Tag Archives: Heritage

The Edinburgh Police Box

8 Apr

 Listed Building, Coffee Shop, Miniature Gallery, Time Machine

On the Royal Mile there is a castle, a cathedral and a courthouse – and down the bottom end somewhere there’s an old palace and a new parliament. There is also a police box. Funny that isn’t it – I never notice it either. There is also one on Princes Street, on the Grassmarket, The Mound, Heriot Row, Rose Street, Lauriston Place, Dean Terrace … you get the picture. So commonplace are these wee blue boxes around the streets of Edinburgh that they seem to trick the viewer into passing them by as one would a bus stop or a row of parking meters, completely unnoticed.

Now this just won’t do. Concealed within those four small walls the Police Boxes of Edinburgh offer us a compelling slice of history. They remind us of a time when every corner of the city had its own beat bobby who worked from a box at the end of your road. And we’re not talking Dixon of Dock Green here – these guys were real policemen with a real job to do. They were the men at the front line, so to speak, between the public and the police stations. The boxes remind us of a time when domestic phones where uncommon and the public needed assurance of prompt help from the authorities.

The first police boxes appeared in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. They were little more than a hexagonal phone-stand with a signal lantern on top to alert officers that they were being hailed by the local station. The telephone had only been invented a decade or so earlier and the police were quick to see the benefits of this revolutionary communication device. Edinburgh’s boxes came a little later on, around 1930.  They were designed especially to complement the city’s neoclassical architecture by the architect Ebenezer James MacRae. Macrae designed many public buildings (housing, schools etc) and was a well known architectural conservationist in the immediate pre-war period.

Inside the boxes police officers had only a little bit of room to work with, enough for a sink, a kettle, a chair or two. On winter nights they might warm up with a one bar electric fire or an old oil heater. On night-shifts, officers carried round a battery hand lamp and the beat keys and reference book which gave them access to properties to check the security and contact the owners if something was amiss. The boxes doubled up as a handy place to lock up unruly drunks found causing trouble after dark. Unfortunately what the boxes didn’t have was a loo. It is said that each policeman was armed with a bottle of bleach and that when it came to it (particularly in residential areas) he had to do his business in the sink. One rather grotesque story I stumbled across was that during the 1970’s when women officers began working from the boxes a rumour began circulating that one unlucky lady had broken the sink! Although if The Sweeney is anything to go by, perhaps this was just a smutty office wisecrack from a macho male copper.

In total 142 boxes were installed in Edinburgh, of which about 75 remain – sadly in various states of disrepair and neglect. They are substantial cast iron structures (in other locations they were made of concrete) and appear to have been made at Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, which was once one of the largest ironworks in Europe. Much like the Police Boxes though, this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now a thing of the past. After 223 years, the company became insolvent in 1982.

As police officers began to be issued with personal radios in the 1970’s the Police Boxes were eventually phased out. This happened across the UK. From being an omnipresent sight on Britain’s streets they promptly disappeared. In London there were almost 700 at one time (so it’s not surprising that a certain timelord chose it as the design for his intergalactic time machine) now there are only a few left, scattered around various museums. One of the most novel things about these miniature police stations is that for each British City there was a different design. Edinburgh is unique in that it kept a large number of its boxes in the spirit of architectural heritage.

It is something of a shame then that many of our Police Boxes are now covered in flyers and graffiti, their paint faded and flaking. This isn’t the case throughout Edinburgh though, particularly in the wealthier areas of town where many of the boxes seem to be very well taken care of, take the Heriot Row box for instance.

Some of the boxes have even been bought up and revitalised by businesspeople and social groups. Many of you will be familiar with the Police Box Coffee Stands dotted around the Edinburgh University area. This is a great little idea (a doff of the cap to the old beat bobby and his cup of tea) and a money-spinner too. What’s more the police box at the corner of Drummond Street and The Pleasance has been turned into a miniature art gallery for exhibitions, performances and installations. ‘The Wee Blue Box’ group organises for artists to come in every few months and redecorate. It’s quite a surprise walking down and seeing it for yourself. I’ll bet many of the festival goers on their way down to the pleasance this year turned their head for a second take. One artist, Malcolm Irving, has actually published a book of photographs of the city’s Police Boxes. The pictures are all taken with an old camera, and film that isn’t made anywhere anymore, playing on the idea of obsoleteness and decay.

So if you’re walking through Edinburgh and you catch a glimpse of one of these little structures (and no doubt you will) spare a thought for the old policeman freezing the night away, cherishing his cup of tea (and of course his bleach bottle) a long long time ago.

Cabinets of Curiosity

3 Apr

The Reopening of The National Museum of Scotland

Perhaps, like myself, you visited The National Museum of Scotland as a child – and gaped upwards in wonder (or terror!) at lions and elephants, Egyptian sarcophagi and the fossilised remains of prehistoric monsters. Or perhaps you once ran in for shelter on a rainy day, and then stayed for an entire afternoon – throwing a few thoughtful pennies into the fishpond on your way out.  Certainly a great many Scots and international visitors alike share cherished memories of this incredible building and its astonishing menagerie of curiosities.  Last year saw the reopening of the 150 year old museum on Chambers Street after a three year, £47.4 million redevelopment project.  I went to have a look around the revitalised museum to see if all of that  childhood curiosity was reignited.

              It goes without saying that each time you turn a corner in Edinburgh’s city centre you are greeted with buildings of quality, both historic and modern. But even in a place where so many grand structures are vying for your attention the National Museum is a stand out;  the grand steps, the formidable stone edifice, the gigantic windows make a remarkable impression – and that’s just the outside. As you climb up the steps and enter inside you step into the Grand Gallery, a monumental space, reminiscent of a vast birdcage, which even on dull days is filled with spectral light. As a result of the extensive building renovations visitors can now also enter at street level, down into a cavernous stone entrance hall, six tennis courts wide, which was previously used as a storage facility. The contrast between these two atmospheric spaces is fascinating, an exhibit in itself, and the work put into realise the new and improved design truly staggering. During the renovation of the lower level of the museum around one million items were moved from Chambers Street to the National Museum’s collection centre in Granton – which gives some idea of the scale of the task.


What is apparent when you look at the figures – 16 new galleries, 13,000 square metres of new public space, £47.4 million spent – is that this really is a once in a lifetime transformation: the most significant redevelopment to the museum in over a century.

The Grade A listed building has enjoyed a rich and varied history. It was designed by visionary engineer Captain Francis Fowke, architect of the Royal Albert Hall, and local architect Robert Matheson in the aftermath of the Scottish Enlightenment. Originally established as the Industrial Museum of Scotland in 1854, it was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

The foundation stone was laid 150 years ago, in 1861, and the east wing was opened in 1866 by Prince Alfred, by which time it had become the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. By the building’s jubilee in 1904 it had become the Royal Scottish Museum. And in 1998 the building was extended, to tell the country’s history from earliest times to the present day. This latest development creates a newly integrated and international National Museum of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh – a pivotal step in a long tradition of evolution.

One notable casualty of the new development that I have to mention though is the museum’s beloved fish pond, which has been removed to utilise the central space in the grand gallery.  But don’t be alarmed: I have been assured that no fish were harmed (or, indeed, pan fried) during the project; they were all safely whisked away to a new home in England.

While some old moaners (like me) may bemoan the disappearance of the fishpond, new visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the ‘Window on the World’, an eighteen metre tall installation that spans from the bottom of building right up to the rooftops. This is now the largest single museum installation in the UK. The ‘Window on the World’ is essentially an enormous cabinet that showcases extraordinary objects from across the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. The idea relates to the 19th century and the gentlemanly pursuit of a assembling a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. In their country houses, men of wealth and taste would put together collections of rare and exotic objects from all corners of the world for the pleasure of themselves and their guests. Riffing on this idea of miscellany and assortment the museum curators have fashioned an opportunity to illustrate in fantastic, iconic style what a diverse collection they have at their disposal; something in the region of four million objects. Thus we look up and find a 1930s gyrocopter, a girder from the Tay Bridge and the enormous jaws of a sperm whale inscribed with ornate ‘scrimshaw’ artwork sitting quirkily side by side.

Moving down from the ‘Window on The World’ the eye catches the Grand Gallery floor, which is a masterpiece of gravitas and understatement. Just five or six objects stand in the huge space  including a lighthouse lens by David Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis), a statue of James Watt which used to be in Westminster Abbey and the 3 metre-high skeleton of a prehistoric deer.

Other highlights include the Discoveries gallery in the centre of the building – another major architectural feature – which provides a dramatic new home for one of the Museum’s most popular exhibits, the Millennium Clock. Opening up long-forgotten archways, this space draws visitors through to the exhibitions and an expanded three-storey Learning Centre, which features new studios, event spaces and an upgraded auditorium. A series of balconies, walkways and escalators improve visitor circulation and provide dramatic views, both of the architecture and the displays. Here you will be able to find the world’s oldest surviving colour television, developed by John Logie Baird and a fossilised tree slice collected by John Muir from the Petrified Forest National Park.

The extensive vision of this development is breathtaking, and like all of the world’s great museums it would take many many visits to take it all in. Plenty then to reawaken those childhood memories. Kids and adults alike will do well not to be spellbound by it all.

The £47.4 million redevelopment, has been jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£17.8 million), and the Scottish Government (£16 million), with a further £13.6 million from private sources.