Plans to revive glory of Saughton Park and Gardens

Scottish National Exhibition. Picture: contributed
Scottish National Exhibition. Picture: contributed
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FLAT caps or bowler hats stuck firmly on their heads, jackets buttoned up and stiff collars well starched, Edwardian gents climbed to the top of the towering helter-skelter and, in a few seconds of unbridled pleasure, slid around and around.

They landed on the ground of Saughton Park with a skid, to dust themselves down and, no doubt arm-in-arm with their lady partner, her long skirts swishing through the mud, made their way to ogle the curious dark-skinned Senegalese natives at their mud hut village or, perhaps, to broaden their minds learning about sewage.

The Moulin Rouge Helter-Skelter  at the Scottish National Exhibition at Saughton Park in 1908. Picture: complimentary

The Moulin Rouge Helter-Skelter at the Scottish National Exhibition at Saughton Park in 1908. Picture: complimentary

If none of that was quite to their taste, there were always the galleries stuffed with the country’s finest art to peruse, the giant water slide to shoot down, or perhaps they could just refuel on a fine vegetarian banquet.

Certainly, there was plenty of choice for visitors to the spectacular 1908 Scottish National Exhibition.

Today, the sprawling park that became a magnet for Edinburgh’s Edwardians for six heady months of entertainment, fun and education is simply that – a park.

And the time when 3.5 million people in total strolled around purpose-built white stucco pavilions housing the latest technology, innovations, art and beautifully-crafted models – or, for the more adventurous, screeched down the sheer 60ft drop of the water chute or got dizzy on its helter-skelter – are long gone, never to be repeated.

Senegalese village - the musicians. Picture: Peter Stubbs

Senegalese village - the musicians. Picture: Peter Stubbs

However, plans have now emerged to revive at least some of the glory that once saw Saughton Park and Gardens become the hottest venue in town.

Edinburgh City Council has announced £5.8 million worth of proposals to transform the area into one of the capital’s premier parks, and lodged a £4m bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Parks for People
programme to help pay for it.

If awarded, the cash – several times more than what was spent staging the spectacular Scottish National Exhibition – would go towards renovating the park’s walled garden, upgrading footpaths and restoring historic features, as well as replacing the Winter Garden and, with a Victorian-style glasshouse, creating a café and transforming stables into a bustling community building.

Grand enough plans. However, they are just a shadow of what Edwardian Edinburgh managed to pull off during a spectacular six months in 1908, when Saughton was a vibrant hub celebrating the best of Scotland, the Empire and good old-fashioned fun.

The scale was phenomenal, the mix of entertainment astonishing. For those were days when splashing out a fortune on providing local people and visitors with an attraction that offered everything from a varied programme of music and dance to a village housing 70 French-Senegalese natives, from an enormous figure-of-eight rollercoaster to replica Irish cottage and even a small farm – all to be torn down just six months later – was simply the done thing.

It began with a plan to repeat the dazzling success of an earlier exhibition at The Meadows in 1886. With the council having just taken over ownership of the sprawling Saughton Hall Estate from a family of merchants, the 43-acre site complete with mansion at its heart, was the ideal location.

“In those days they did things incredibly quickly,” notes David Jamieson, the council’s parks manager, who is compiling a history of the city’s green spaces. “From idea to decision, to starting work – and there must have been thousands of people working on the site – it was done at incredible speed.”

Indeed, within weeks of the council agreeing to lease the land to the exhibition organisers, work had started on what was one of the most ambitious of leisure spectacles.

By the time the Scottish National Exhibition 1908 was opened by Prince Arthur of Connaught, a grandson of Queen Victoria, on May 1 that year, a railway station had been built at the junction of North British Railway’s Corstorphine branch to transport thousands of daily visitors in just six minutes from Waverley Station, and a bridge constructed across the Water of Leith.

Once inside, says David, the scene was a vibrant mixture of industry, art, culture, innovation and sheer fun.

“The figure-of eight-railway alone stood around 60ft high, and the water chute was probably the same,” he explains. “It would have been quite an experience to go down the chute in a boat and hit the water at speed.

“To look at the pictures today, it doesn’t look particularly safe, but there was only one accident the whole time it was open – and that only resulted in a severe soaking.”

Visitors were drawn to the likes of the Palace of Industries, an impressive Arabian-style structure which cost £10,000 to construct and showcased the latest engineering innovations and techniques from around the world. The Machinery Hall, built at a cost of £3000 and taking up an impressive 31,5000sq ft, stuffed with examples of shipping, mining, gas, printing, steam and hydraulics.

But perhaps the most intriguing “exhibitions” of all were the beehive mud huts occupied by 70 French-Senegal natives, no doubt slightly bewildered men, women and children, uprooted from Africa to make the corner of Saughton park their home for six months.

They lived there and in one case died there. For one Senegalese woman, Edinburgh would become her final resting place.

There was even an addition to the tribe, born in one of the huts and subsequently given the quite non-Senegalese name of Scotia Reekie.

Every movement of the tribe’s men, women and children was viewed with curiosity by the exhibition visitors as they demonstrated their skills as goldsmiths, weavers, musicians and dancers to a fascinated public, eventually adding layers to their outfits as summer months turned to autumn.

The village was a must-see for most. But not everyone welcomed the natives with open arms. A letter to The Scotsman, penned by J Stiggins, fumed: “It would appear that we have now encamped in the heart of Christian Scotland a hundred black heathens from French Senegal who are displaying their native industries and their native costumes including the practice of polygamy and the use of heathen religious rites.”

The entire event, however, was a huge success, says David. “There were over 38,500 season tickets sold, which meant it was self-financing and any tickets sold beyond that put it into profit.

“The opening day alone attracted 125,000 people. Visitors came from all over Scotland and the north of England, and photographs show that it was an event that people dressed up to go to – everyone looks very
well dressed.

“Every area was taken up with something,” he adds. “The southern end of the park was where the pavilions were and the funfair, the north end was for sport.

“There were exhibitions about industry, horticulture, ‘women’s work’, nature, farming, social issues like housing and care of orphans, health, nursing, craft . . . everything.”

Indeed, so successful was the 1908 exhibition that when the time came to close in October, some visitors were less than happy. The final celebrations were soured as drunken yobs turned nasty, the ornate bandstand became a battleground of youths pitching chairs and music stands at each other while police waded in with batons drawn.

It was a bitter ending to what had been a roaring success. Soon the pavilions, funfair rides, Sengalese village and restaurants were dismantled.

And Saughton Park’s glorious
summer was over.

Park with a colourful past

SAUGHTON Park was originally the site of a house built by Thomas Moodie of Dalry, whose bequest in 1649 led to the construction of Canongate Kirk.

The estate became the property of wealthy Edinburgh merchant Robert Baird, and remained in his family until the early 1900s when it was taken over by the city council.

At one point in the 1820s, Saughton Hall mansion was leased for use as a private asylum and was one of the first places to use horticultural therapy as a means of helping mentally disturbed patients.

During the Second World War it was used for recuperation for members of the Women’s Land Army and its flower beds were turned into vegetable patches.

Edinburgh City Council’s £5.8 million revamp of the park includes a plan to work with the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, which would be based at Saughton Gardens. The hope is to run a programme of horticultural volunteering, as well as hosting shows and lectures.

The original bandstand is expected to be rescued from storage and rebuilt, and the 1980s Winter Garden replaced with a glasshouse more in keeping with what might have been a feature of the 1908 exhibition.

It’s hoped a “time team” project can be set up to search for the foundations of Saughton Hall mansion, which was razed to the ground by the council in 1952 after falling into disrepair.