On our registers: Smoke, steam and an unearthly din

Photographer Tom Duffin’s guest post for our blog delves into the history of Edinburgh’s Meadowbank area, and imagines what it must have been like living and working by the railways in the early 1900s.

Davy opened the shutters and let the grey northern light fall into the room, revealing the just-about-still-sleeping bairns hunkering in beds around the walls, eking out the last few warm moments before having to get up for school. He looked across the road at the railway yard, at the scores of steam engines scattered around, marvelling at, but also recoiling from, the cacophonous din that rose from the sheds, as if carried in the great plumes of smoke and steam. Hundreds of pairs of dirty black hands, his own laddie’s included, were toiling away repairing and cleaning the trains that kept the country moving. His mate John was in the exact same boat–same age as him, widower with a new wife, 8 kids between them and a life of mayhem. They both missed their quieter lives, his own back in Linlithgow and for John the balmy climes of Hawick, but life had brought them to the big smoke and the clamour of the city…

John Richardson and David Downie lived in the same stair at 7 Meadowbank Place in 1911. The census shows they had almost identical circumstances, both 49 years old, both remarrying very recently, and both with a household of 8 kids roughly the same ages, but only one girl. Their tenement overlooked the huge railway yard around St Margaret’s Shed, and one of each of their boys worked for a railway company, which was most probably a job down in that yard across the road from their flat.

Census image for Parsons Green Terrace. Credit: National Records of Scotland
Census image for Parsons Green Terrace. Credit: National Records of Scotland

The view today from the roof of Meadowbank House, the Edinburgh offices of the Registers of Scotland, takes in their tenement with The Paper Rack shop next door to their entrance. The distant city skyline won’t have changed much at all, but the busy railway yard across the road was finally made redundant in 1967 at the same time that steam engines were moving into history.

St Margaret’s Kingfisher engine. Credit: Kenneth Gray

Using the Registers of Scotland’s land information service (ScotLIS) it’s possible to trace the ownership history of this part of Meadowbank. Property deeds show that in 1968, ‘4557/1000 acres bounded on the south-west by London Road’ was sold to the ‘Corporation of City of Edinburgh’ and not quite a decade later, in 1976, Meadowbank House was first recorded on Scotland’s land register. This area is now home to the Registers of Scotland office, St Margaret’s House and Meadowbank Stadium, but of course still has the railway cutting through the middle, taking folk in to Waverley and south to London. The animated feature below is a fascinating way to see the changes, growth, decay and regeneration of the area through old Ordnance Survey maps. The National Library of Scotland also have a similar side-by-side map tool which allows you to select an old map of your choice, swiping across to see the transformation to present day.

An animated GIF showing the changes in the Meadowbank area over a period of nearly 150 years. The old maps shown are Crown Copyright (Ordnance Survey).

I was standing on the roof of Meadowbank House to take shots for an ongoing project of ‘High Places’ around the city. I love to get unique perspectives for landscape and cityscape images, and I’m always looking for new angles, and different vantage points. The High Places project gets me up steeples, on office block roofs, and on hotel balconies. With a long zoom lens, what can often seem a fairly banal scene can reveal fascinating compositions of the city, sometimes shoving together seemingly random components in surprising ways. It’s also about the living history of our city, and some of the shots will be simple Before and After style, from the same vantage point centuries apart. What I’ve begun to incorporate, to try and weave into the scene, is the human element.

A modern snapshot of St Margaret's. Credit: Bruce McCartney
A modern snapshot of St Margaret’s. Credit: Bruce McCartney

Once I’d taken my shots on Meadowbank House and with the help of Registers of Scotland, researched the property history of the site, I realised the story was about that railway yard, the people who worked there, and the folk who lived in the neighbourhood. It’s not for nothing that Restalrig Road South at the east end of the yard was nicknamed ‘Smokey Brae’, and the noise and dirt, smoke and steam, would have given the area a very particular character. Locals still call it ‘Smokey Brae’ to this day–an ongoing legacy of the railway’s history in this part of Edinburgh.

Light trails from Meadowbank House weave towards Calton Hill. Credit: Tom Duffin
Light trails from Meadowbank House weave towards Calton Hill. Credit: Tom Duffin

Meadowbank House is home to the Registers of Scotland, who look after 20 of Scotland’s land and property registers. Tom would like to thank SCRAN and Historic Environment Scotland, Bruce McCartney, Kenneth Gray and the National Records of Scotland, whose census records help further illustrate the story. See more from Tom on his website.

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3 thoughts on “On our registers: Smoke, steam and an unearthly din

  1. Fascinating article – I lived across the road from St Margaret’s House during the late 70s and didn’t know the history of the area.

  2. Really interesting, my youngest had a flat in Meadowbank Terrace for a while. I’m a stationmaster’s daughter so I loved reading about the railway connection.

    1. Hi Maggie! Thanks a lot for your comment and glad you enjoyed the blog — an immersive article by Tom, you can really imagine what it must have been like in Meadowbank in those days 🙂 -Laura

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