A trip back in time: Edinburgh’s exclusive Victorian baths

The interior of Drumsheugh Baths showing the 70ft pool. Picture: Kate Chandler
The interior of Drumsheugh Baths showing the 70ft pool. Picture: Kate Chandler
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EDINBURGH’S luxurious Drumsheugh swimming baths have been a popular hotspot for well-heeled individuals for well over a century.

Welcoming its first members way back in 1884, Drumsheugh Baths boasts a unique status as the Capital’s oldest private swimming club.

A woman gets ready to dive into the private swimming pool at Drumsheugh on Belford Road. Picture: TSPL

A woman gets ready to dive into the private swimming pool at Drumsheugh on Belford Road. Picture: TSPL

Occupying a prominent site on Belford Road overlooking the city’s picturesque Dean Village, the stunning building was designed by the renowned Glasgow architect J.J. Burnet.

Like many other Turkish Baths and Swimming Baths of its day, the interior at Drumsheugh has a distinct Mediterranean flavour, with slender Moorish-style columns and arches visible throughout. Enter on a sunny day and its easy to imagine you’re in Cordoba.

To this day, members can enjoy the baths’ wonderful array Victorian-era features, which include rings and trapezes suspended over the water. A gym, sauna, treatment room and lounge are among some of the other exercise and relaxation facilities available. The 70ft main pool is covered by an exposed timber roof with a mezzanine gallery on its eastern side.

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It has withstood the competition from the new commercial clubs in hotels and elsewhere. The loyalty of the members is fierce and enduring.

Lord McCluskey

When it first opened in the 1880s, the company’s shareholders included office clerks, city merchants, spinsters, advocates, doctors, stockbrokers, and soldiers. A similar mix of occupations exists at the club today.

Drumsheugh Baths may enjoy a degree of exclusivity as a members’ only club, but that doesn’t mean it’s a closed shop, as long-standing member Lord McCluskey confirms in his appraisal of the club on its website: “We welcome visitors and those who would like to join. On the annual Open Day we have many hundreds who come to see the Moorish style of architecture and our other Victorian delights.

“Over the year, members bring hundreds of non-members as guests, and nearly every Sunday, children welcome their friends to swimming parties.

“It is a magnificent social and recreational facility which has reciprocal membership with the excellent Western Baths Club in Glasgow. It has withstood the competition from the new commercial clubs in hotels and elsewhere. The loyalty of the members is fierce and enduring.”

The rings and trapezes are a popular feature at Drumsheugh Baths Club. Picture: TSPL

The rings and trapezes are a popular feature at Drumsheugh Baths Club. Picture: TSPL

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Despite its ability to endure the test of time, though, Drumsheugh Baths has been forced to face its fair share of challenges over the years.

A terrible fire broke out in February 1892, gutting the building and destroying many of its original features. The flames also spread to a nearby mission hall and hit the studios of sculptor DW Stevenson. Both of these buildings were extensively damaged. Thankfully, though, the baths were insured and were swiftly rebuilt.

A decade later, the company running the Baths plunged into liquidation and a new firm, the Drumsheugh Baths Club Limited, purchased the pool’s assets in 1902. It would not be the last time the club experienced financial difficulties.

Interior of Drumsheugh Baths Club. Picture: Kate Chandler

Interior of Drumsheugh Baths Club. Picture: Kate Chandler

An extensive million pound refurbishment plan in the early 2000s saw the club face bankruptcy as it struggled to cope with loan repayments. A plea was sent out to the club’s 500+ members who rallied round and saved the historic facility from closure.

At one time there was a fixed two-year waiting list to join the exclusive club, though today this has mostly been phased out as the number of rival outlets offering similar facilities has increased.

Membership today stands at between 500-600. This may sound like quite a lot, but, as Fraser Campbell, a member for 40 years, attests, “you are almost guaranteed to get the pool to yourself”.

It sounds like heaven, but with an annual membership fee exceeding £1,000, I don’t think I can afford to abandon the Commie just yet.

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