (free). You will need to buy credits which entitle you to view indexed pages or facsimiles of records.

Family Search – this website enables you to search worldwide for your ancestors. It is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Salt Lake City who hold the largest genealogy collection in the world.

Edinburgh Libraries heritage resources – your Edinburgh Libraries membership gives you access to more wonderful resources from home including The Scotsman Digital Archive and Scran. There is also a helpful guide on how to start your family tree.

National Library of Scotland – have a whole section on their website dedicated to family history research and many tools to help you. Check out their superb maps section where you will be able to view thousands of maps of areas where your ancestors lived. Special mention also for the Scottish Post Office Directories online where you can search more than 700 directories from 1774-1911.

Scottish Genealogy Society – although the specialist library is closed at present their website and Facebook page has lots of tips and information.

Currently some organisations are even offering free online courses and research aids:
Strathclyde University are offering a free 6 week online course ‘Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree’.

Who Do You Think You Are? The monthly BBC magazine (available from our libraries via Rbdigital) has 8 family history activities to do at home. RBDigital gives access to back issues of magazines so you can look back at previous editions for loads of family history searching tips!

The National Archives – loads of information available here! Check out their research guides, blogs, podcasts, learning resources, online exhibitions and ‘boredom busting’ activities.

Discovering history online

The Edinburgh and Scottish Team at Central Library share some online resources for discovering history and heritage.

Image: David C. Weinczok @TheCastleHunter/ Twitter

Some residents of Stockbridge have been finding novel ways of keeping themselves busy/entertained in these times of social distancing, see above photo, however if you are stuck inside and looking for ideas here are some suggestions with a history and heritage focus.

Let’s start with anniversaries. April is an important month for two monumental events in the history of Scotland. April 6 marked the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath and there is a fantastic radio programme made by Billy Kay to celebrate the document and assess its impact and importance. ‘The Declaration’ was broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland this week and is available for one month on the BBC Sounds app. For younger people interested in the document, Historic Environment Scotland and National Records of Scotland have collaborated to produce this excellent free printable illustrated activity booklet.

The second anniversary of note this month is the bicentenary of the Scottish Radical Rising of 1820. We were all very sad to have to have to postpone the wonderful Maggie Craig’s talk at Central Library this month, but we encourage you to check out her great blog and new book on the topic. The aptly titled ‘One Week in April’ is newly published by Birlinn.

For the family tree researchers out there – an exciting development from Edinburgh Libraries has arrived. Free access to Find My Past has been extended to home users for the duration of this lockdown period. This was previously only available at a physical library site. For more information on how to access from home please visit our Your Library website.

The National Library of Scotland maps team have been busy producing this very nifty and useful digital map overlay. This allows you to see a comprehensive range of the maps of Edinburgh and its environs, what they cover and within what time period they were produced.

Now for any budding archaeologists out there (young or old…) Dig Ventures have made a fantastic online learning course available for free (usually costs £49.00!) and the next course begins on the 14 April. Archaelogy Scotland have also produced a handy toolkit of resources too.

The always excellent Battle of Bannockburn Experience has created an online classroom, which may be of interest to those currently partaking in home schooling (- we salute you!)

For those of us that perhaps can’t commit or aren’t interested in a formal learning experience but are really missing being able to go out and enjoy visiting a great museum or gallery, please have a look at these virtual options. A very comprehensive list has been produced by the MCN in the US. There are a great many to choose from all over the planet all free to access and enjoy.

Finally bringing things a bit closer to home and in case you missed it – episode 1 from the BBC Scotland series ‘One Night in the Museum’ was recently aired and available for the next month on BBC iPlayer. It follows three groups of primary school aged children on a journey of discovery as they are able to explore the National Museum of Scotland’s collection at night and free from adult involvement. It is adorable and well worth a watch.

Findmypast give temporary home access to library users

During this period of Libraries’ closure, Findmypast are kindly offering our library members free access to their fantastic family history resource from home.

If you’re interested in accessing Findmypast through Edinburgh Libraries whilst you stay at home, please contact with your library card number and we can provide login instructions.

David Doull studio portrait of Daniel Gray and his children, 1866. Photograph from Capital Collections

If you’re used to accessing Findmypast in the library you’ll notice that the site looks a little different from usual but you’ll still have full access to the millions of records available via the Library’s subscription.

With access to UK parish records, census records, Irish records and British military records, Findmypast is the ideal resource for making progress with your family history research and many of us also have a bit more time on our hands to take advantage of this brilliant offer.


History of the house: North British Hotel

Standing at the East End of Princes Street is the imposing building known today as The Balmoral Hotel. Owned by Sir Rocco Forte since 1997, the building has been completely refurbished and now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a luxury hotel.

But this has come at end of a long and interesting journey. Let us go back in time to explore the history and development of the building.

Edinburgh New Town development took place from 1760 until 1830 with the Nor Loch being largely drained in the 1760s and the remaining West Gardens by the 1820s. The Mound formed from the earth and rubble of the New Town construction work was started in 1781 and hard surfaced and landscaped by 1830.

Princes Street looking east, probably taken from Scott Monument, c1858. Image from Edinburgh Museums and Galleries collections.

In the 1840s three stations were built on the site of the hotel and the present Waverley Station. The first was the terminus for the North British railway from England; the second, the Edinburgh Perth and Dundee Railway was routed via a tunnel under Princes Street and the New Town to meet the ferry at Granton to cross the Forth and then on to Perth and Dundee; the third and last, was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway which after much debate ran through the Gardens via a tunnel under the Mound and on to Glasgow. In 1854 the name Waverley, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel applied to all three stations. The North British Railway Company took over the other two and from 1868 gradually transformed the structure of the site as demand for travel and accommodation increased.

Waverley Station and Princes Street, c1882

The building and improvement of the North and Waverley Bridges between 1892 and 1902 made for easier access from the Old to the New Town and contributed to the East End growth, as did the significant railway developments.

Waterloo Place looking towards North Bridge, showing the buildings on the site where the Balmoral Hotel now stands, c1885

The drainage of the Nor Loch encouraged the building of properties at the junction of  North Bridge and Princes Street, i.e. the current site of the Balmoral. There were early disputes as owners who had built on the North side protested that their view was being spoiled which was only settled after many court cases. The agreement allowed for properties already built or nearing completion to remain but any others further West had to be below street level to protect the view across to the Old Town. To gain some insight into the previous occupants of the Balmoral site, we’ve turned again to the old Edinburgh Post office Directories which show a history of hotels and travel companies on the site:

No 1  Steam Packet and Coach Office and Kerr, Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 Morrison City Tavern and Jas Campbell Coach Office
No 3 A Murray Turf Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office (also at No 10)

No 1 W Kerr Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 John McLaren Refreshment Room
No 3 John Donald Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office

No 1 Thomas Johnston and Alex Mctavish Bridge Hotel
No 2 A John McLaren Refreshment Rooms No 2 Wm Crawford and Sons, Bakers
No 3 Gladstone Hotel Thos Jardine
No 4 North British Railway Office

No 1 Thomas Johnston Bridge Hotel
No 2 Refreshment Room
No 4 NB railway Office and NB Steam Packet

No 1 Thos Cook and Son Waverley Station Hotel buildings
No 2 Waverley Station Hotel

A photograph in our collections, dated 1895, shows the former buildings where the Hotel now stands and shows the offices of Thomas Cook Travel Agents.

In 1889 to raise finance, The North British Railway Bill came before a committee in the House of Lords. There were objections to part of the capital raised being used to build a hotel. The main opposition to the scheme came from those who already owned or had some interest in existing hotels on Princes Street and some of the exchanges are reported to have become very personal. When all sides had presented their case the Lordships after a few minutes deliberation announced that they had decided to allow the Bill to proceed.

In 1895, an open competition to design the new North British Station Hotel was won by W. Hamilton Beattie and A.R. Scott. William Hamilton Beattie specialised in designing hotels. The son of George Beattie an architect and builder in Edinburgh. William designed the Clarendon Hotel Edinburgh (1875), the Braid Hills Hotel (1876), and in 1893, was commissioned by Charles Jenner to design a replacement for Jenners Department Store on Princes Street which had been destroyed by fire. This was opened in 1895 and is modelled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  He did not live to see the new North British Hotel as he died in 1898.

North Bridge showing North British Hotel under construction, 1901

Following William Beattie’s death the task of completing his North British Hotel design fell to his assistant Andrew Robb Scott.

North British Station Hotel, Princes Street, 1937

The new hotel opened in October 1902 as the North British Railway Hotel and started a tradition of setting their clock three minutes fast so that people would not miss their train.

Over the years the Railway Company changed structure and name but The North British Railway Hotel remained unchanged. However, in 1983, Gleneagles Hotel Company acquired the famous hotel and in 1988 closed it for major refurbishment. In 1990, it was acquired by Balmoral International Hotels who completed the refurbishment and in 1991 reopened as The Balmoral Hotel.

In 1997 the building was bought by the present owner Sir Rocco Forte to start his Rocco Forte Collection and there have been changes and refurbishments to the building since.

Large Dining Hall in North British Station Hotel, 1902

Over the years the hotel has played host to many important and famous visitors.

In 1918 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was a guest at the hotel whilst in Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City and an honorary LL.D from the University.

On 24 July 1919, HRH The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) came to Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City. The Scotsman newspaper reported that he used the Hotel as his base until his departure the following morning.

In July 1932, Hollywood legends Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Hotel whilst on a promotional tour and their movie ‘The Music Box’ sceened at the Playhouse.

King Haakon of Norway was in residence for a few days in 1942 during which he opened Norway House, a residential club for Norwegians.

During the 1960s, glamorous celebrities such as Sophia Loren,  Elizabeth Taylor and Paul McCartney stayed at the hotel.

The Queen Mother was a regular visitor during the 1970s. Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson also visited.

And in 2007, J K Rowling completed the final novel in the Harry Potter series while residing at the hotel for a few months. This was a well kept secret and the author signed an antique bust in her room.

View from the Scott Monument of the Balmoral Hotel, Waverley Market and Calton Hill, 2010

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: Cammo House

Emmeline Vyner: poet, psychic, dog-lover

Staff at Central Library have been archiving a box of personal papers, diaries and scrapbooks and in the process, discovering a remarkable life. Emmeline Lillian Vyner was born in Halifax around 1876. She moved to Scotland with her husband and first daughter and stayed here for the rest of her life. She was found dead in her shop in Leith in 1947 by her son.

A mother of five, she possessed a wry sense of humour and a robust outlook on life lived through two world wars. She liked to write poetry and her poems were placed in Edinburgh and Leith newspapers: romantic and natural subjects to start with then moving on to First World War poems, based mainly on the experience of the women and children left to cope at home. She was not afraid to criticise the church and the established institutions of the day and to challenge injustice where she found it with her published articles and in letters to the newspapers. When she felt in a lighter mood, she wrote humorous pieces for magazines, newspapers and lyrics for songs. She had lofty ambitions and received rejection notices from some of the biggest literary agents in Britain. She has pasted one of those rejections in her scrapbook signed by Curtis Brown. He set up the agency which still manages some of the biggest names in the literary world today.

Some of her most interesting pieces are on her activities attending psychic seances in various houses in Edinburgh and Leith in 1942. These circles were well attended by large numbers of participants and, from Emmeline’s accounts, the attendees gained a great deal of comfort from the messages from the mediums. She explains in one article that she has been receiving jealous looks from the other sitters at the number of messages she receives and explains the best way to receive messages from the spirit people. She advises not to eat flesh meat or eggs on séance days, talk to your spirit friends before you leave your house, tell them where you are going and ask them to come with you. Once you are at your circle, sit still and relax and don’t cross the legs, feet, hands, arms or do anything to close yourself up. She writes “Let spirit emanations flow from your extremities and remove your hat if you like.” Always enterprising, Emmeline has typed up these accounts on reused paper (due to wartime restrictions) and has charged between threepence and sixpence for a copy!

It’s her delight in children and dogs that really shines through her journals and scrapbooks. In her work as a cinema pianist, she rails against playing for two hour features with only the shortest of breaks but she delights in the mornings that she played her piano for the children’s features. She loved to hear all the children singing along to her piano and deliberately played tunes they would enjoy although she said that, due to the noise, a brass band might have been a better accompaniment! Dogs she loved, especially old English collies, and her charming article on dogs and their affinity with their masters is illustrated with four photos of Rough, her own example of the breed. She states the reasoning powers of dogs is quite evident and provides several examples of dogs doing just that. The funniest is an Alsatian called Prince whom, upon hearing his mistress’ wish for a fur coat from her husband, promptly went out the door and stole her a mink coat that had been left out to air by a neighbour!

We are glad Emmeline Vyner settled in Scotland all those years ago and left behind so many different types of writing. It has been fascinating to see a glimpse of how an ordinary person dealt with the Great War through poetry and then found support through spiritualism to carry on through the Second World War, brought closer to home by Leith air raids and rationing. We are so glad that we have had a chance to read her papers, her newspaper articles and her scrapbooks and make a connection with such a lively and resilient character.


Take a step back in time with Edinburgh Collected to the 1960s National Coal Board Computer Centre

Back in May 1963, the National Coal Board opened a state-of-the-art Computer Centre at Sighthill featuring the latest technology. It’s no longer there but thanks to photographs taken on the day we can see just what that technology looked like, and how much it has changed!

National Coal Board , Sighthill – Official Opening, 1963

The photos show massive big pieces of machinery, churning out reams of paper. Operators sitting in front of machines featuring rows and rows of switches. Computer equipment that is taller than those standing next to it. One thing you do notice, is that most of the equipment is being operated by women.

Staff member operating computer at the official opening of the National Coal Board Scotland Computer Centre

The images have been added to our Edinburgh Collected website where we encourage anyone to upload their photographs. Anyone can share their pictures and memories to Edinburgh Collected whilst contributing to the City’s digital heritage collections.

Although the Coal Board photos were most probably taken by a professional photographer, the bulk of photos on Edinburgh Collected have been taken by amateur photographers. They offer a more personal perspective on the past but can still capture areas of Edinburgh, or perhaps industries, factories and activities that no longer exist.

The images in this scrapbook were all added to the site by The Living Memory Association, who have shared over 3000 images on Edinburgh Collected so far.

Nowadays everyone takes photos on their phones, and that’s where they stay. So why not have a look and put some on Edinburgh Collected?

History of the House: Melbourne Place

Today the site is occupied by a bank and a hotel, but step back nearly 200 years and the corner of George IV Bridge was very different. For one thing it was called Melbourne Place, named after the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who was Prime Minister from 1835-41.

Melbourne Place and Victoria Terrace

Searching through copies of Post Office directories, which are available from our Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library, we can see that it was home to various businesses including in 1837, Alex Ferguson, Wholesale Confectionery and Lozenge Manufactory, who had its premises at Number 1 and 2. As well as making various confections ranging from medicated lozenges and boiled sugar sweets, it was there that the famous Edinburgh Rock was manufactured. Packaged in tartan boxes and different from the normal lettered Blackpool Rock, it had a crumbly texture and came in various pastel colours.

Another well-known name appears in the 1846-47 Post Office Directory, Kennington and Jenner. One of the other resources available to library users is Findmypast. In the 1851 Census, in number 7, the head of the household is listed as a Charles Jenner, unmarried aged 40 and stating his occupation as a Draper Master employing 35 men, 28 women and 9 boys. We know that when fire destroyed the original Jenner’s Department store in 1892 there were around 120 people employed by the firm who were housed on the premises. Was this an earlier “boarding house” for employees? Listed in the Census, together at the property with Charles was a Housekeeper, a House Porter, a Chambermaid, a Table Maid, a cook and 30 Drapers Assistants!

Demolition of Melbourne Place

By 1852 The Royal Medical Society had taken over number 7 Melbourne Place. The RMS was formally constituted in 1737, providing a meeting place for medical students with the purpose of enhancing their education, and flourished in its educational and social provision. Its contribution to medicine was recognised with the awarding of a Royal Charter 1778. It remains the only student society in the United Kingdom to have attained this distinction. The Society retained its position at number 7 until 1965 when the buildings on Melbourne Place were demolished to make room for office buildings of the Midlothian County Council.

Lothian Regional Council Chambers from Victoria Terrace

In 1975 the building became Lothian Regional Council Chambers and when Lothian Region was dismantled in 1996 the building was taken over by the City of Edinburgh Council, and provided a temporary home for the Scottish Parliament from 1999 until 2004. This building was demolished in 2007 to make way for a new Missoni Hotel (now Radisson Collection Hotel) complex and the largest Bank of Scotland branch in Edinburgh together with two Royal Mile shops and a Pizza Express restaurant.

Hotel at corner of George IV bridge and Victoria Street

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel
History of the house: Cammo House

Libraries Week focus: Edinburgh Collected

Join in this Libraries Week by sharing your pictures and memories of Edinburgh on Edinburgh Collected!

Edinburgh Collected ( is a community archive for the city where everyone can browse and enjoy this growing online collection of pictures and memories.

Venchie Fun, 1983 from the Sentinel newspaper, picture memory shared by From There To Here

However, if you sign up for an Edinburgh Collected account, you can upload your own written or picture memories and save your favourite memories to scrapbooks. By joining Edinburgh Collected you’ll be contributing your memories to the city’s heritage collections and helping us to preserve and make history for the future.

My Brother Alec, aged 5 years old, is amongst these 30 children photographed, 1934, picture memory shared by Dean Village Memories

Memories could be from childhood or from yesterday. They all combine to create an online living history for the city.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Edinburgh Collected or need a helping hand to get started, contact the Libraries’ Digital Team via or 0131 242 8033.

History of the house: Milne’s Court

In the 1540s, Henry VIII mounted a military campaign to intimidate the Scots into agreeing to the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to Henry’s son, Edward. Henry’s troops had instructions to ‘put all to fire and sword’. This so-called ‘rough wooing’ did not succeed but at the beginning of the 1600s, the city of Edinburgh was still recovering from the damage caused by the English forces.

The land available for building was constrained by the city walls and the answer was to build upwards, resulting in buildings of 8 to 12 storeys appearing on the slopes down to the walls. During the 1600s, the city also had a series of major fires and in 1700 a huge fire in Parliament Close spread up the High Street destroying some 15 storey buildings.

Perspective view of the Castle and City of Edinburgh, with the towns of Leith, Burntisland and Kinghorn. (Click to zoom in.)

At the same time, the population was increasing and the demand for housing was rising. In 1700, Edinburgh had some 25,000 citizens, a populace which grew to 50,000 by the middle of the century and to over 80,000 by 1800. (To give some contemporary context to these numbers, Murrayfield Stadium can accommodate 67,000 people.)

Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, c1910

Many of the old houses were in a state of collapse, streets and closes were dirty and in need of maintenance. New regulations were introduced to widen and improve entry to the closes and wood could no longer be used for the framework of buildings. The Council used its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire land for new developments. They intended to imitate the style of one of the Old Town’s more desirable locations: Milne’s Court.

Milne’s (or Mylnes) Court was built in 1690 by Robert Milne of Balfarg, the Royal Master Mason, and the 7th member of his family to hold the title. The development had an open central court instead of narrow closes and was the first of its kind in Edinburgh.  (You can see the date 1690 above the entry to the court from the Lawnmarket.)

At the time the building was an example of the best in desirable accommodation and the 1694 Poll Tax return indicates that many of the residents were middle-class professionals. James Court, built between 1723 and 1727 by James Brownhill was intended to imitate the style of neighbouring Milnes Court, offering exclusive apartments round a courtyard.

Some Milne’s Court residents of that time also have a connection with the ill-fated Darien Company. In the 1690s, Scots were buying goods from the East valued in today’s prices at more than £10 million. Seven residents, James Balfour, Merchant, Cunningham, Solicitor, McLurgg and Allan, Deans of Guild, Alexander Gibson and Milne, and James Byers in 1695 were among the original investors in the Darien Company to trade with Africa and the Indies from Panama. The venture, however, was doomed from the start due to a lack of knowledge of the requirements to operate in the region.  A mixture of inadequate supplies, tropical diseases, hostile local tribes and Blockades by the English and Spanish Navies resulted in the total collapse of the Company. The failure had a severe effect on the Scottish economy which was reduced by around 25%.

However, by the mid 1800s, Milne’s Court had lost its middle-class residents and was a far less desirable place to live. The last person of rank to be recorded as living at Milne’s Court was Lady Isabella Douglas in 1861. The 1871 Census described it as  ‘a densely populated square… very dirty’.

Entrance to Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, c1903. On the left of the picture above, taken at the entrance to Milne’s Court, is Blake and Co., a plumbers and gasfitters at no. 519 Lawnmarket and on the other side is J. Gilchrist, greengrocer at no. 515.

If we examine part of the Public Census for 1901, around the time the above photograph was taken, we discover how diverse the occupants were. Looking at 17 of the properties at no. 1 Milne’s Court, 14 have only one outside window while the other three have two.

The ages of the residents vary from 8 months to 72 years. There 22 males and 29 females. Looking at a few of the residents in more detail –

Marie Balie (22) and her sister Catherine (18) live together with no other family members and work at a cone factory.

Jane Williamson is a widow aged 67 living alone and she works as a hardware hawker.

George Mackay (34) lives with his wife Caroline (31) and children, Thomas (7), George (4), and Catherine (1). He is a furnace man.

Margaret McGabie (46) a widow lives with her daughter (19) and a boarder Annie Warrington (20). Margaret and Annie are rubber shoe makers and Mary is a machinist in the rubber industry.

William Tullis (56) is a house painter living with his wife Isabella (49). The members of their family are Robert (22), a plasterer, George (20), a vanman and Isabella (17) a painter’s machine girl, John (15), a message boy and Agnes (12 ), a scholar.

Andrew Jack (68), a self employed vermin exterminator lives with his wife Helen (64) and two boarders, James Tait (16), a message boy and James Logue (7), a scholar who was born in Lanark.

The state of the buildings continued to worsen and in 1960 the City Engineer declared the north-east part to be unsafe and issued a 21 day warning for its demolition.

The University of Edinburgh expressed an interest in acquiring the building leading to plans to stabilise it being drawn up and passed by the Council Planning Committee in only 10 days. Aided by donations from Harold Salvesen and Philip Henman, Milne’s Court was restored as student accommodation which opened in 1969 and remains as such today.

Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel
History of the house: Cammo House

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition showcases a wonderful collection of photographs of The Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Initially formed as the Edinburgh Steam Laundry Company, when a property was bought in West Craigmillar on West Saville Terrace, the laundry opened in July 1883 as the Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – ironing and finishing department

By 1891 the laundry was handling over 30,000 articles of clothing a week. It was described as “the largest, best arranged, and most perfectly equipped establishment of its kind in Scotland”. The laundry used state of the art equipment including steam driven washing machines and hydro extractors which were a type of spin drier. In addition to cleaning, ironing, and finishing the clothes, the laundry dealt with a whole range of materials including carpets and curtains. All finished goods were dispatched in the company’s horse drawn vans. By the late nineteenth century, the laundry employed over 130 people.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – delivery cart

As the twentieth century progressed, the company began buying up other laundries, and the original Craigmillar site was redeveloped. In 1951 the company took over the Caledonian Laundry, and in 1958 opened a petrol station on the Craigmillar site, which was later followed by a car showroom in 1960.

By the early 1970s the company had 6 laundries around the Edinburgh area all using automatic coin operated machines.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh

The West Saville Terrace property was sold in 1978, and the remaining buildings were let to their tenants as the company became a property letting agency. The company was then sold to Cala Homes in 1986.

View the full collection of images of this remarkable snapshot into past working lives on Capital Collections.