Surviving relics of the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition

MORE than 130 years since its closing night, traces of the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1886 are easy to find if you know where to look.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 2nd February 2017, 2:21 pm
Updated Thursday, 2nd February 2017, 2:25 pm
The main hall for the 1886 International Exhibition filled half of the Meadows. Picture: Contributed

Over the course of its six month run between May and October 1886, the Edinburgh International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art attracted an incredible 2.7 million visitors to Scotland’s capital.

An astonishing 30,000 people attended on the first day, with 10,000 season tickets sold at one guinea each. By the time of its closing ceremony, the event had generated profits of £17,000 - a whopping sum of money at the time.

The exhibition’s enormous main pavilion was a sight to behold. It filled the Meadows Parkland between Brougham Place and what is now Jawbone Walk. The domed roof kissed the sky at 120 feet tall and was decorated with the signs of the zodiac.

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The Memorial Masons' Pillars, pictured in August 1962. Picture: TSPL

Jam-packed with upwards of 20,000 exhibits, the main hall showcased the greatest industrial and scientific breakthroughs of the age, such as the latest steam engines, printing presses and futuristic examples of the “model dwelling-house”, as designed by exhibition chairman and city architect, James Gowans.

After the exhibition came to an end on 30 October 1886, the organisers intended for the grand pavilion and model dwelling houses to remain.

However, the organisers had overlooked an 1827 Act of Parliament which prevented permanent structures from being built on the Meadows. Both the houses and the pavilion were quickly demolished and vanished from the park.

Nonetheless, a surprising number of relics from the great exhibition have survived, and they can be found all over Scotland’s capital.

The Meadows Jawbone arch. Photograph by Ian Georgeson

Memorial Masons’ Pillars

The first place to look is on the Meadows itself. Enter the Meadows from Brougham Place and you will notice a pair of 8-metre-tall octagonal pillars, each topped by the figure of a unicorn.

These are known as Memorial Masons’ Pillars and, like the aforementioned model dwelling houses, were designed by James Gowans.

Both pillars are comprised of stone produced from a number of different local quarries, with each placename carved into the stone. The thought behind this was to see how each type of stone weathered over time. 130 years on, the durability of each specimen is clear for all to see.

The Brassfounders Column in Nicolson Square gardens, July 1976. Picture: TSPL

Prince Albert Sundial

Not far from the Masons’ Pillars is the Prince Albert Sundial, a quaint little feature located in the West Meadows and surrounded by a ring of fencing.

As its name heavily suggests, the Prince Albert Sundial was erected to honour Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert was there to cut the ribbon when the exhibition opened on 6 May 1886. On the ring atop the sundial is inscribed “Let others tell of storms and showers, I’ll only count the sunny hours”.

Like the Masons’ Pillars, the sundial is comprised of stone from several different quarries.

The Grahamston Gate. Picture: Michael Gillen

The Jawbone Arch

Until very recently, an arch of four whale jawbones was situated on the Meadows opposite Marchmont Road at the entrance of the appropriately-named Jawbone Walk.

Gifted to the city in 1887, the arch is made from the jawbones of a whale, and was the centrepiece of the Orkney and Fair Isle Knitters’ stall at the great exhibition the year before.

After withstanding 127 years exposed to the elements, the crumbling Jawbone Arch was deemed unsafe and removed for a £60,000 restoration in 2014. As the jawbone is made of an organic material, the conservation team face a considerable challenge.

It is expected that the Jawbone Arch will return soon, but precisely when this will be has yet to be revealed.

Brassfounders’ Pillar

Locomotive 123 arrives at Princes Street Station, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

Situated in Nicolson Square Gardens, the 13ft high Brassfounders’ Pillar has quite a history behind it.

The pillar is also called Tubal Cain, named after a Biblical character skilled in metalwork. It was designed by James Gowans (who else?) for the 1886 exhibition, but also featured at the Scottish National Exhibition of 1908 at Saughton Park. The bronze pillar, which features depictions of several national coat-of-arms, was moved to its current site in December of that year.

Calamity struck in January 1968, however, when the pillar was toppled over during strong winter gales.

And, in 1974 the Edinburgh Masonic Club borrowed the pillar from the Corporation. What they did with it remains something of a mystery, though they did thankfully return it.

The pillar was restored in July 1976 and remains a focal point of Nicolson Square Gardens to this day.

Royal Doulton Panels

Take a wander through the exquisite interior of the Café Royal on West Register Street and they are hard to miss. The six framed Royal Doulton tile paintings which adorn the walls of the pub were originally unveiled at the 1886 exhibition and depict well-known figures of science and industry. Well worth a look.

Calton Hill cannon

Featuring a cast relief of the Spanish Royal Arms on its barrel, the Calton Hill cannon dates from the late 18th century and was transported to Edinburgh from the Portuguese colonies in Burma after being captured by the British during the invasion of 1885. It was presented to the city and installed at the Edinburgh International Exhibition the following year. The cannon is located at the summit of Calton Hill close to the Dugald Stewart Monument.

Grahamston Gate

Venturing out of Edinburgh, the impressive cast-iron Grahamston Gate is one of the International Exhibitions more far flung relics. Weighing an incredible 20 tonnes, the gate stood for 115 years at the entrance to the Grahamston iron works in Falkirk, where it was built. It was restored and relocated in 2002 to Carron foundry, Larbert, where it has remained ever since.

As detailed on its plaque, the Grahamston Gate is among the largest cast-iron arches ever made and won a diploma of honour at the exhibition.

Caledonian locomotive No.123

Regarded as one of the finest steam engines ever produced, Caledonian Railway No.123 was built by Neilson and Company in 1886, and subsequently displayed among several other locomotives at the International Exhibition as a showpiece of modern railway engineering.

Painted in its distinctive Caledonian Railway Company blue livery, the locomotive was withdrawn from regular passenger service in 1935 and later used for enthusiast specials.

The famous engine is now on display at the Glasgow Museum of Transport.


The Memorial Masons' Pillars, pictured in August 1962. Picture: TSPL
The Meadows Jawbone arch. Photograph by Ian Georgeson
The Brassfounders Column in Nicolson Square gardens, July 1976. Picture: TSPL
The Grahamston Gate. Picture: Michael Gillen
Locomotive 123 arrives at Princes Street Station, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL