On this day 2002: Cowgate fire rips through Edinburgh’s Old Town

Firemen tackle the blaze in Edinburgh's Old Town. Picture: Tony Marsh
Firemen tackle the blaze in Edinburgh's Old Town. Picture: Tony Marsh
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On this day in 2002, firefighters battled to extinguish an uncontrollable fire, that ravaged through the Cowgate area of the city, leaving the UNESCO World Heritage site damaged beyond repair.

The blaze, which started on the evening of 7 December 2002, was caused by just one spark from a malfunctioning fuse box and caused devastation as fire spread up eight stories from the fragile Cowgate close on to South Bridge.

Demolition began on the fire-destroyed Old Town block above the Gilded Balloon club on 21 December. Picture: Andrew Stuart/NW

Demolition began on the fire-destroyed Old Town block above the Gilded Balloon club on 21 December. Picture: Andrew Stuart/NW

Flames and smoke flooded through 11 buildings including the popular La Belle Angele nightclub, above which the fire reportedly started, the Gilded Balloon comedy club, Leisureland Arcade as well as the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics.

The narrow, maze-like architecture of Old Town buildings, although magnificent and UNESCO protected for good reason, caused extreme difficulty for fire crews.

More than 80 Edinburgh firefighters fought tirelessly for 20 hours to control the blaze from spreading to other significant buildings (notably, Adam House was left undamaged) but it took a further 52 hours before the fire was fully extinguished

Fire chiefs were reluctant to put firefighters inside the complex buildings too soon for fear they might collapse. Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade labelled the historic network of homes and establishments as a “rabbit warren”

Picture: Jon Savage

Picture: Jon Savage

Since some of the buildings dated back to the 1700s, the structures lacked fireproofing and safety measures: Edinburgh’s quaint wynds remain delicate and easily damageable in the face of inferno.

Remarkably the fierce flames and thick smoke did not kill or seriously injure anyone, although a firefighter was treated for minor injuries.

Edinburgh City Council placed 54 affected residents in emergency accommodation and the university had to rehouse 90 students.

Sarah Boyack, who was then Edinburgh Central MSP, paid tribute to the extraordinary work of the fire service and also spoke of the plight of the evacuated residents.

“My first priority is to ensure that arrangements have been made for the residents who have been made homeless in the run-up to Christmas,” she said.

Branded the largest fire affecting a UK city in decades, the estimated cost of the operation was £300k, with the following clean-up operation costing more than £1 million.

In the wake of the dusty rubble, people mourned for the historic burnt buildings. Commenting on the fire, Historic Scotland said in 2002 that “it is impossible to quantify the impact it will have on the historic core of Edinburgh.

“What is certain is that many of the buildings’ interiors are irreplaceable. A piece of Edinburgh’s history has been lost”.

The debris and destruction of the scorched area was cleared soon after. However, numerous businesses were permanently damaged and many residents left displaced.

But in 2014, among other developments, iconic nightclub La Belle Angele which was mostly destroyed in the fire, re-opened. Having once hosted Oasis and The Libertines, it was welcomed back onto Edinburgh’s nightlife scene.

Although it was said that the heart of the Old Town was ripped out in the 2002 fire, the area is now beating once again.