Goodbye Bovril Factory

It used to be on my route to school, and then to work. We called it the Bovril Factory, because of the marmite smell of hops which hung over our whole area.

Brewing has been one of the chief industries of the south-west of Edinburgh since at least the sixteenth century. The name ‘Bristo’ (where Edinburgh University now is) comes from ‘Brewster’. The reason the area has also become a centre for the arts is thanks to the profits of brewing: both the McEwan and Usher concert halls were named after the brewers who built them.

Bristo Square and the McEwan Hall, from Layers of Edinburgh

It was McEwan’s company who built the Fountain Brewery, moving out from the now-gentrified Bristo area into a cheaper industrial suburb to the west, with the convenient transport link of the canal. The twentieth-century brewery building was the latest addition to a well-established industrial area, many of whose quirky and beautiful earlier buildings have been preserved. Sharing the Fountain Brewery site was an old Rubber Factory, whose curving profile makes it appear to be built from its own product, instead of brick — an unusual material for Edinburgh, but characteristic of Fountainbridge. It has survived the demolition so far, at last un-dwarfed by its surroundings, and I hope will be preserved.

The rubber factory (left) behind the nibbling dinosaurs which revealed it, and the last and highest part of the Fountain Brewery (right) still mainly intact in July. The foreground is the canal towpath.

Our ‘Bovril Factory’ closed in 2004. Watching its demolition this summer has been endlessly fascinating. This morning, in an Edinburgh Festival downpour, I came past to find a dinosaur pulling the gigantic bovril jar from its shelf:

It’s strangely reminiscent of the McEwans Lager ad where people are pushing giant spheres up endless flights of stairs in the rain. I hope the dinosaur gets a nice refreshing pint at the end of his day.

The photographer Dave Henniker has been recording the demolition, the strange buildings, the fantastically beautiful graffiti, elder and buddleia which has embroidered it all.

I can’t say I’m too bothered about McEwans lager, being a devotee of the rather posher Deuchars IPA (which is still brewed in Edinburgh, just about a mile out further west). But I do miss the smell of the hops: the smell, for me, of home. And I’ll miss this last sublime landmark of Fountainbridge’s industrial history, and so will the jackdaws, starlings, swallows and doves for whom, these last few years this strange derelict iron cliff was also home.

It’s supposed to be becoming hotels, shops, flats, well-kempt trees growing from paved boulevards, flash-flooding in a downpour. I hope it doesn’t. I have a dream of another brewery billionaire coming along: a modern McEwan, creating the Fountain Gardens, green, with great spreading oaks and flowerbeds, lawns where ball-games are allowed, winding paths, fantastic fountains, beehives and birdboxes, little rowing-boats to hire on the canal, a museum of Fountainbridge history in the middle … Well, one can dream. But if there are any billionaires out there, I know the perfect curator for the museum…

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Layers of Edinburgh (the illustrated map)