On this day 1824 - the Great Fire of Edinburgh breaks out

It started when great clouds of smoke were seen billowing from the second floor of a printing house on Old Assembly Close.

Detail of a sketch by Alex Kirkwood of the "Great Fire of Edinburgh" in 1824. PIC: TSPL.
Detail of a sketch by Alex Kirkwood of the "Great Fire of Edinburgh" in 1824. PIC: TSPL.

The Great Fire of Edinburgh, which broke out on November 15 1824, was accelerated by highly-flammable printing materials and spread rapidly to nearby buildings, including the offices of the Edinburgh Courant - one of the city’s leading newspapers of the day.

Within hours, much of the south side of the High Street was ablaze with the flames working their way towards Parliament Square and St Giles’ Cathedral at speed.

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The city’s fire brigade, recognised as the world’s first official municipal fire service, had only recently been formed by 24-year-old pioneer James Braidwood.

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The firefighters had not yet received full training and struggled against the relentless blaze.

A welcome lull in the blaze the next morning was short lived as high winds met with the red hot embers from the smouldering tenement piles. The fire rose again in all its fury.

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The flames gathered pace throughout the day and by noon the unthinkable happened: the old Dutch steeple of the city’s historic Tron Kirk was engulfed in flames. Soon, the charred steeple crashed into the street below.

As the Scotsman reported at the time: “The upper part [of the steeple] being composed entirely of wood, the flames soon made their way through it, while the lead covering was seen pouring down its sides.

“In a short time it was completely enveloped in flames, presenting a most singular spectacle.”

The destruction of the church’s steeple was too much for many citizens to take, many of whom were convinced that the fire was a vengeful act of God.

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A third major fire broke out by dusk. An “immense pile” standing at 11 storeys high caught fire and began to zealously burn on the south side of Parliament Square.

Soon afterwards, the fire was moving east and southwards towards South Bridge and the Cowgate.

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Much of the southern half of Edinburgh’s Old Town was under attack by flames. The destruction by far the worst the city had experienced for well over a century.

Four days passed before the fire was under control and extinguished.

Thirteen people died, including two firefighters, with many hundreds of others either badly injured or made homeless. Building damage amounted to over £200,000 – the equivalent of just over £200m at today’s prices.

Amid the devastation, the impact of the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824 helped to change the face of firefighting forever.

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It heralded a new era as Scotland’s capital led the way by launching the world’s very first municipal fire service.