IN was in this week of 1824 that the Great Fire of Edinburgh occurred, which left 13 people dead and necessitated the rebuilding of a large area of the Old Town.

At around 10pm on the night of November 15, 1824, fire broke out in a printer’s shop in the High Street. Edinburgh had a deserved reputation as a tinderbox city – there had been two large blazes in the area earlier that year – and now a massive conflagration began.

Practically first on the scene was James Braidwood, founder of the world’s first municipal fire brigade created only two months earlier, and his team of firefighters, then known as pioneers. I wrote extensively about Braidwood in The National in 2018, and my account of his life and death can still be viewed online. Suffice to say he was a man of courage and genius, and bravely led his pioneers in their first great task. Two of them would pay for their bravery that night with their lives. The problem for Braidwood and his men – and the many volunteers who manned the pumps – was that supplies of water were intermittent and simply not accessible enough. Swiftly and inexorably, the fire spread.

Many tenement buildings went up in flames, as did the Old Assembly Hall and various offices. The fire abated by the morning of the 16th but then disaster struck.

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Edinburgh’s chronicler Robert Chambers described what happened: “A little before twelve o’clock, the word was given that the Tron Church was on fire!

“The agitation and alarm communicated to every part of the town by this intelligence, it is impossible to describe.”

It appears that burning embers set the Tron alight, and its great bell collapsed into the blazing interior. As night fell, the fire attracted watchers from across the city, and one eye-witness account by a reporter of the Edinburgh Courant newspaper bordered on the poetic: “Fire spread resistlessly…the scene was now awfully grand; and could we have divested ourselves of the thoughts of the losses, and hardships and ruin which attended the progress of the conflagration, we could not have been placed in a situation where we could have derived such a portion of sublime enjoyment.

“The whole horizon was completely enveloped in lurid flame. The consternation, the daring, the suspense, the fear that sat upon different faces, seemed each appropriately lighted up to express their several emotions the more vividly the dusky faces of the firemen gleamed from under their caps and the very element by which they endeavoured to extinguish the conflagration seemed itself a stream of liquid fire .

“The clattering of the horses’ hooves and the light reflected from their riders’ swords, added a kind of martial terror to the whole scene; and when we beheld the whole surrounded with burning piles or with edifices that reflected a light more fearful than that which was thrown upon them, we felt a thrill of mingled awe and admiration.

“The County Hall at one time appeared like a palace of light; and the venerable steeple of St Giles reared itself amid the bright flames like a spectre awakened to behold the fall and ruin of the devoted City.”

Defending St Giles became a priority, and though the great church was badly scorched, the fire was held at bay, though it looked at one point as if the entire Old Town could be consumed.

Then a minor miracle occurred. On the morning of the 19th, a torrential downpour changed the situation. Eventually after four days of ceaseless toll by firefighters and volunteers, the great Fire was extinguished.

The losses were enormous. According to Alexander Reid’s History of Edinburgh Fire Brigade: “Two firemen and 11 other people were dead and a much larger number had suffered injuries of various degrees of seriousness. Four hundred families had lost their homes and a huge area of the city, extending from the High Street down to the Cowgate, had been almost completely destroyed.” The council instituted an inquiry which praised Braidwood and his pioneers and found they had received confusing orders from councillors on the scene. The Council commanded that firemasters and not politicians would be in total charge of a fire scene – a practice that continues to this day.

Then the Council invested in men and equipment. From Council minutes: “The Police Committee… procured and trained by regular exercise, a body of 80 Firemen under the command of a Superintendent (Mr Braidwood) and other officers.”

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The process of rebuilding began and to their credit, the council insisted on re-creating as much of the Old Town as possible, and massively improved the area around St Giles. Reid tells what Braidwood did next: “In a short time, he created what was in the period, one of the most efficient fire-fighting organisations in the world and a model for almost all of the other municipal brigades which came into being in Britain later in the century. He did so in spite of exceptional difficulties.”

Braidwood wrote down his theories and principles in a book, Construction Of Fire-Engines And Apparatus, The Training Of Firemen And Method Of Proceeding In Cases Of Fire, which would become a textbook for the UK’s fire service.

So out of the tragedy of the Great Fire of Edinburgh came a long-lasting benefit to society.

Braidwood went south to form and train the London Fire Brigade but tragically he was killed at the age of 61 while leading his men to fight warehouse fires at Cotton’s Wharf near the Thames.