The historical value of the area affected by George IV Bridge fire is incalculable - David McLean
For those with even a passing interest in Edinburgh’s magnificent built heritage, Tuesday’s fire at George IV Bridge is nothing short of horrifying.
While first thoughts go to the person requiring hospital treatment, the sight of thick plumes of smoke billowing from the Old Town hits hard for this local heritage aficionado – and stirs up painful memories from the past.
Nigh on 19 years ago we learned just how devastating fires in this part of the city can be, when, on the night of December 7, 2002, a faulty fuse box in Hastie’s Close resulted in the loss of a huge section of the Cowgate.
At that time, I was a teenage oik, and probably every bit as concerned for the fate of the ‘puggies’ at Leisureland Amusements as the historic architecture around them.
But I recall clearly the shock and incredible sadness the entire city felt at seeing one of our most storied districts go up in flames.
On that occasion, the spread of the fire, which would go on to devastate just shy of a dozen buildings, was given a helping hand by the warren-like layout of the ageing architecture stacked between the Cowgate and South Bridge.
It is a source of great relief there were no serious injuries – the real damage was wrought on the buildings, most of which were eventually pulled down.
The horrifyingly large gap-site created as a result threatened to become a permanent fixture, until the completion of the current block more than a decade later.
There’s no denying the similarity of the scene at George IV Bridge, which, like the South Bridge, also spans the Cowgate and is almost entirely hemmed in by a tightly-packed network of centuries-old buildings.
While it’s still early days, and a full investigation of the scale of the damage possibly days or even weeks away, the latest updates coming from George IV Bridge suggest this fire is not a Cowgate 2.0. Nevertheless, the possibility of buildings coming down is real.
Many will bemoan the potential loss of the iconic Elephant House café, which gives the fire-hit block international appeal due to its well-referenced Harry Potter links.
But, with buildings dating from between 200 and 300 years old, the historical value of the area affected by the fire is truly incalculable.
Looking at the available footage from afar, it is tempting to remain hopeful the damage is of a limited nature. That said, if there is significant structural damage, safety regulations will – and should – prevail.
Stone, even the durable local rock types that much of old Edinburgh is hewn from, cracks under extreme heat and water ingress only creates further problems.
From its world-famous art school to the Old College Bar, in the past few years alone we’ve seen fires in central Glasgow reduce some of that city’s most iconic and historic structures to rubble, and, while protection of built heritage appears to be more of a priority here in the east, Edinburgh is certainly not immune to fire.
The threat of fire within Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site remains a constant and refuses to be consigned to the history books. Owing to the incredible efforts of the emergency services, we remain hopeful that this particular example won’t merit more than a footnote.
This article has been edited to make clear that the 2002 fire did not start at La Belle Angele nightclub. We apologise for the error