Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh Meat Market

The arches of the Edinburgh Meat Market were restored and put back near their former berthThe arches of the Edinburgh Meat Market were restored and put back near their former berth
The arches of the Edinburgh Meat Market were restored and put back near their former berth

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THE REMAINS of the old Edinburgh Meat Market remind passers by of just how much the area of Fountainbridge has changed in recent years.

The Edinburgh Meat Market opened in 1884 on the corner of Fountainbridge and Semple Street. It followed the creation in 1852 of the city’s first municipal slaughterhouse which was located opposite on the site of today’s Tollcross Primary School. The slaughterhouse was fed by the cattle market at Lauriston Place close by.

Prior to the slaughterhouse at Fountainbridge, many of the city’s abattoirs and meat markets had been located on and around the slopes of the Old Town, hence street names such as Fleshmarket Close. Effluent from the abattoirs flowed directly into the putrid Nor’ Loch. With Edinburgh undergoing expansion and modernisation during the 1800s it was decided that the production of meat must be relocated away from the city centre in the interests of public health. The area chosen for relocation was Fountainbridge, formerly the site of farmhouses and orchards, but fast becoming the industrial heartland of Scotland’s capital since the opening of the Union Canal in 1822.

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Edinburgh Meat Market and its distinctive arches were designed by reputable city architect Peter Henderson. Henderson’s smart, classical façade featuring a pair of expertly sculpted bull heads quickly became an intriguing focal point of the street.

The opening of Fat Sam's Chicago-style diner in 1986The opening of Fat Sam's Chicago-style diner in 1986
The opening of Fat Sam's Chicago-style diner in 1986

As the 20th century approached, the idea of slaughtering cattle close to residential areas was becoming increasingly unpopular. The slaughterhouse was moved in 1909 to a new purpose-built site at Chesser on the outskirts of town. The now redeveloped and extended Edinburgh Meat Market continued to operate on Fountainbridge, however, its days were numbered. It too eventually relocated to Chesser in 1921. Inner city meat markets were no longer desirable.

Despite the relocation of the meat market, Peter Henderson’s building still managed to survive and was even utilised briefly as a meat distribution facility during World War Two as the reality of food rationing gripped the citizens of Edinburgh.

Nightclub and Fat Sams

The old meat market building was saved from dereliction in the 1960s when it was converted by local entrepreneur John Paddy Reilly into a nightclub. The Americana discotheque, as it was called, was among the best known venues in town. It would remain as a nightclub for a number of years before changing to Fat Sam’s restaurant in 1986. The change to Fat Sam’s was extremely popular. Customers at the Chicago-style diner were given a keepsake in the form of pin badges and stickers emblazoned with:“I survived Fat Sam’s”.

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Fat Sam’s restaurant and the Edinburgh Meat Market are both sadly no more. The 120 year old structure was demolished in 2007 to make way for the new Exchange Place office development. The iconic entrance arches and stone carved bull heads from the meat market were salvaged and restored in 2009. They now stand a little further west from their original location but continue to create an interesting visual feature on the street.

The passing of the old meat market building is just one of the many changes to have taken place in Fountainbridge in the last couple of decades as the area undergoes its most dramatic transformation since the early 1800s.

• David McLean is the founder of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page