Lost Edinburgh: Portobello Power Station

PORTOBELLO Power Station provided the city of Edinburgh with electricity for over half a century. Positioned just a few short strides from Edinburgh’s best-loved seafront, its location is difficult to imagine today.

By David McLean
Monday, 17th June 2013, 11:40 am
Portobello Power Station pictured in the 1970s. Picture: George Fairburn
Portobello Power Station pictured in the 1970s. Picture: George Fairburn

The imposing red-brick Portobello Power Station was situated along a considerable stretch of Portobello High Street between King’s Road and Rosebank Lane (now Westbank Street). It was built by the Edinburgh Corporation in 1923 to cope with the increasing demand for electricity at a time when the city’s population was rapidly increasing. King George V was present at the prestigious opening ceremony. The new power station was one of the most efficient in Britain and produced enough energy to light the streets, run the trams and meet the domestic energy requirements for all of Edinburgh. Fuel was transported from the collieries to the power station by a direct rail link and conveyer belt that ran underneath Portobello High Street. In 1938 the original power station was drastically altered to a design by architect Ebenezer James MacRae when its six individual stacks were replaced with a single 365-ft tall chimney. The power station’s impressive new lum towered high over the district and cut a dominant presence along the coastline. Its instantly recognisable shape was visible for miles around and acted as a notable marker for those approaching Edinburgh’s most popular beach – especially if you happened to be travelling on the top deck of a bus heading north along Portobello Road. On Rosebank Lane, the shiny Art Deco design of the newly-built Portobello Bathing Pool provided a stark contrast to the formidable red-brick and reinforced concrete mass of the power station located only a stone’s throw away. The close proximity of this industrial monster was not grudged however. As well as supplying the energy to run its popular wave-making machine, waste water used to cool the power station’s generators was cleverly utilised to heat the bathing pool’s icy contents. This practice allegedly ceased in 1970, which explains why most people struggle to recall the swimming pool being anything other than sub-zero.

Portobello Power Station eventually became surplus to requirements in the 1970s. New larger coal-fired power stations such as Cockenzie and Longannet in Fife were now in operation and the ageing facility at Portobello was no longer required. Closure took place in 1977 with demolition following soon after. A number of tenement windows along the King’s Road were reported to have been shattered due to the impact from the blast that toppled its colossal chimney stack.

No remnants of Portobello Power Station can be found today, though street names such as Electra Place within the new housing development that has since been built on the site provide a subtle clue to what stood before.

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Picture: George Fairburn

• David McLean is the founder of Lost Edinburgh Facebook page, a site dedicated to documenting the capital’s ever-changing landscape