{Scotland} Edinburgh’s Museum of Fire

March 13, 2012


The phrase ‘hidden gem’ seems like it was made for Edinburgh’s Museum of Fire, situated in the old fire station on Lauriston Place. I discovered it a week before we were due to leave for Berlin, but with the removal van already on its way a visit was just not possible. So when I went back over for my little trip to Edinburgh in February without the boy, I’d lined up not only a night out at the biggest event in town at the National Museum of Scotland, but also a tour around the Museum of Fire.

Although the museum has been in existence since 1986, it only gained full accreditation 6 months ago, and now that it’s ‘official’ the officers there have great plans to improve the interpretation e.g. by adding tablets with 3D tours of QR codes that visitors can use with their smart phones. Currently, guided tours are the only option to get a fully informed look around, which are usually carried out by their bank of volunteer tour guides or, as was the case during my visit, one of the officers themselves. There used to be a former museum at Macdonald Road, which is now a training centre, though according to our guide it was more of a storage centre. The current museum is housed in Lauriston Place station’s former engine room and stables, where everything except the electric lights is as it was in 1900. It stopped being a working station in 1985, when a new station opened in Edinburgh’s Tollcross, and the rest of the building now houses offices for the Lothian and Border Fire and Rescue Service.

Lauriston Place Fire Station in service

The collection consists of historical engines that were used on site, alongside objects that have been acquired or donated since the museum opened, e.g. one of the engines on display was found deteriorating on a beach and a call made to the museum. Together, the displays chart the development of firefighting through the years and the role that firefighters have played in Edinburgh, which is proud  to be the birthplace of the UK’s, and possibly the world’s, oldest municipal fire brigade. Following two big fires which devastated the High Street, as the people living there had been too poor to pay for the services of fire insurance companies, the city conceded they need some kind of fire service to replace the insurance company brigades. The man credited with the municipal fire brigarde’s founding in 1824 was James Braidwood, who established principles of fire-fighting that are still applied today and later went on become the first director of what is now the London Fire Brigade. He died a hero almost forty years later whilst engaged in fire fighting duties.

Dunbar fire engine found on a beach with jump sheet on the wall behind.

Some of the historical engines on display are real beauties, and stories behind them are no less fascinating. The oldest engine on display is from 1806 – a parish jointly saved up all of 75 guineas to buy it, and it was then kept in the town square for anyone to use. Also on display is one of the first hand pumps commissioned in 1824. Prior to the introduction of horses, it was pulled by the firefighters themselves, a highly dangerous undertaking when going downhill, as the engine had no breaks, resulting in many broken bones and even two deaths. One of the officers showing us round (another couple visiting from out of town had fallen into the advantage of me having booked a tour) was particularly proud of the Halley Fire Engine purchased in 1910 – the oldest motor engine on display and an example of the first mechanically driven pump, the only complete one of its type left in the world. Interesting was also a portable pump from during the war, which was pulled by cars and was all painted grey for the blackout. The bits, however, where all from different materials, e.g. smooth ceramic or cerated brass, so that they could easily be differentiated and operated in the dark.

The museum’s oldest fire engine dates back to 1806

One of the first hand pumps commissioned in 1824 . It was pulled by fireman and had no brakes.

The Halley Fire Engine, acquired in 1910, is the oldest motor engine on display.

A Harland Trailer Pump used 1939 – 45.

Besides the engines, the museum is lined with cabinets bearing everything from personal items such as snuff boxes or medals; to uniforms and related items such as rank markings, badges, buttons, whistles and helmets; through to fire fighting equipment such as buckets, suction wrenches, hand pumps, smoke helmets or breathing apparatus. One case shows a collection of fire extinguishers through the ages, while a chest of drawers houses the collection of patches from visiting fire officers – I even discovered ones from Berlin and Wuppertal! And, of course, there are many old photographs showing the station in action during the height of its working life, including the firemen with rolled up beards used as smoke filters (so called ‘smoke eaters’), the retiral of the last two fire brigade horses on 4 August 1920, and the last tramcar running in the streets of Edinburgh on 16 November 1956 (oh how times have changed…).

A collection of firemen patches from around the world.

Some artefacts are too large to fit in display cases, such as the jump sheet (which left the firemen holding it feeling like their chest muscles were being ripped out of their body), a battering ram that transformed into a pair of ladders, and the ‘cleikes of iron’ – two 14 and 30 foot long hooks used to pull burning thatches off roofs, and the oldest objects on display dating back to the 1400s. The former stables include a reconstructed stall, but the marks on the door where the horses would kick it open when the fire bell went are still original. They would walk through to the engine room, where their harnesses would drop down, and according to our guide would probably be quicker out the door than today. While they were out on duty, fresh horses would be brought up from King’s Stables Road to take their place, ready for the next call to action.

This is where the horses would have been housed, ready for action.

In conclusion, I’d say a visit to Edinburgh’s Museum of Fire is well worth a visit off the beaten track. Our tour lasted for well over an hour, but the time flew by before we’d even noticed. The officers taking us round spoke with real passion, and those who want can even climb aboard one of the fire engines to have their picture taken. With a new central fire station for Scotland opening up in Perth, the officers in Lauriston Place are still waiting to find out what will happen to their building and assets. I sincerely hope it does not spell the end of this wonderful museum.


Related posts you might like:

, , ,


  1. Jenni’s Museum Awards 2012 | Museum Diary - January 15, 2013

    […] Museum of Fire, Edinburgh, Scotland […]

  2. Indeyref Scotland Special | Museum Diary - September 18, 2014

    […] Museum of Fire […]

  3. Indyref Scotland Special | Museum Diary - October 31, 2014

    […] Museum of Fire […]

  4. Some Scottish Favourites | Museum Diary - October 5, 2015

    […] >> read more […]

  5. {Scotland} Save Edinburgh’s Museum of Fire! | Museum Diary - February 3, 2016

    […] while back, I wrote a rather enthusiastic review about Edinburgh’s Museum of Fire, housed in the historical fire station at Lauriston Place. One of those little discoveries for whom […]

Leave a Reply