IT WAS about 8pm on Saturday that smoke detectors in buildings around the Cowgate in Edinburgh’s Old Town began to indicate the presence of a fire somewhere in the warren of buildings set into the side of the valley spanned by South Bridge.
In Edinburgh University’s department of artificial intelligence, above La Belle Angle nightclub and the Leisureland arcade, Ruli Manurung heard the fire alarm go off.
"Me and some colleagues left the building," he said. "Usually this happens due to a false alarm, but when we saw smoke billowing out of Leisureland it was clear something serious was happening."
Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade took the first call, to a fire in Hastie’s Close off Guthrie Street, the winding road leading down from Chambers Street to the Cowgate, at 8:13pm. The indication from the caller was that the fire appeared to have started on the first floor of the building, above La Belle Angle nightclub.
In the nearby Living Room bar and in the Gilded Balloon theatre and Loca nightclub, others noticed smoke and began to evacuate. But as police and fire crews began arriving at the scene, there was still no indication that they were facing anything more serious than a small fire which would be quickly extinguished.
But even as they began the search for the source of the smoke, the fire was spreading, working its way up old ventilation shafts and outwards in all directions as it sped through long-forgotten rooms in the heart of the block, heading towards the roof.
Sub-officer Dave Crow, one of the first on the scene, took his four-strong team to investigate reports of smoke in one of the buildings on South Bridge.
"We came after a fire alarm went off, but at first we couldn’t find anything," he said. "There was smoke in about three or four of the buildings so we had to look in all of them."
In the end, it was the fire that found them. "Flames suddenly leaped up the walls and above our heads. It took hold really quickly, within half an hour the whole lot had gone up. We were just inside the building, but there were other guys further in. It was just too hot and everybody was evacuated."
Several storeys up from the suspected source of the blaze, the windows were blown out from the Leisureland complex.
Firefighters were pouring into the area as the flames punched through the roof and leapt into the night sky.
In their top-floor flat in Guthrie Street, 32-year-old Lorna McElhone and her 12-year-old son Warren were scrambling to get out.
"I was sitting in the house with my son when I smelled something burning. I looked out of the window and the fire brigade were there," said Ms McElhone.
"Sparks, debris and bits of burning wood flew in through the window and a fireman shouted at me to get away from the window and go inside. The whole of the building was lit up orange and the sky was glowing. The next thing I knew the police were knocking on the door and telling us to get out of the building.
"We had no time to take anything, just pull a coat over what we were wearing and go. The house was full of smoke. It was terrifying."
On South Bridge, shop owner Mike Smart, 31, watched in disbelief as his Outdoors store went up in flames. "When I arrived everything looked under control, but all of a sudden the fire took hold and the building went up," he said.
In Edinburgh University’s school of informatics on South Bridge, the computer science and artificial intelligence library was destroyed.
By then, the fire was out of control. The historic Adam House was under threat and 19 fire crews were struggling to prevent the flames setting alight other neighbouring buildings. This was averted by the decision to deploy all five of the high-level hydraulic ladder platforms to prevent the flames crossing the Cowgate and setting light to the buildings on the other side.
As the firefighters were not slow to point out, had their latest planned strike gone ahead, army crews would not have had the use of such platforms. The fire would have leaped across the Cowgate and raced through the tenements on the other side, heading for the Royal Mile.
Steven Torrie, the deputy firemaster, admitted that, even with their experience, there was a point where they were stretched to the limit.
"The teams worked excellently, otherwise it would have gone into Adam House and spanned the Cowgate. If it had done that, it would have led to significant fires all along South Bridge. At one point we were really stretched, but we managed to hold it," he said.
Assistant firemaster Del Simpson said: "We have been using specialist high appliances to tackle the fire which have greater height than anything the army has. So it is fair to say that the fire, from the army’s point of view, would have been very difficult indeed."
As the night wore on, the crews tied up seven water mains to try to get enough water. The peculiar nature of the buildings did not help; spread over seven floors and accessed by roads on different levels, they had undergone centuries of alterations creating a maze of rooms which could only be reached by first extinguishing the fires around them.
Collapsing ceilings made the task more difficult and the buildings less stable and there were growing concerns about whether the walls would hold. By daybreak, it was still not under control. Fifty-four people evacuated from their homes in the surrounding buildings had spent the night in emergency accommodation provided by the local authority and 90 students had been evacuated from their flats on College Wynd and found temporary refuge in Pollock Halls and other university accommodation.
It was not until late in the afternoon that the fire brigade finally gained the upper hand, but 80 firefighters remained at the scene to deal with the fires which continued to flare up. Mr Simpson said he expected it would take another couple of days before they could finally all leave. Even as they continued to damp down the flames, engineers were moving in to begin the task of deciding which buildings could be salvaged and which were beyond hope.
Historic area of worldwide significance
WHEN UNESCO designated the medieval Old Town a World Heritage Site in 1995, it paid tribute to its "many buildings of great significance".
Dominated by the castle, it is a warren of business and residential premises set between bridges and climbing steeply up the side of the crag towards the Royal Mile.
The Old Town also includes the previously independent burgh of the Canongate, which was home to Edinburgh’s nobility.
Many of the city’s most important families also had property in the Cowgate, which runs beneath South Bridge, but by the late 18th century, the area was in decline as the wealthier residents succumbed to the attractions of the New Town and decamped across Princes Street. For a couple of centuries, the Cowgate remained an unattractive address favoured by those who could not afford anything better. In recent years, however, it has seen something of a revival in its fortunes, becoming a popular entertainment destination littered with pubs and clubs .
The Old Town contains a wealth of fine buildings, including Adam House, in Chambers Street, named after the Adam family of architects who were responsible for much of the work on the New Town. Owned by the University of Edinburgh, Adam House is now used for exhibitions and as an venue for the International Festival.
Along from the Cowgate is the Grassmarket, a bustling area with a number of bars, cafes and restaurants, which is mentioned as a trading area in records dating back to 1477.
As well as being of economic importance to the city, the Old Town is also home to almost 8,000 people.
In 1989, one man was killed when a gas explosion destroyed one of the buildings in Guthrie Street leading up from the Cowgate to Chambers Street.
Over the past decade, many properties have been refurbished and new homes built in keeping with the surroundings.
The Old Town was the home of the Scottish Parliament until the Union with England in 1707. It was also the home of the law courts, learning and commerce.